[The following is the text of a lecture delivered by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) in November 1998. This text is in the public domain and may be used by anyone for any purpose, provided the source is acknowledged]
The final work we study this semester, The Pilgrim's Progress, is probably the most extraordinary major work of English literature. It was written shortly after the Restoration (in 1660) by an itinerant Baptist preacher, John Bunyan, a man of limited education who was constantly in trouble with the authorities for preaching without a license. He wrote the work during the decade he spent in jail for his preaching activities and with it produced the most astonishingly popular and influential work, second only to the King James Version of the Bible in the Protestant world. And the popularity of the work, unlike other major texts we have studied, reached all sections of the population. In fact, Bunyan's text was, for almost three hundred years, an integral part of the daily life of working class Protestant families throughout the world.
With this in mind, I would like in this lecture to attend to two key features of this text: first, what is Bunyan seeking to achieve in this text and, second, what accounts for the astonishing success of what seems such a humble and, in many respects, simple allegory. Before addressing these questions, however, I would like to consider briefly what we mean by that last term, allegory.
B. The Nature of Allegory
When we say that The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory (in fact, the most famous allegory in English literature) we are describing a certain form of literature which demands from the perceptive reader an awareness of what is going on and from the literary critic an appreciation for the challenges this allegorical form presents.
Simply put, an allegory is a fiction, almost invariably a story, which is designed, first and foremost, to illustrate a coherent doctrine which exists outside the fiction. Thus, the story and everything in it bear an immediate and point by point reference to a very specific aspect of the controlling doctrine which the fiction is illustrating. In that sense, allegories tend to be what we might call "philosophical" fictions, a term which means that they are to a large extent shaped and controlled by ideas or by a system of ideas which exists independently of the allegorical text.
This should be easy enough to understand, because in one way or another most of us are thoroughly familiar with allegories, fictions which exist primarily to illustrate ideas rather than to explore them independently. Many films which pit good heroes against nasty villains (e.g., traditional western movies, James Bond films) operate within a fairly obvious and popular framework of belief. Even many sporting events present themselves in an allegorical context.
Allegories tend to be very popular because they are the simplest way to appeal to and to confirm the belief system of the audience. We like to see the good people win out and the bad ones punished, often in a very simple way, because that confirms the belief system we bring to the world (or which we would like to bring to the world). Often allegories are the least complicated and most pleasing ways to remind people of a particular belief system. Hence allegories have always been an important way of educating people, from childhood onwards, because they present important doctrinal or abstract ideas in the form of a pleasing fiction. And a large part of the popularity of Pilgrim's Progress arises from the fact that it was the essential text in the raising of many Protestant children within the home (in the days before Walt Disney).
Allegories need to be distinguished from symbolic stories. Both allegorical structures and symbolic structures derive their full meaning from something beyond the literal meaning of the word, event, image, or character in the fiction. That is, they both point to a range of meanings beyond themselves. The major difference is that in allegories the reference point is clear and relatively unambiguous; whereas, with symbols the range of meaning is more ambiguous and uncertain.
For example, money in Chaucer's General Prologue or images of disease in Hamlet clearly exert a recurring symbolic influence throughout the works. But what they refer to is not immediately explicit, and, as readers, we need to interpret, argue about, and come (if possible) to some consensus about the range of possible meanings. By contrast, in The Pilgrim's Progress something like Christian's scrap of paper or the Slough of Despond refer explicitly to some important aspect of the overarching doctrine which is controlling the shape of the fiction and which every detail of the fiction is designed to illustrate. About such reference there is no ambiguity and no need for argument about a range of interpretative possibilities.
This point is particularly clear if we compare the characterization in Chaucer and Shakespeare with the characterization in Bunyan. The characters in the earlier two works are clearly (for the most part) complex, ambiguous, and arguable. There may be some (like the Knight and the Parson) who are ideal characters and serve to point to a clear Christian standard, but for the most part we cannot simply define the characters in these works according to a simple and given frame of reference. In Bunyan, of course, the situation is quite the reverse. The characters in the work almost all serve exclusively to present unambiguously a certain principle in the doctrine; we do not have to argue about the significance of people like Ignorance, Talkative, Lord Hategood, Obstinate, Pliable, and so on. In a sense they are not characters; they are not even character types; they are the personifications of very explicit characteristics introduced into the fiction in order to illustrate a clear point. Their very names make this tendency obvious to the reader. IN a sense, there is only one character in this story, Christian himself: the development of his spiritual understanding depends upon his ability to see the world in very simple terms.
In between clearly allegorical meaning and more ambiguous symbolic meaning stands a third category of literary reference called parable. In a parable, we seem to be working clearly within an allegorical framework in the sense that a very simple meaning seems to be indicated, but often the simple meaning turns out to be not so immediately obvious to figure out. The famous examples of this form, of course, are the parables of Jesus in the New Testament and, in modern times, the short stories of Franz Kafka.
C. Reading Allegory
If allegory is always illuminating a particular doctrine which exists outside the work and is shaped by that doctrine, two questions at once arise: First, do I need to know the doctrine in order to understand the fiction? And, second, what is the purpose of the allegory if its meaning is already worked out elsewhere?
The answer to the first question, about what background might be necessary for understanding allegory, will depend upon the nature of the allegory. Some, like Pilgrim's Progress will contain within themselves a sufficient explanation of the doctrine, so that one understands why the fiction takes on the shape it does. That is, the allegory may serve both as an illustration of the doctrine and, in places, as an exposition of the doctrine (as in the long conversations between Christian and Hopeful). Other allegories may not provide the exposition and may, therefore, require some familiarity with the shaping ideas in order for the reader to understand why the fiction has taken on the shape it has.
For example, in the very simplest dramatic allegory, the fight between the good angel and the evil angel for the soul of Everyman as he contemplates the parade of the tempting seven deadly sins in front of him, if one has no immediate knowledge of angels or of the Christian doctrine of temptation, sin, and damnation, then the entire story may seem somewhat puzzling, just as a person who has no knowledge whatsoever of North American history may find some old Western films set in a firmly allegorical framework rather odd in the ideas they present.
The answer to second question about the purpose of allegory should be clear enough. The purpose of the allegory is, first and foremost, to entertain, to engage the imagination of the reader so that the pleasure which arises from dealing with fictions can be put in the service of a particular belief system. This is an especially important function if the aim of the writer is to convert people to the belief system. Allegories provide a very powerful alternative to other forms of persuasion (like rational arguments or sermons), because fictional stories have a way of engaging more people's attentions more forcefully than other means of persuasion. For that reason, most belief systems (religious and otherwise) rely a great deal on allegorical fictions to persuade people of truths which would be too complex or arid to present in the form of rational arguments or sermons.
D. Interpreting Allegorical Fictions
Interpreting allegorical fiction presents for the literary critic a tempting danger, however. Since the fiction is so clearly and closely controlled by the external doctrine, there's a natural temptation to devote one's time, as an interpreter, to discussing the doctrine (the controlling ideas). This can be a major mistake, because it takes one's attention away from the text under scrutiny and directs it elsewhere.
For the literary critic, what matters in an allegorical fiction is not (repeat not) the adequacy, coherence, or consistency of the doctrine which is being illustrated (important as that may be for other forms of enquiry). What is of central importance is how the literary text deals with the belief system, how it brings it alive (or fails to bring it alive), how it succeeds as a literary work (that is, using the resources of literature) to create a particular vision.
This point is worth stressing again and again. When one comes to write about a clearly allegorical piece of work, like, for example Pilgrim's Progress or Dante's Divine Comedy, there is a natural temptation to spend most of one's time discussing the doctrine being illustrated. This is especially the case with students, many of whom find it much easier to discuss ideas than to discuss literary techniques. But the ideas which shape Pilgrim's Progress and Dante's Divine Comedy are not the factors which have made these two allegorical epics justly famous and enduring. Those qualities depend upon the various ways in which the writers have brought the ideas alive, have shaped them in particular ways to create a story which give the ideas immediacy, impact, in short, life.
We should remember than no one would ever put Dante's Divine Comedy or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress on a list of primary texts in a philosophy or theology course. As rational defenses of particular ways of looking at the world, these works are clearly unsuitable. However, these two books would belong near the top of any list of great books of religious allegorical fictions. And they would belong there, not because the ideas they present are original or closely argued from first principles, but because they provide emotionally satisfying illustrations of the doctrines they assume.
Let me put this another way. When we were discussing Milton's desire to "justify" the ways of God to man, I suggested that that term "justify" might point to two possible activities. It could refer to a rational defense for (as in, say, a criminal court hearing, where on the basis of evidence and rational arguments the different sides argue for a correct rational interpretation of something). Or the term "justify" could refer to an aesthetic defense; that is, it could suggest that the understanding of a certain issue is not going to be arrived at rationally but emotionally. I will derive a sense of closure and completeness and satisfaction from the power of fiction rather than from the power of argument. The persuasive power will come through my imaginative sympathies primarily, rather than through a sense of rational closure.
What this means, in practice, is that, while the evaluative interpretation of an allegorical fiction will require some attention to the shaping ideas, the major weight will have to fall on the various ways in which the fiction works as a fiction, that is, as a work of art. In dealing with Bunyan's text, for example, we need to acknowledge the shaping Puritan doctrine, but the major task will be seeing what Bunyan has done to make his presentation of that doctrine, which is available to us in many other places, so compelling.
E. Bunyan's Puritanism
The idea which shapes Pilgrim's Progress is radical Protestantism, and it is appropriate to say a few words about that before directing our attention to his text. The major outlines of this doctrine are well known and are clear enough from the treatment Bunyan gives in the book.
As we discussed before, Protestantism insisted that Christianity was essentially a matter of faith in Jesus Christ, a personal interaction between the Christian individual and God, without the necessary intervention of the Catholic Church as interpreter, guide, and, if necessary, coercive force. The religious life was thus a radically individual matter, requiring familiarity with the scripture, prayer, faith, and hope in the life to come.
A central problem for the Protestants was the relationships between the religious life, faith, and good works. The Catholics always insisted that central to the Christian life were good works in the Christian community. And we have seen in Chaucer's General Prologue how the major virtues, as defined by the Knight, Squire, Parson, and Ploughman are the public virtues which link Christians together in the Christian community. In such a vision the greatest of all virtues is charity: the love of God linked to and manifested in the love of one's fellow human beings in action in one's daily life.
For Protestants, this emphasis on good works sounded suspiciously as if one could somehow win one's way into heaven by one's actions, as if, that is, entry to Heaven was earned according to some form of contract under the terms of which God had agreed or was compelled to grant eternal heavenly life to people on the basis of their human actions. Such a belief placed restrictions on God and was, hence, insupportable. God was supremely powerful, and nothing humans could possible do placed any sort of limits on his power and will. Hence, Protestants were insistent that entry into heaven had nothing to do with good works; everything was a matter of faith. But even faith might not be enough, since God, in his mystery and power, might grant entry into heaven or deny it at His own will. God's grace could not be guaranteed by anything human beings might do; any such guarantee would be a limitation on the power of God.
This doctrine of faith and the power of God was driven to its logical conclusion by the most radical Protestants, the Calvinists, who advanced the notion that God granted his grace or withheld it as He wished, that people were predestined to receive grace or not to receive it regardless of their human actions. The best that human beings could do was to live in the hope of receiving grace and in a constant state of readiness for some sign that they had been so blessed. Such preparation was not, however, any guarantee that they would receive it.
Preparing to receive some sign of grace and remaining in a constant state of readiness for it required the strictest discipline. Hence radical Protestantism altered the basic social metaphor of Christian life. Whereas for the traditional Catholics the Church existed as a sort of spiritual hospital, ready to receive and to assist the spiritually afflicted, the sinner, the less than perfect human being in all his or her fallibility, radical Protestantism saw the religious life as a spiritual all-star team made up of relatively few true believers who had committed themselves to the extremely strenuous task of making themselves spiritually ready to recognize the sign that they had been chosen as one of the elect, those granted grace by God.
This fact should strike us at once if we compare Chaucer's General Prologue to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In the former there is a strong emphasis on the rich interaction of all kinds of people who have united together (for very different reasons) on a pilgrimage. The whole weight of the poem stresses the social interaction (telling stories to each other), and there is a strong sense of the value of the total community, from potential saints to arrant sinners. In Bunyan, the emphasis is very different. Other people are to be instantly summed up and, if they fail the basic test of the disciplined spirit, they are to be dismissed as fools, threats, hell-bound sinners. In Pilgrim's Progress the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the individual's spiritual journey as the only thing that matters: charity towards one's neighbour has been almost entirely replaced by introspection and self-imposed spiritual flagellation.
The spiritual discipline of the radical Protestant required an enormous self-control and self-denial. Everything in the world was both a test of the will and a threat to one's spiritual well being. Since grace might come at any moment or, once received, might be removed at any moment, no true Christian could every relax. With the prospect of the heavenly reward always at the heart of one's imaginative desires and the dreadful fear that one might not be chosen and might end up in hellfire and damnation, one must never let one's guard down by pausing to enjoy whatever worldly delight the world might offer or to complain or to relax. Life becomes a ceaseless struggle to impose one's will upon experience, and no obstacle can be allowed to stand in the way.
The result of such a faith was an enormous narrowing of life and a pronounced channeling of one's imaginative and spiritual energies. Committed to a life of ceaseless effort at self-control, with no concessions to the relaxing pleasures of life, and required to see every obstacle as a spiritual test, the radical Puritan looked at the world as an object against which to direct his will and assert his spiritual purity without complaint or concessions. Nothing that life put in his way, whether it might be a natural obstacle or an inner wavering, could stand up against the spiritual energy driving him toward the Celestial City, his one hope. Any let up was a sign of potential weakness.
Such a belief was an enormous inducement to sustained and disciplined work throughout a lifetime. And it is no accident that such a religious view of life was an engine both of capitalist business and imperial expansion. Such Protestants formed the greatest wealth-generating group the world has ever seen: driven to ceaseless work, forbidden to spend any of the profits on personal pleasures, with a very limited view of public charity and an easy means of equating social failure with sin (so that one did not have the same responsibility for assisting one's fellows), and no particular regard for the destruction of the environment or wretched living conditions, the Protestant capitalists had only one place to put their energy and their money, into business. It is no accident that so many of greatest fortunes in North American life--from Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Eaton and others--were so closely linked to the particular Protestant faith of the originator of the fortune.
This faith, too, was decisive in the history of Canada. For it is again no accident that so much of Canadian history and development is linked to radical Protestants. Without such a faith, it would have been very difficult to face the obstacles presented by the Canadian landscape. Without the spiritual discipline to face up bravely to a prairie winter or an Ontario northern summer as a test of one's spiritual worth which one must survive if one is to be worthy of grace, many a settler would never have survived. And that faith helps to explain, too, why our attitude to the landscape has always been so aggressive. Nature stands before us, not as an ally, but as an obstacle to be overcome.
We have clearly lost contact with this faith in the past two or three generations. We still at times refer to the Protestant work ethic, although many who use that phrase (especially those who invoke it with nostalgia) may not fully understand just what it demanded from its adherents. I grew up in the twilight of that faith, in a Toronto where the very notion that Sunday might be devoted to anything other than worship was akin to the strongest heresy. One of the most potent forces contributing to the weakening of that stern faith in that particular city was the sudden arrival in the 1950's of thousands of Catholic immigrants, especially Italians, whose view of life struck many of us as very different (unsettlingly so).
F. Bunyan's Allegory
Many of the details of what I have just been describing will be clear enough in Bunyan's fiction. Let me list a few here, before attending to the more important question of what Bunyan does to make this faith so compelling. The particularity of Bunyan's vision can be brought out particularly well by comparing it to Chaucer's vision of a Christian pilgrimage from quite a different perspective.
First, Bunyan's hero, Christian, sets out on his pilgrimage from an overwhelming sense of fear generated from within his own imagination. That question, "What must I do to be saved?" sets the tone for his immediate problem. Unlike Chaucer, there is no sense of a social celebration to be shared with others in an act of worship and communal thanks for having survived the illnesses of the winter in this life, Christian's sense is dominated by what will happen to him in the future if he does not act. The Wrath to Come, the imminent destruction of him and his community, awakens him to his spiritual nature; that appears long before any immediate desire to see the Celestial City. This fearful emotional charge has reached Christian as a result of his reading the Bible on his own. That has awoken in him a spiritual need.
His journey requires him to turn his back on his community and his family. In that sense, his mission is radically individual and remains so throughout the journey. No human responsibilities or contacts can qualify in any way his responsibility for his own soul, and most human beings he meets along the way are temptations to stray from that personal responsibility. In fact, the journey begins by running away from one's most immediate human contacts:
So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now, he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying, Life! life! eternal life! So he looked no behind him but fled towards the middle of the plain.
The gestures here are important. To focus on his newly awakened duty, Christian has to shut out the sights and sounds of the world, which are distractions. In Chaucer, by contrast, the main point of the pilgrimage is the rich variety of sights and sounds the communal activity provides. The active carrying out of the faith depends upon rich social experience; in Bunyan such social experience is dangerous. If the price of turning one's back on one's neighbours is that they ridicule the pilgrim, then that is the price one must be prepared to pay.
In fact, much of Pilgrim's Progress is taken up with Christian's encounters with various neighbours and acquaintances who are quickly judged as spiritually inadequate for any number of reasons: they are too much in love with the things of this world, they have too much faith in good works, their belief is too complacent, their dedication to spiritual discipline is too relaxed, they have an inflated sense of the value of human life, and so on. And while Christian is prepared at times to give them instructions, he has no difficulty at all in abandoning them quickly if they do not measure up to his strict standards. It is clear that, in contrast to Chaucer's very inclusive vision of the Christian community, Bunyan's hero has room for very few. And even when he meets a soul mate, like Faithful and Hopeful, much of the time the friends are testing each other, measuring the sufficiency of each other's faith, growing occasionally irritated with each other at the probing and the evaluating, which never lets up. Much of their conversation is design to cheer up and reinforce the individualistic sense each carries within him; it is not designed to foster any sort of communal action on their part.
Nature, too, is viewed in the same way. The geography of Christian's journey provides no reassuring pleasures from the delights of nature. For the most part, the world is a topography of obstacles: the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, and so on. This vision of the world invites the believer to see everything and everyone as an immediate test. The only assistance on one's journey through these obstacles is the Evangelist or the Interpreter of scripture or, the one tribute to common human pleasures, the delights of singing. Songs of praise occur repeatedly as reminders of one's duty and a means of energizing oneself to meet the next obstacle.
Similarly, this narrative takes no delight in the things of this world, the fine objects, clothes, books, horses, jewelry, and so on of the sort that appear in Chaucer's General Prologue. In fact, the incident at Vanity Fair makes it clear that beautiful things, like corrupt doctrines, are mere distractions and temptations, potentially dangerous pitfalls. One book matters, the Holy text itself, and, apart from songs of praise and illustrations designed to fortify the faith in Jesus Christ, human artistic activity of any sort is without value.
And the story makes clear that one can never be certain of arriving at the destination. There is no guarantee. The most one may get is a glimpse of the Celestial City. Even then, the slightest relaxation or careless mistake can lead one astray and damn one forever. Those that do reach the Celestial City, like Christian, are not typical people but the very few elect. The majority of human beings are denied entry, even if, like Ignorance, they get to the very door of the place.
G. Bunyan's Style
The details of Bunyan's allegory, the shaping ideas in this vision of experience, are, I take it clear enough from the attention Bunyan gives to them during the course of the story. Of more immediate concern to us now is the question of Bunyan's style: What has he done here to make his presentation of what for many people is a harsh, difficult, and logically confusing belief so compelling to so many people. How is it, in other words, that Bunyan's tale is not just an allegory but a great work?
There are a number of answers to that, and in the time remaining I would like quickly to review some of the most important.
The first quality of this work which makes it so popular is undoubtedly the prose style. Bunyan writes in the language of the working people. Many of those most influenced by this book were probably unable to read, but having the book read to them is enough. The prose is colloquial, energetic, instantly comprehensible. In that respect, it is the most accessible text we have read, rivaled only in this respect by the King James Version. One could cite many examples here (Bunyan's imagery derived from the experience of country folk and expressed in a language familiar to them, for instance), but the point does not need much elaboration. Once has only to contrast Bunyan's style with the style of, say, Paradise Lost, to see the difference. Or, to make a better comparison, one can compare the effect and influence of Pilgrim's Progress with the effect and influence of Gulliver's Travels, another spiritual pilgrimage, but one written for a much more sophisticated audience in a style far less accessible (hence, Gulliver's Travels, particularly the first two books, has often had to be adapted for popular entertainment, particularly for children; something which Pilgrim's Progress does not require).
A second factor contributing to the vitality of this allegory is its intensely dramatic nature. Bunyan sets up a conventional form for exploring spiritual development, namely, a physical journey. But this journey pays very little attention to all the various things a writer might have introduced and instead focuses almost exclusively upon dramatic interchanges. What matters here is not the rich sensuousness or independent existence of nature but the human response to experience filtered through the narrow gate of the Puritan spirit concerned with salvation. The result is an extraordinary urgency in the narrative. Christian's soul is at stake in every encounter.
Bunyan achieves this urgency by his constant personification of the trials and tribulations which Christian must face. Sometimes these are recognizable figures from the world around us, but often they are personifications of his own doubts and weaknesses. Hence, throughout Pilgrim's Progress the central metaphor of life as a battle is always present, and the encounters are delivered with an energy and vividness which transform doctrine into unforgettable incident.
Bunyan's success in this regard can be measured in part by the extent to which his metaphorical personifications have entered the public vocabulary, providing a shared sense of what life is all about: encounters with the Slough of Despond, with Apollyon, Giant Despair, and Ignorance. By making this series of encounters dramatically exciting in the form of an easily accessible narrative, Bunyan allows people to shape their own lives in accordance with his vision. If you like, he provides them with a vocabulary and a topography according to which they can think about and plan their own spiritual lives. Depression, for example, is a concept difficult to grasp and almost impossible to resolve through thought; Giant Despair, on the other hand, is a sharply etched character who is my enemy and whom I must, as a true believer, fight as best I can. There is no doubt about which understanding of spiritual gloom is more effective psychologically.
If we remember that the majority of those who found Bunyan's vision so congenial often led desperately poor material lives in subsistence conditions, we can perhaps better understand the popularity of his vision of life as a struggle against the obstacles which threaten the spirit. To give up to despair or to relax one's faith in the granting of grace is to forget the nature of the test: such a vision, especially given in a wonderful story, can be a constant source of inspiration in difficult times.
And this vision has always been appealing to those who see that their inner light, their spiritual sense of themselves, their responsibility for the salvation of their souls is more important than the prevailing values of society. Bunyan's most vigorous attacks through his dramatic presentations direct themselves against conventional wisdom: Worldly Wiseman, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Civility, Legality. As George Bernard Shaw has pointed out, Bunyan is not concerned so much here with anything like the seven deadly sins as he is with any compromise with existing social customs. And to present life as a series of battles against such monsters and one's spiritual duty the assertion of one's will in the face of them has a powerful appeal which goes well beyond the doctrines of grace, salvation, and faith (or at least is fully comprehensible without them). This aspect of Bunyan's vision makes it easy to see why such Protestantism is such an active promoter of democracy.
It may be the case that, because of this intensely and urgently dramatic structure, the real achievement of this allegory is not so much to convey the details of the belief system (although these are clearly given) as to convey a certain attitude to life as an assertion of one's will in opposition to what presents itself as given by society and our fellow human beings. I take it that is what Shaw means in his comparison of Bunyan with Nietzsche. But Bunyan takes the trouble to get his doctrinal points across, and there is no doubt that the goal of the pilgrimage for Christian, the entry into the Celestial City and the union with God, is worth all the effort it takes to get there. If this story stresses the importance of the individual will shaping life in direct contravention of social norms, it is nonetheless a very Christian vision which justifies that defiance.
In that sense, Bunyan's allegory owes much of success to more than just the urgency of his prose and the sense he conveys of the deceitfulness of the world. Complementing this is the joy Christian feels when he is in touch with his spiritual certainties. Life for the pilgrim may be lived in the constant presence of reminders of death and destruction, but the compensating joy in the glories of the rewards for the elect are delivered in a passionate prose which conveys the absolute certainty of Christian's convictions.
To get a sense of this, one need only compare Milton's description of heaven in Book III of Paradise Lost with Bunyan's vision of the Celestial City. The fact that Bunyan focuses on the emotions felt in the breast of the believer rather than on any direct description of the glories of God and the heavenly host may be one reason why Bunyan manages to avoid some of the difficulties Milton gets himself into, but the passionate sincerity of the prose carries a conviction that Milton's style in Book III cannot manage.
Now as they walked in this land, they had more rejoicing than in parts more remote from the kingdom to which they were bound; and drawing near to the city, they had yet a more perfect view thereof. It was builded of pearls and precious stones, also the street thereof was paved with gold; so that by reason of the natural glory of the city, and the reflection of the sunbeams upon it, Christian with desire fell sick; Hopeful also had a fit or two of the same disease. Wherefore, here they lay by it a while, crying out, because of their pangs, If ye find my beloved, tell him that I am sick of love.
And yet this glorious celebration is, as always, accompanied by an ominous sense of the alternative, for the very last detail of this story is the sight of Ignorance being turned away from the gates of Heaven. Ignorance is unfit because, although he shares much the same faith as Christian and Hopeful, he does not share their total self-abasement, their sense of their own complete unworthiness: he has made the slightest of concessions to life and, although he has completed almost the entire journey, he is still not worthy: "Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction."
H. A Final Note
The above discussion of Bunyan's style is certainly inadequate to account for the artistic power of this text, but at least it may suffice to invite people to explore further. But there is one other feature of this narrative that powerfully appeals to many people, namely, its polarized vision of experience. In Christian's world, the pilgrim must become educated into the correct spirituality. And that requires, as we follow the narrative, an increasingly polarized sense that the world is made up of only two groups: the small number of the spiritually elect and the rest (the sinners). Between these two there is no compromise, no third option. The elect will reach the Celestial City; the non-elect will be damned to hell. Hence, this is a world from which spiritual and moral ambiguity are banished: if one is not part of the solution one is part of the problem. This, of course, stands out as quite distinct from Chaucer's richly ambiguous vision of human life.
But polarized visions of life can be powerfully attractive, especially when one is living in harsh circumstances. Such simplification of life makes experience much easier to understand and informs one of one's duty in a very clear and unambiguous manner. Nowadays, I am sure we find such a vision of life too narrow, too intolerant, too intransigent. After all, we are committed to a more tolerant attitude and, in many cases, to a weak moral relativism which prevents us seeing the world in such judgmental terms. That is, in my view, probably a very good thing. On the other hand, it is hard not to sense just how energizing such a vision may be. Narrow, scary, in many respects life-denying, yes, but energy and discipline lie at the heart of it.
Students who continue to study English literature will find that many texts take aim at this vision of life, condemning it as a source of narrow bigotry, hypocrisy, and joylessness. One only has to think of how Dickens, the Brontes, or George Eliot comes back again and again to expose the inhumanity of the radical Protestant vision. It is undoubtedly true, in practice, that the figures they set up in such a way (e.g., Bulstrode in Middlemarch or Gradgrind in Hard Times) were close enough to real life. But reading Pilgrim's Progress is a reminder that such a narrow vision can bring with it its own joys and celebrations and confer spiritual significance on the Christian life which is not based totally on denial of all things human.
There is one final point I'd like to mention. It is clear, as mentioned above, that this book is a revolutionary challenge to middle age conventionality and a call to spiritual regeneration and purity. But it is also clear that this revolutionary vision is fiercely individualistic. Whatever the highest purposes of life are about, they involve rejection of traditional social norms, but they do not involve any action beyond oneself. One's own soul is the issue here. The fact that this vision of life turns so strongly away from any idea that reform in this world might lead to a purer spirit empties Bunyan's vision of any significant political content (at least in the sense of a direct program of social action). It is not insignificant that this feature of radical Protestantism was driven into the working classes in their religion and in this story. That may help to explain why so many in the Protestant working class in England have traditionally shown themselves to be so hostile to revolutionary political change (on the model of the French Revolution) and endured almost insupportable conditions for so long without thoughts of sedition. But this contested claim will have to be the subject of another lecture (perhaps if we ever deal with Hard Times).
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