The full title of John Bunyan’s 1678 masterpiece is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream; Wherein is Discovered the Manner of his Setting Out, His Dangerous Journey, and Safe Arrival at the Desired Country. It has been translated into more languages than any book, ever, except for the Bible (over 200, to vaguely specify). References to The Pilgrim’s Progress are apparently tucked into a handful of books I’ve read over the years—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Jane Eyre, and The Grapes of Wrath, to name a few—so it’s difficult to explain why I was under the impression that I’d never, ever, ever heard of it.
The Pilgrim’s Progress was basically the Harry Potter of its day, except that the Puritans loved it. From a young age, Bunyan saw visions of devils and heard voices that compelled him to “sell Christ,” pray to trees and broomsticks, and give up his most vile and destructive vices. (His confessed sins included swearing, dancing, and ringing the bells of the local church without permission.) These spiritual experiences flourished since psychotherapy had not yet been invented, and they eventually inspired the Book with a Title So Long It Forms a Run-on Sentence AND Reveals Plot Spoilers. Bunyan began writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory, during the time he spent in jail for preaching without a license.
With this context in mind, let me introduce CHRISTIAN, our protagonist. Christian represents the “everyman,” an ordinary individual with whom the reader is meant to identify. Think Bilbo Baggins, or Ted Mosby. Upon reading the Bible and acknowledging his own SIN, Christian is so desperate to reach the “Celestial City” that he abandons his own family and follows the path to salvation, as directed by a stranger called “Evangelist.”
Since Evangelist lacks the reliability of, say, Google Maps, Christian suffers numerous trials and obstacles (not to mention terrible facial hair) in his pursuit of the Celestial City. He also encounters additional allegorical characters with names like “Good Will,” “Prudence,” “Hypocrisy,” “Mr. Feeble-Mind,” and “Giant Despair.” Since the title already gave away the ending, there’s no harm in telling you he does indeed reach his destination, which of course also means he DIES.
Does the book merit the same eternal glory awarded its protagonist? Well, frankly, no engrossing thriller ever began with an “Author’s Apology.” The Pilgrim’s Progress is an imaginative, thoroughly researched sermon, but a dull piece of literature.
For, I perceive, the way to life lies here:
Come, pluck up heart, let’s neither faint nor fear.
Now, now, look how the holy pilgrims ride
Clouds are their chariots, angels are their guide.
A writer, reader, and traveler, Jamie Leigh writes a literature review blog at http://the100greatestbookschallenge.wordpress.com/ and won the Purdue University Kneale Literary Award in 2008.
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