John Bunyan’s 1678 book “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is the best-known example of a religious allegory in the entire English literary canon. An allegory is a story that can be read on two levels: the literal and the symbolic. The literal level of an allegory is the setting, plot, and characters of the tale; I often explain to my students that even young children can understand the literal plane of most allegories. The symbolic level is the secondary interpretation of the story, where the plot, characters, and setting take on a figurative meaning that communicates a message, normally political or philosophical in nature. In a religious allegory, the message is religious or designed to communicate some form of doctrine. Although common in the Middle Ages, Christian allegory was waning in popularity when John Bunyan composed his religious parable in prison.
The literal plot of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” follows the not-so-subtly-named protagonist, Christian, as he struggles through a variety of trials and tribulations to reach Celestial City. Navigating obstacles such as “The Slough of Despond” and “The Hill of Difficulty” while avoiding characters such as “Secular Ethics,” “Superstition” and “Hypocrisy,” Christian manages to reach the city only by following the guidance of his special book.
The figurative level of Bunyan’s allegory is not difficult to ascertain; the character of Christian serves as an everyman by representing the life-long journey every devout Christian must take to reach a heavenly afterlife. Interestingly, some of the dominant religious lessons promoted through the allegory of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” are staunchly anti-Catholic, reflecting the rapid changes the Protestant Reformation brought to England during John Bunyan’s lifetime.