Why is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress not a "novel"? 

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan is not considered a true novel by the standards of the time it was written, as the answer above argues; however, it does contain all the characteristics of a novel as defined by today's standards.

It is true that The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory, which means that all the places and people serve a symbolic purpose. It is also true that there is a lot of what might be considered "preaching" by some readers and the language is unwieldy and antiquated, but these do not preclude the work from being considered a novel.

First, it is written in prose form. Portions do look a bit more like poetry than prose (“a man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away the more he had"), but it is a work of prose.

Second, it is a narrative, which means it tells a story. If it tells a story, it must also contain the elements of a novel: exposition, rising action, falling action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Christian starts somewhere, goes somewhere, has trouble along the way, experiences a moment of catharsis, and finishes his journey.

Third, though the characters and places are obvious allegories, they are still characters and places. The cities Christian and his wandering friends visit each have their own distinct qualities, and different things happen in each place Christian visits. Characters and settings are important aspects of a novel.

Fourth, the story contains conflict. Christian's family is not happy that he has left, and of course Christian faces many temptations (in the form of people and places) throughout his journey. Without conflict, the narrative fails to move effectively; this work has constant conflict from the very beginning of the work.

Finally, Bunyan's work has a clearly developed theme which culminates in Christian's arrival at Celestial City. At the Cross, one of the most obvious symbol;s in the writing, Christian's burdens are removed forever; this is in keeping with the theme and allegory, but it also moves the plot forward.

“…just as Christian came up to the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, fell from off his back, and began to tumble down the hill, and so it continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre. There it fell in, and I saw it no more!” 


Perhaps The Pilgrim's Progress is not a novel in the strictest sense of the word as it was defined more than a hundred years ago, but it does contain all the major elements we have come to expect from a novel by today's standards.

monica45 | Student

John Bunyan' s The Pilgrim Progress, was published in 1678 and it is defined a religious allegory, representing the Christian journey from a sinful condition to redemption. Thus as the title suggests, it is a symbolic example which explores the "process" to reach the splendour of Grace.

If we consider the term "novel" and in particular the historical and social context in which it developed, it is possible to understand that Bunyan's work cannot fit properly into that definition. Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel, clearly defines a specific period - the eighteenth century - when the new literary genre emerged along with specific authors such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. The common trace which made them the forerunners of the modern novel is realism. Not only did their main characters, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Pamela, Tom Jones, give the titles to each novel, but they were also deeply rooted in their  evereyday life and events. Furthermore their existence seem to be aimed at a completly earthly reward,  (not at a religious, celestial one) such as surviving on a desert island, or in a city full of threats or dangers; finding a proper husband. Their relationship with God and virtue often contains a practical purpose. Watt suggested the rise of novel reflected the growing power of the middle class, especially of the mentality based on profit and economic expansion, which - even if it was still in line with the Puritan, Calvinistic principles - aimed at practical outcomes which could be also enjoyed in a living and earthly dimension.

The realism which caracterized the eighteenth century novel can be also detected in the individuaity of ecah hero or heroine. Besides the first person narration or the epistolary style, the narrative devices bring the reader to imagine the story as a unique one, really experienced by the protagonists. In other words, we may have the impression that that person really lived in that place, at that particula time. Proper names, topographical details, emphasis on the main character's background conribute to strengthen the sense of realism and individualism of the eighteenth century novel.

For these reasons, Bunyan' s The Pilgrim Progress cannot be read as a novel in the traditional sense. It is possible, however, to detect interesting elements which may have contributed to the development of the literary genre as novel. Despite its symbolic quality, it is told in prose, even if it is strongly connected to the language of the Bible. It contains, however, parts which are linked to the popular story-telling to make it significant and also full of suspense. Furthermore it also displays interesting descriptive passages as Vanity Fair, where still,even if the main frame remains  the Bible, the image of the fair is highly detailed. Finally it is possible to discover geographical and topographical refernces behind the allegorical and fictional places.

In conclusion, even considering that Bunyan' work might have had a strong impact on classical novelists such as Dickens, Thackeray, Mark Twain and Hawthorne ( even if this statement should need futher discussion and study), it is not possible to define it a novel, in particular considering Ian Watt's theoretical assumptions, which look on the novel as the literary genre representative of the capitalistic spirit of the middle class.  




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The Pilgrim's Progress

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