In The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, John Bunyan strove to dramatize through allegory the pilgrimage that a Christian must undertake to get safely “from this world to that which is to come.” Bunyan’s protagonist, Christian—warned by the allegorical figure Evangelist to flee the “wrath to come”— forsakes a wife and four children (the same number Bunyan left behind when he went to prison in 1660) when they refuse to accompany him, despite the chidings and ridicule of neighbors. Although two neighbors, Obstinate and Pliable, try to drag him back by force, he manages to make it through the Slough of Despond and past Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who counsels him against Evangelist’s preaching, to the Strait Gate through which one must pass to go to the Celestial City. Good Will opens the Gate for him when he discovers Christian’s brokenhearted repentance for sin.
Entering the Gate, Christian makes his way to Interpreter’s House (suggested perhaps by the church at Bedford), where Interpreter enlightens him from Scriptures about the difficulties of the journey and explains how he can overcome them. Rested and illumined, Christian heads directly to the cross, where the heavy burden of sin and guilt he has borne fall immediately from his back. He proceeds with greater confidence without this burden, but he faces difficulty all along the way, constantly tempted to leave the path by such figures as Simple, Sloth, Formalist, Hypocrisie, Timorous, and Mistrust. Resting after an arduous climb up the hill Difficulty, he reads from his Roll (the Scriptures) for encouragement, then places it under his head and goes to sleep. When he awakens, he leaves without the Roll and has to return “with sorrow” to find it, for he cannot reach the Celestial City without it.
At the Porter’s Lodge, Watchful, Piety, Prudence, and Charity supply much-needed encouragement and, still fearful for the rest of the journey, arm him with Sword, Shield, Helmet, Breastplate, All-Prayer, and Shoes that will not wear out. They also show him a vision of the Delectable Mountains of Immanuel’s Land within sight of the Celestial City. Thus outfitted, Christian overcomes Apollyon (the Destroyer) in hand-to-hand combat. All-Prayer enables him to pass unharmed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death that winds just above Hell itself. There Christian overtakes Faithful, who shares with him the cost of discipleship. Along the way, they encounter Talkative, whose faith “hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation,” but rather “all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his Religion is to make a noise therewith.” Extended conversation with Talkative gives Christian and Faithful a chance to explain what true religion consists of: an experimental confession of faith in Christ; a life answerable to that confession (a life of holiness); and, above all, the practice of faith.
Upset with the peevishness of the pilgrims, Talkative bids them farewell. Once again, Evangelist appears and encourages them just in time, for they now reach Vanity Fair, which has claimed the lives of many faithful pilgrims. The Fair offers for sale all sorts of worldly merchandise. Not unexpectedly, fairgoers take offense at the clothing, speech, and disdain of the pilgrims and consequently beat Christian and Faithful, smearing them with dirt, locking them in a cage, and ridiculing them. When the brash pair preach and win some converts, Judge Hate-Good and a jury composed of no-goods of Vanity try and condemn Faithful to death. Christian, however, though remanded to prison for a time, manages to escape.
No sooner has Christian lost Faithful than he is joined by Hopeful...
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for the last leg of his journey. Deceptive company and dangerous temptations still lurk along the way, trying to lure them astray. They nearly perish at Doubting-Castle, owned by the giant Despair and his wife Diffidence, but Hopeful helps Christian overcome his depression by recalling previous victories. Just when the giant is ready to destroy them, Christian finds a key in his bosom, called Promise, that will open any lock in Doubting-Castle. They come quickly to the Delectable Mountains and are within sight of the Celestial City.
Shepherds—Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere—feed them and direct them to the right path, warning them to beware of flatterers and not to sleep on the Enchanted Ground. Ignorance joins them, thinking he can enter the Celestial City even though he has not passed through the Strait Gate, and keeps them company the rest of the way. Little-Faith, a good man from the town of Sincere, joins them in time to get a lecture about Esau’s selling of his birthright and about the courage of Christian. Flatterer nearly diverts them from the way, but Christian and Hopeful pass through the Enchanted Ground without going to sleep and enter safely into Beulah Land, where angels meet them.
One danger still stands between them and the Celestial City: the River of Death. Their hope in Jesus Christ, however, gives them courage to pass through to the other side. Ignorance reaches the very gates of the heavenly Jerusalem but is thrown into outer darkness because he has entered as a thief and robber. Only the pilgrims who have come by the way of the Wicket Gate were welcomed.
The story of Christiana, which Bunyan added in 1694, repeats his theme of the Christian pilgrimage, and most of the personae are the same. Great-Heart, however—who plays a nominal role in Christian’s saga—becomes the hero and guide in Christiana’s, lending the male power that her feminine sensibilities are thought to require and fighting her battles on her behalf. Christiana’s journey lacks the terror and sheer drama of Christian’s. By this time, Bunyan seemed ready to open heaven’s gates more readily for those who would claim some morsel of sincerity. None of the pilgrims has to pay the price Faithful did; the age of persecution has passed.