A Five-Minute Summary of the Allegorical Novel “Pilgrim’s Progress”
by Professor Jack
The following is a Summary of Pilgrim’s Progress Part I by John Bunyan (1678)
Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605) the book depicts a man in conflict with his times, struggling for an authentic existence. In “Quixote,” the authenticity was the recovery of the chivalric ideal of the Middle Ages. In “Pilgrim,” the authentic life is one lived in obedience to Jesus Christ and a faithful traversal of a hostile and often frivolous world. Many of the characters in the novel are based on individuals and types of persons Bunyan was familiar with. We shall meet some of them.
The book is written as an allegory; that is, it presents reality through a series of likenesses and representative types. Bunyan, in his preface, puts it this way: “May I not write in such a stile as this? / In such a method too, and yet not miss / Mine end, thy good? Why may it not be done? / Dark clouds bring waters, while the bright bring none.”
The opening conjures Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita / Mi retrouai per una selua oscura / Che la dritta via era smarrita,” wrote the 14th Century poet. “In the middle of life’s journey I found myself alone and in a dark woods.” The narrator of Pilgrim’s Progress falls asleep: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep. And as I slept, I dreamed a Dream.”
The Dreamer-Narrator, whose name we do not know, sees a man clothed in rags, a book in his hand, leaving behind him his home and family, as well as his town, called the City of Destruction. He is burdened by a heavy weight on his back. The man comes to Evangelist, who points in the direction of the “Wicket Gate,” where he promises he will find relief from his burden.
On his way to the Wicket Gate, Christian encounters several people such as Mr. Worldly-Wise, from the town of Morality, and goes through a town called Legality, where he is instructed in certain religious observances that are intended to lighten his burden. He finds no rescue, however, and is soon on his way again. He meets Evangelist once more, who challenges him to keep to the path and not turn aside. Finally he makes it to the Wicket Gate, where the door is opened by Mr. Good Will. Christian has not yet been relieved of his burden, however, but Mr. Good Will tells him to continue his journey along the straight path until he comes to a place called Deliverance, where his burden will fall off his back of itself.
For a time, Christian is at the home of Interpreter. The meaning of this episode is in dispute, but some scholars believe the Interpreter is prevenient grace, divine grace extended the sinner prior to his finding salvation. Here Pilgrim is warned that many temptations will come to pull him aside from the way of salvation.
Still burdened by his weight, Christian struggles up a small hill at the top of which is a Cross. “He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a Sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his Burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.” Three Shining Ones come up to him: the first tells him his sins are forgiven, the second strips his rags from him and clothes him anew, and the third gives him a scroll which he is to present when he comes to the Celestial City. Christian, in joy, sings a song: “Blest Cross! Blest Sepulchre! Blest rather be / The Man that there was put to shame for me.”
Christian sets out on his pilgrimage, but immediately is accosted by all kinds of characters. He mounts a hill called Difficulty. Mr. Mistrust attempts to make him afraid. Christian tells himself that “a Christian man is never long at ease. / When one fright’s gone, another doth him seize.” He comes to the home of Discretion, where three ladies, Prudence, Piety and Charity, take him in and refresh him. They ask him, as did Mr. Good Will, why he has not brought his wife and children. He tells them that he entreated them over and over, but that “my Wife was afraid of losing this world, and my children were given to the foolish delights of youth.”
Christian’s family’s own pilgrimage to the Celestial City is the theme of Part II, which we will not get to here.
Christian spends some time in the Delectable Mountains, where he gets his first view of the Celestial City in the distance. But he no sooner emerges from there than he encounters one of the most famous characters of the book, Apollyon (Rev. 9:11). A fierce half-day battle ensues, but Christian is victorious, and the monster, who represents temptation, flees. We will encounter Apollyon again in our next summary, which will look at the novel Jane Eyre.
Christian is joined by Faithful. Soon, a Mr.Talkative attaches himself to them and makes their conversation miserable. But Christian and Faithful are able to keep Talkative at arm’s length and have long, joy-filled conversations, by which they are both encouraged.
Soon they enter the town of Vanity Fair, which they plan to transit without stopping. Vanity Fair is, as the name attests, a place of constant partying, drinking and revelry. It is much like our own times: the greatest license and carnality wedded to intolerance and ignorance. But, again similar to our times, behind the debauchery is an iron fist of intimidation and hate, and Christian and Faithful are put in a public cage in chains. They continue to proclaim the gospel to passers-by.
The narrator says of Vanity Fair’s citizens: “Few could understand what they [Christian and Faithful] said, for they naturally spoke the language of Canaan. But they that kept the Fair were the men of this World: So that from one end of the Fair to the other, they seemed barbarians each to the other.” Yet a few were won over to the side of Christ through the public witness of the two travelers.
Faithful is put on trial under the judge, Lord Hate-Good. Three witnesses slander Faithful, Mr. Envy, Mr. Superstition, and Mr. Pick-Thank. The jury have names just as descriptive. Faithful is found guilty and executed and burned. Christian escapes, but with him goes one of those won over, a Mr. Hopeful, who will continue with him the rest of his journey. Christian takes up a song to honor his slain friend: “Sing, Faithful, Sing, and let thy name survive,/ For though they kill’d thee, thou art yet alive.”
As Christian and Hopeful continue on their way towards the Celestial City, Christian instructs Hopeful in the doctrines and practices of the faith. They cross a narrow field called Ease, where they are refreshed, and come to a hill called Lucre, where they are hailed by a man named Demas (II Timothy 4:10) to stop and dig for treasure. They refuse his entreaties and come to a river called The Water of Life, where they rest, eat fresh fruit, and find medicinal leaves for their afflictions.
They go on, but become discouraged again. They find a pleasant place called By-Path Meadow, which is not far off the path. Christian leads Hopeful through a stile there, and soon they are overcome with darkness, storm and fear. Hopeful tells Christian that this will work out for their good. But their misery deepens, and they decide to try and go back. “But by this time the Waters were greatly risen, by reason of which the Way of going back was very dangerous. Christian despairingly utters one of the most profound statements of the book: “Then I thought that it is easier going out of the way when we are in, than going in when we are out.”
They lay down to rest, not realizing they were on the grounds of Giant Despair and his abode, Doubting Castle. In the morning, the giant catches them and throws them in his dungeon, where he starves and beats them. Christian brings up the idea of suicide, but Hopeful dissuades him. Christian here remembers that he has a key in his bosom called Promise, given him earlier by one of the three maidens who dwelt at the Palace called Beautiful. He opens the dungeon and the Iron Gate, and the two make their way back to the King’s Highway.
“Out of the way we went, and then we found / What ‘twas to tread upon forbidden ground.”
Four shepherds give them shelter and help them recover, and then take them on a tour of the Delectable Mountains. From the heights, the shepherds show them the mountains to avoid as they continue, give them a “Note [of directions] of the Way,” and warn them to avoid two things: The Flatterer, and sleeping on the Enchanted Grounds.
As they once again set out, they are joined by a man named Ignorant. “Be content to follow the religion of your company,” Ignorant says, “and I will follow the religion of mine.” They leave him behind, but he tags after them persistently. Christian and Hopeful have many conversations, all wonders of compression and simple wisdom, which it is profitable for any seeker to read.
They are met by The Flatterer, who poses as an angel of light, and they are led astray. A true angel finds them and sets them free, but scourges them so they may not forget to read the Note of the Way that they were given. Then they come to the Enchanted Grounds, one of the greatest temptations they have faced. Hopeful grows sleepy and wants to lie down, but Christian urges him on. They are so close to the end of their journey, and the Shepherds had explicitly warned them to avoid sleeping in this place.
The Enchanted Grounds conjure Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters here. Ulysses’ mariners are nearly home, but they are pulled off course by the voices of those on an island. “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; / Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.”
With Christian’s help, Hopeful is able to escape the Enchanted Grounds and the two continue on.
The last twenty pages of the novel are sublime, as Christian and Hopeful tell one another their stories. Ignorant joins them once again, and they share the gospel with him. They touch the subject of what Calvinists call “total depravity.” Ignorant tells them: “I will never believe that my heart is thus bad.” Ignorant makes the case for what might be called merely religious Christianity, the false faith that rests on one’s own duty and good deeds. Christian rebukes Ignorant and invites him into the true faith that comes through repentance of one’s own efforts. The time is short, he tells Ignorant.
At last, the two come to The Gate, but first they must cross a fearful river, which is, of course, death. Christian becomes fearful, and like Frodo Baggins at the Crack of Doom, where he balks to throw the ring into the cauldron, cannot go through the river. Hopeful steps into the waters, and tells Christian they aren’t so deep as they look. The waters, it turns out, are as deep as one’s doubts, as shallow as one’s faith is strong. Christian “was much in the troublesome thoughts of the Sins that he has committed, both since and before he began to be a Pilgrim.” “Brother, I see the Gate, and Men standing by to receive us,” yells Hopeful. “Be of good cheer: Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.” “Oh, I see him again,” exults Christian, “and he tells me, ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee. And through the Rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (Isaiah 43:2).
The two make it across, and a Heavenly Host comes out to greet them. Our narrator steps into the dream, and tells us that he saw the men transfigured as they entered the Gate. “Now, as I was gazing upon all these things, I turned my head to look back, and saw Ignorant coming up to the Riverside.” Ignorant makes it across with surprising ease, and approaches the Gate of the Celestial City. But two angels seize him and take him to a door into the side of the hill. “Then I saw that there was a Way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the city of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a Dream.”
As in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the theme here is that a man must be careful and trusting on God, and above all obedient, as he passes through this vale of tears. As Jim Elliott wrote in his journal before his martyrdom: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”