Wholesome Words Home
Christian Biography

The Pilgrim's Progress: A Review

by George W. Latham

John BunyanBefore Bunyan's death ten editions of The Pilgrim's Progress1 had been published, and it was said by one of his intimate acquaintances that a hundred thousand copies had been sold, an extraordinary number when we take into account the comparative smallness of the reading class in those times. Although so many editions of The Pilgrim's Progress were called for, including an American edition published in Boston in 1681, yet of few books of the period are early editions so rare. Only five copies of the first edition are known to be in existence. The reason for this is that the people who bought copies of The Pilgrim's Progress bought them to read, and literally read them to pieces. At the same time the more cultivated readers seem to have been long inclined to look on the book askance. Addison spoke of Bunyan rather contemptuously, and Cowper thought it necessary to apologize for referring to him. Yet there is plenty of evidence on the other side , as is shown by Dr. Johnson's statement that The Pilgrim's Progress was one of the few books that were not too long for him.

In Bunyan's own time it was a cause for amazement that an uneducated tinker could have written such a book as The Pilgrim's Progress, and he felt obliged to defend himself from the charge of plagiarism. At the end of his Holy War we find these lines referring to the more famous book:

"It came from my own heart, so to my head,
And thence into my fingers trickled;
Then to my pen, from whence immediately
On paper I did dribble it daintily.
Matter and manner too was all mine own,
Nor was it unto any mortal known,
Till I had done it. Nor, did any then,
By books, by wits, by tongues, or hand or pen
Add five words to it, or write half a line
Thereof; the whole and every whit is mine."

This would seem to settle the question. Yet from the time when the book became a subject of interest to scholars, there has been considerable speculation as to the sources of the allegory. Dr. Johnson first called attention to the similarity between the opening of The Pilgrim's Progress and the first lines of Dante's Inferno; and he thought that Bunyan might have read Spenser's Faerie Queene. The resemblance to Dante must be purely accidental, for, as Johnson adds, there was no translation of the Divine Comedy when Bunyan wrote; and the passages from the Faerie Queene cited by recent critics in support of Johnson's conjecture do not convince the unprejudiced reader that Bunyan made any use of Spenser's poem. Many other books have been suggested as possible sources, but no single passage in The Pilgrim's Progress has been pointed out which seems clearly indebted to anything other than Bunyan's own inventiveness or his knowledge of the Bible. The conception of human life as a pilgrimage is one that might occur to any contemplative person, and long before Bunyan's time an enormous literature had grown up in which this notion is treated from numberless points of view. It had become a literary convention; yet it is improbable that Bunyan had read or even heard of any of these books. Certainly time spent in reading them he would have considered wasted. The fact is that Bunyan cared nothing for literature as literature. He had the poet's mind and feeling, but for all that, he felt that the only concern of importance for a man was the saving of his soul. And he reached this conclusion early in life. It would be possible, with a fair degree of certainty, to make a list of all the books that Bunyan ever read. Almost the only one not distinctly religious in character would be Sir Bevis of Southampton, already mentioned as the only book we know him to have read as a child.

There was one book, however, that he knew as hardly any other man in any age has known it — the Bible. His knowledge of it was not the scholar's knowledge, for he knew nothing of Greek and Hebrew or even of such Biblical criticism as existed in his own day. What he had was a verbal knowledge of the English versions that was never at fault. Many stories are told of the readiness with which he could produce apposite scriptural quotations, often to the confusion of much more learned men than himself. This intimacy with the Bible, combined with one other element, is enough to account for the substance of The Pilgrim's Progress. That other element is his profound acquaintance with the rustic and provincial life about him, and with the heart of the average man.

From these sources come also two characteristics of Bunyan's style that even the most cursory reader cannot fail to notice, — his constant use of the phraseology and the imagery of the Bible and the frequent occurrence of provincial and colloquial expressions. Bunyan wrote the language as he heard it, and there is surprisingly little that is unfamiliar to a modern ear. Many of his expressions still survive in colloquial and illiterate usage; "drownded," "would a done it," "there is no turnings," have not yet disappeared from the language of daily life. Many other expressions and usages in The Pilgrim's Progress that have apparently become unknown in England are still familiar in parts of America. There were readers who felt that this homeliness of diction involved a loss of dignity; but there can be little doubt that to most modern readers it is this very characteristic that gives The Pilgrim's Progress one of its greatest charms.

But a racy and colloquial diction alone would not have made Bunyan a great writer. His real achievement is that he makes the reader see the thing that he describes. The vividness of the descriptive passages (they are usually sentences or merely phrases) in The Pilgrim's Progress has often been pointed out. It is the vividness that absolute sincerity combined with imagination is sure to effect. A study of these passages will show that they reproduce scenes from the Bible, as Bunyan understood them, or scenes from provincial and rural England. It was not necessary for him to go outside of his own experience for the Slough of Despond, the Palace Beautiful, and Vanity Fair. None of them was far away from Bedford. In many respects Christian's journey was just such as any Bedfordshire countryman might have taken. The characters, too, are drawn from the life. Worldly Wiseman, By-Ends, Lord Hategood, and Christian himself would be recognized as faithful portraits. This does not mean, of course, that definite places and actual persons are represented in the book. Probably they are not. But both persons and places are typical of what Bunyan's readers were familiar with. This realism, this closeness to everyday life, undoubtedly has much to do with the immense vitality of the book.

In addition to this power of representing vividly persons and places, Bunyan possessed to a high degree the ability to tell a story effectively. No prose writer who preceded him in English literature, unless it be Malory, is to be compared with him in this respect, and he anticipated Defoe and Swift in many of the devices which a generation later they adopted to give reality to their tales. We find in all three the same minuteness of detail, the same unconcerned colloquialism, and the same apparent absence of straining for effect. For these reasons, some critics have called The Pilgrim's Progress the first English novel, and many persons have read it solely as a story of adventure.

It should not be forgotten, however, that The Pilgrim's Progress is primarily a religious allegory, and that in intention it is an exposition of the Protestant theory of the plan of salvation. As such, it is entirely successful for from no other book is it possible to obtain so lucid an account of Puritan theology. Yet it is entirely free from narrow sectarianism, and there is nothing whatever about it that makes it the peculiar possession of any one Christian denomination. With the exception of half a dozen lines in regard to Giant Pope, there is nothing in The Pilgrim's Progress to which a Roman Catholic would take exception, and only the most extreme Anglicans have found it necessary to make alterations to adapt it to their purposes. When we take into account Bunyan's antecedents and surroundings, this total absence of fanaticism seems one of the most extraordinary things about the book.

Another extraordinary feature is that the reader finds very little difficulty in the interpretation of the often rather intricate allegory. It is true that certain places in the book are not easy reading, but they are usually places where the allegory is dropped altogether. Doubtless, many readers have hurried over the long conversation with which Christian and Hopeful tried to enliven the passage through the Enchanted Ground. Sometimes, the allegory does become hopelessly obscure, especially in the few instances where there is an allegory within the allegory, as in the account of the Bond Woman and Mount Sinai. It is possible, too, as it is in the case of any allegorical work of considerable length, to discover inconsistencies. For example, Macaulay has pointed out that according to the plan of the allegory every mortal must cross the River of Death, yet Faithful is transported directly from Vanity Fair to the Celestial City. These are matters of small account. "If you were to polish it," said Coleridge, "you would destroy at once the reality of the vision."

It is easy to find flaws in any work. More significant is it to remember that The Pilgrim's Progress is a book which can be read with genuine interest long after the state of society of which it was the expression has passed away. The number of books of which this can be said with any degree of truth is indeed small. Modern opinion would agree with Macaulay: "Though there were many clever men in England during the latter half of the seventeenth century, there were only two minds which possessed the imaginative faculty in a very eminent degree. One of these minds produced the Paradise Lost, the other The Pilgrim's Progress."

1The Pilgrim's Progress consists of two parts. The first part and more widely known was published in 1678. The second, published in 1684, describes the journey of Christian's wife and children from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. They travel under the guidance of Mr. Great-Heart, one of the best drawn of all the characters of the book, who with his ability to fight or to pray, as circumstances demand, might have been copied from almost any one of the commanders of Cromwell's army. In regard to this second part critical opinions differ. Froude called it "but a feeble reverberation of the first." Other critics, however, have considered it that rara avis, a successful sequel.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. Edited for school use by George W. Latham. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1906.

More Information on John Bunyan


Christian Biography Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.