illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Start Free Trial

What are the main events in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The short story "The Celestial Railroad" by Nathaniel Hawthorne has similarities to the famous novel The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, and it even refers to Bunyan's tale in the text. Both stories are descriptions of dreams. However, Hawthorne's story does not have the overt Christian message that Bunyan's does. Additionally, the unnamed narrator in "The Celestial Railroad" does not undertake his journey out of a spiritual need for salvation, but merely "to gratify a liberal curiosity."

In the dream, the narrator has heard that a railway now exists between the City of Destruction and the Celestial City, and he decides to take a ride on it. His companion in his coach is Mr. Smooth-it-away, who has never visited the Celestial City but is familiar with the City of Destruction.

A bridge takes them over the Slough of Despond, and Mr. Smooth-it-away explains that the bridge's foundation is comprised of various books of morality, philosophy, and theology. Christian's friend Evangelist from The Pilgrim's Progress works at the ticket office of the stationhouse at the entrance to the City of Destruction. The stationhouse is crowded with passengers, which the narrator contrasts with Bunyan's solitary pilgrim on foot. Everyone seems to be in a good mood for their journey to the Celestial City. Instead of having to carry their loads on their back, they can simply deposit them in the baggage car. Prince Beelzebub's subjects help to take care of the station and the baggage. Mr. Greatheart from Bunyan's book, who might have helped, has already gone off to the Celestial City.

The engineer of the train, who sits on top of the engine, is the demon Apollyon, Christian's enemy. The narrator applauds the liberality of this arrangement. As they pull away from the station, the narrator comments on the modern convenience of the train as opposed to traveling on foot. As they travel, Mr. Smooth-it-away points out various locations that Christian encountered in Bunyan's book, but they don't have time to stop at these places. The narrator discusses with other passengers how safe their baggage is. He also appreciates the tunnel that passes through the Hill Difficulty and the filling in of the Valley of Humiliation, making it much easier to get past these impediments.

Apollyon races the train rapidly through the Valley of the Shadow of Death as Mr. Smooth-it-away explains away the supposed horrors of the passage. Once they are through, the narrator chats with Mr. Take-it-easy, who prefers the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The train goes through a Dark Valley where the narrator interprets the sins and passions he perceives as mere imagination. It then passes Giant Transcendentalist, who likes to feed on travelers, but gets safely away.

The narrator stops for a time at Vanity Fair, which he enjoys. As he lingers there, he begins to think of it as home. He meets Mr. Stick-to-the-truth and Mr. Foot-it-to-heaven, who explain to him that Vanity Fair is a dead end and will not help him get to the Celestial City. Mr. Smooth-it-away dismisses their arguments, but when the narrator continues on the railroad, Mr. Smooth-it-away stays with him.

The journey resumes, and the train passes other places described in The Pilgrim's Progress. The train finally reaches the final station, and a steam ferry is ready at the river to take the passengers on the last stage of their trip to the Celestial City. At this point, Mr. Smooth-it-away says he will not cross and reveals himself to be a demon, and the narrator awakens from his dream.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad" is a parody of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in which the allegory's main character, Christian, appears in a dream to the author. Like Bunyan's protagonist, Hawthorne's Christian also tries to get “from this world to that which is to come” by fleeing the City of Destruction. But, in "The Celestial Railroad" Christian can take a train rather than make the long pilgrimage on foot, so he opts for the "easy way." But, on the trip, the narrator notices that all the landmarks described by Bunyan are somehow altered. For instance, whereas Christian found Vanity Fair sordid, Hawthorne's Christian notices its attractiveness: the new railroad brings with it great trade and a constant influx of strangers, the lord of Vanity...and the capitalists of the city are among the largest stockholders. Many passengers stop to take their pleasure or make their profit in the Fair, instead of going onward to the Celestial City.

....I can truly say that my abode in the city was mainly agreeable, and my intercourse with the inhabitants productive of much amusement and instruction.

Christian notices that this city now is inhabited with men of the cloth who impart their Christian teachings; such ministers as the Reverend "Mr. Stumble-at-truth," "Mr. This-today" and Mr. "That-tomorrow" contribute. But, Christian speaks to two of the pilgrims on foot who warn him if he remains on the train he will get nowhere because the Lord of the Celestial City has refused to accept "an act of incorporation" for this railroad (which represents blind faith in science), and without that no one can enter the Celestial City.

Clearly, Hawthorne has more sympathy for the stout Puritan pilgrims who are representative of Bunyan's story. However, he also perceives the intolerance of these Puritans and their hostility to science which holds them back from progress. 

Instead of the castle of Despair as in Bunyan's piece, Hawthorne's pilgrim finds it replaced by "Mr. Flimsy-faith," who has repaired the place and offers entertainment. Then, as the train nears its destination, the narrator/pilgrim sees the two pilgrims who warned him at Vanity Fair; they are being accepted into the Celestial City. When the narrator worries about his and the other passengers' reception, Mr. Smoothit-Away tells him "Never fear! Never fear!"

After they board the ferry that they hope will take them to the Celestial City, the narrator asks Mr. Smoothit-Away if he is not coming. With an odd smile, he answers that he is not, but he will see Christian again; as he speaks, smoke is emitted from his mouth and a fire is in his eye. It is then that the narrator realizes that he has been tricked by the devil and the train will never arrive at the Celestial City, but, fortunately he awakens from his dream.

Clearly, Hawthorne admires the stout faith of Bunyan's Christian. However, because Vanity Fair is depicted as having some value, he perceives the Puritan pilgrims as too intolerant against progress and science, as represented by the railroad. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial