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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949

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First published: 1680

Type of work: Allegorical dialogue

Type of plot: Religious allegory

Principal Characters:

Mr. Badman, a sinner

Mr. Wiseman, a man who tells about Badman’s career

Mr. Attentive, a listener


Practically every literate speaker of English has heard of THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and its author, John Bunyan. Less well-known to readers, however, are Bunyan’s other writings, including THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MR. BADMAN PRESENTED TO THE WORLD IN A FAMILIAR DIALOGUE BETWEEN MR. WISEMAN AND MR. ATTENTIVE. There are reasons, of course, for modern neglect of Bunyan’s other works. First, there are relatively few readers attracted to the vast bulk of seventeenth century religious writings in our time. Second, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MR. BADMAN, being a didactic work, seems sententious and dull to the modern reader. Third, the moral viewpoints expressed by Bunyan in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MR. BADMAN sound strange in this century, so foreign are the writer’s ideas to those prevalent in our time.

In one sense, however, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MR. BADMAN is a companion piece to THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS. The latter work shows the Christian, devoted and obedient, winning his way to the rewards of righteousness, while the former illustrates what happens to the sinner who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge his evil ways and insists upon leading a depraved existence throughout a life that can be characterized only as evil, regardless of whether one agrees wholeheartedly with Bunyan’s code of ethics in its entirety. The protagonist of the story, as it is related in dialogue, is Mr. Badman. He has all the evil in his heart one could possibly imagine. Unlike the typical hero of picaresque fiction, Mr. Badman has no aspect that can endear him to the reader. Bunyan expected his readers to feel that the sooner Mr. Badman received punishment, the better; there is no need to shed tears over such a character.

Bunyan’s technique in presenting the story of Mr. Badman is to have Mr. Wiseman, the author’s spokesman, relate the story of Badman’s life shortly after the sinner’s death. Mr. Wiseman’s listener, aptly named Mr. Attentive, not only listens carefully but also draws out the details of the narrative when Mr. Wiseman lags. The dialogue form is an old one, used for ages to bring edifying material to the reader and force him into the role of a passive participant.

Possibly the most striking characteristic in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MR. BADMAN is the insistence upon moral free choice and the assurance on the part of Bunyan that all moral responsibility rests with the individual. Bunyan had no room in his theories for environmental determinism. The idea that the environment—family, the community, society in general—could be blamed for an individual’s wrongdoing could not be fitted into Bunyan’s moral philosophy. In the early pages of the dialogue between Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive, putting the words into Mr. Wiseman’s mouth as he speaks of Mr. Badman, Bunyan wrote:

I will tell you that from a child he was very bad; his very beginning was ominous, and presaged that no good end was in likelihood to follow thereupon. There were several sins that he was given to when he was but a little one, that manifested him to be notoriously infected with original corruption; for I dare say he learned none of them of his father or mother, nor was he admitted much to go abroad among other children that were vile, to learn to sin of them; nay, contrariwise, if at any time he did get abroad amongst others, he would be as the inventor of bad words and an example in bad actions. To them all he used to be, as we say, the ringleader and master sinner from a child.

Mr. Attentive agrees wholeheartedly with the theory voiced by Mr. Wiseman, saying that certainly evil ways come from within the individual rather than, as most people believe today, from without.

The burden of the career of Mr. Badman is that one sin begets another. As a small child Badman, who has, says Bunyan, a host of equivalents in every generation, begins by lying and stealing from other members of the household, and he goes on to invest himself with almost the entire catalogue of sinfulness. Swearing, whoring, drinking, faithlessness in marriage, hypocrisy, and many other sins are committed by Badman during his lifetime.

Each mention of a new sin as the story of Mr. Badman’s life progresses sends Mr. Wiseman or Mr. Attentive off into a sermon or series of examples. Scholars have pointed out that the examples Bunyan used in the dialogue were often borrowed from other writers, in whose books Bunyan had found them during his own reading. Bunyan accepted the stories he used as examples as fact, just as Cotton Mather was willing to accept signs of “Divine Providences” when they helped him to prove a point to his congregation or his readers.

There is no need to wonder why Bunyan wrote this dialogue of a sinner’s progress, for he makes his purpose abundantly clear in an address to the “Courteous Reader.” The world, says Bunyan again and again, is full of sinful people, and Mr. Badman has his relatives in every family and household. Convinced that there are so many sinners, Bunyan hopes to spread a word that may either convert or confound. Even Bunyan’s Courteous Reader is viewed by the author as a possible (even probable) sinner, and he is asked to consider carefully whether he is treading in Mr. Badman’s path to perdition.