54 pages 1 hour read

John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1678

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Pilgrim’s Progress was written by John Bunyan and published in 1678. The work is a religious allegory that is among the most famous works of English literature; many critics also consider it the first English example of the novel genre. Like Christian, the main character in Part 1, Bunyan’s path to Christianity was a journey. After rejecting religion early in his life, Bunyan devoted himself to God and became a Puritan. He believed the Church of England (C of E) needed to be cleansed (i.e., “purified”) of its Catholic parts, and he defied laws that tried to force people to conform to the C of E’s edicts. Authorities jailed Bunyan multiple times for his dissent. One sentence lasted 12 years; another ended after six months. While in jail, Bunyan wrote many books and pamphlets, including much of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The book was an immediate hit, and other authors tried to capitalize on Bunyan’s success by publishing spurious sequels. In 1684, Bunyan published a genuine sequel that traces the spiritual journey of Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their children.

Editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress tend to vary. Some editors put the book in chapters and tinker with the spelling and grammar, which in the 17th century lacked standardization. Even Bunyan doesn’t spell words or use punctuation consistently. This guide refers to the Oxford University Press 2003 ebook, edited by W. R. Owens, who sought to preserve the original text.

Content Warning: This study guide contains references to sexual assault and suicide.

Plot Summary

In an opening poem, an “apology,” Bunyan addresses the hypothetical faults of the book. He hopes the allegorical, metaphorical style doesn’t confuse the reader and that the book will help them with their spiritual life.

In Part 1, the narrator, a nameless man, has a dream in a prison. The dream centers on another man, Christian, who wears ragged clothes, carries a heavy burden on his back, and reads an engrossing book: the Bible. He’s fearful that his city is on the cusp of destruction and its citizens are heading to hell. His wife, Christiana, is less convinced, so Christian leaves her and their four sons—Mathew, Samuel, Joseph, and James—and meets a man named Evangelist, who tells him to go to the Wicket Gate. On Christian’s way to the gate, a man named Obstinate tries to talk him into returning, and a man named Pliable follows Christian for a while before ditching him. Christian makes it through a bog, the Slow of Dispond, but runs into Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who sends him to Mr. Legality and knocks him off his course. Evangelist reappears and explains why adherence to rules and laws isn’t synonymous with a godly life.

Christian makes it to the Wicket Gate, where Mr. Goodwill greets him and tells him to go to the home of the Interpreter. Christian does, and the Interpreter shows him pictures and situations connected to the tenets of Christianity. Christian sees the cross, which makes him feel much better; the burden he has been carrying falls off his back. Three shining ones—angels—appear and bring him peace, forgiveness, nicer clothes, and a critical document for the Celestial City. As Christian travels to his heavenly destination, he meets an array of naysayers whom he must overcome: Presumption, Sloth, Simple, Formalist, and Hypocrisie.

At the Hill of Difficulty, Christian encounters Timorous and Mistrust. Exhausted by the myriad challenges, Christian falls asleep and loses the document. Christian chastises himself for taking a break but finds the document and heads to the Palace Beautiful. He meets allies, sees Christian items, and eats a good meal. At the Valley of Humiliation, Christian fights the grotesque and devilish monster Apollyon. After half a day of battle, God helps Christian triumph. Christian makes it out of the tricky Valley of the Shadow of Death and meets another ally, Faithful. The two debate the slick rhetoric of Talkative and face persecution in the materialistic town of Vanity, which features a year-round fair, Vanity Fair. The people torture Faithful and burn him to death. Faithful is immediately sent to the Celestial City. Christian escapes and partners with Hopeful, who is from Vanity but on Christian’s side.

Hopeful and Christian debate Mr. By-ends and his friends—Mr. Money-love, among them—who believe it’s possible to pair religion with wealth and the accumulation of material possessions. Another person, Demas, almost gets Hopeful to take some treasure from the Silver Mine, but Christian stops him. Mr. By-ends and his friends don’t resist the Silver Mine, so they fall in. Christian convinces Hopeful to take By-Path-Meadow instead of the road, which doesn’t work out well: After surviving a storm, Christian and Hopeful are violently imprisoned by Giant Despair and his wife, Diffidence, in Doubting Castle. Christian realizes he has a key—Promise. The key can unlock any door in the castle, so Christian and Hopeful escape and reach the Delectable Mountains, where friendly shepherds show them a view of the Celestial City.

Now close to heaven, Hopeful and Christian confront Ignorance and learn the sad story of Little Faith. They must deal with Atheist and Flatterer, and the latter traps them in a net until an angel chastises and frees them. To avoid falling asleep at the Enchanted Ground, Hopeful details his religious experiences. Ignorance comes into the spotlight, and Christian refutes his flimsy beliefs point by point. Before entering the heavenly city, Hopeful and Christian endure stormy waters. They have to leave behind the temporal world (i.e., die), but since they’re sincere Christians, they enter the Celestial City—a paradise devoid of sadness, conflict, and death. Yet even in heaven, there’s a path to hell, and Part 1 ends with God instructing angels to take Ignorance there.

Before Part 2, Bunyan inserts a poem where he reminds readers of the enormous popularity of Part 1. He criticizes those who promulgated false sequels and hopes Part 2 will help additional readers find the godly path. Part 2 begins with the narrator having another dream. In the dream, he encounters Sagacity, who tells him about Christian’s family. A mysterious visitor helps Christiana realize she should have followed Christian. With her four sons, she now plans to go on a similar spiritual journey. Mrs. Timorous, her neighbor, thinks this is a bad idea. She doesn’t think a woman could survive such an arduous trip. Another neighbor, Mercie, is on Christiana’s side and joins her.

At the Wicket Gate is a satanic dog, and Mercie is afraid that those beyond the gate will turn her away. She pounds on the gate and is accepted. Mercie sidesteps a marriage proposal from Mr. Brisk, and two men try to sexually assault Christiana and Mercie before the women find safety at the House of Interpreter. As with Christian, he teaches them lessons about Christianity. He also orders his servant, Mr. Great-heart, to accompany the women on their journey. The group reaches Porter’s Lodge, where a woman, Prudence, catechizes Christiana’s children. Mathew, who previously ate a fruit belonging to the devil, now becomes sick, but Mr. Skill brings him back to good health. The pilgrims face lions, a fiend, and a giant monster named Maul. Mr. Great-heart vanquishes the foes with little hardship.

The group arrives at Mr. Gaius’s inn. Gaius wants Christian’s lineage to continue and suggests that Mercie marry Mathew so they can start a family. Gaius also has his daughter, Phebe, marry James. Other pilgrims, like Mr. Feeble-mind and Mr. Ready-to-hault, join the caravan. The pilgrims have less trouble than Christian did in the town of Vanity: They stay at the house of Mr. Mnason and meet allies like Mr. Contrite and Mr. Love-saint. The men help Mr. Great-heart subdue a monster and extinguish Giant Despair, Diffidence, and Doubting Castle.

At Delectable Mountains, the pilgrims encounter a palace. Mercie, now pregnant, desires a mirror that shows Jesus Christ if turned a specific way. Mercie fears that if she doesn’t get the mirror, she’ll miscarry, so the shepherds hosting the pilgrims give it to her. The group meets Mr. Valiant-for-Truth and maneuvers through the Enchanted Ground, where they encounter sleeping pilgrims and Mr. Stand-fast, who tells about his ordeal with a witch, Madam Bubble. Soon it’s time for Christiana to depart the earthly realm and enter the kingdom of heaven. After she crosses the waters, some other pilgrims, like Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, follow. Mercie and the four sons return to the human realm and spread the word of God.

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