Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058
The seventeenth century’s literary greatness began with such dramatic works as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) and The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). To the seventeenth century belongs the height of Jacobean drama, the flowering of the sonnet, and the achievements of Renaissance lyric poetry. Such works may all be considered literary products of a Humanistic century—they are the high-water mark of Humanistic philosophy with its belief in the importance of humanity and of human interests. In the middle of Humanism’s great artistic accomplishment appeared John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The full title of the work published in 1678 is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is Come. In 1684, Bunyan published The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is Come the Second Part.
The Pilgrim’s Progress reaches back to medieval literature for its dream-vision form; Bunyan’s narrator goes to sleep and dreams his fable of the Christian religion. Bunyan’s “novel” is a classic example of the multifaceted nature of a literary century, reflecting as it does the popularity of the conversion story during the time. What is more significant, the work shows with much skill one of the most attractive qualities of the age, for Bunyan draws on his Humanist contemporaries and their techniques to make his tale of the salvation of a soul one of the unique masterpieces of English literature.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is usually classified as a novel, but according to traditional definitions of the novel genre, The Pilgrim’s Progress is decidedly too predestined in the outcome of its plot to make it engaging, as a novel should be. The work is also so allegorical that one may decide that it is not a novel, since novels generally are somewhat realistic. It is Bunyan’s literary genius that endowed the book with classic appeal. The success of The Pilgrim’s Progress, as distinguished from the countless other stories of personal salvation that were written at about the same time, is its ability to show the Christian experience through the character Christian’s eyes. By making all the pitfalls, the specters of doubt and fear, and the religious terror that Christian experiences real to this believable, impressionable narrator, Bunyan makes them just as real to his reader. Therefore, the reader of the book is really not any more sure than Christian that his salvation is assured. Bunyan has struck a true and profound element of Christianity through his use of the Humanistic technique of viewing events through the eyes of his narrator.
Christian is a gullible, hence believable, character. He understands, perhaps too well for his own soul’s well-being, the doubts and terrors that plague the would-be good Christian. Christian understands how one may lose faith under dire and trying conditions. Christian himself suffers through his commitment to his faith. His journey is a test of endurance; the straight-and-narrow path is not necessarily filled with rejoicing, as Bunyan shows.
For example, Christian and his companion traveler, Hopeful, find a meadow paralleling their way and an inviting stile to help them cross the fence. So they choose the easier path. After a while, it becomes pitch dark, and they lose their way. To make matters worse, a traveler ahead of them falls into a pit and is “dashed in pieces with his fall.” Christian and Hopeful rush to the pit and hear only groans. The two of them repent and muster courage to return to the river. By now, the waters have risen greatly, adding to their dangers. “Yet they adventured to go back, but it...
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is so dark, and the flood is so high, that in their going back they had like to have been drowned nine or ten times.” These are the perils and dangers of trying to be a Christian in the world. With a stroke of genius, Bunyan turns what could be a dry, pessimistic sermon into high adventure.
Bunyan seemed most productive in his own life when under duress. The Pilgrim’s Progress was begun and largely written during prison terms that Bunyan served for preaching without a license. A Baptist minister, he was a religious outlaw after the Restoration restored the Church of England, but he refused to stop preaching. Originally arrested in 1660 and sentenced to three months, he eventually served twelve years because he continued to preach. During these years, he wrote his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666).
In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan considers himself to be a chief sinner, and he relates the experiences of his dissolute youth and of his reckless membership in the parliamentary army for three years beginning when he was sixteen years old. Therefore, readers assume that Christian’s trials in The Pilgrim’s Progress originated in real life with a man who knew temptation.
The Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more than one hundred languages over the centuries, and the simple story’s appeal continues. It combines biblical language and the subject of simple folk in a combination that has brought it popularity. Bunyan’s ability to draw pictures with words has no doubt aided the novel’s classic success. One critic has noted that Bunyan seems to have thought in pictures. Bunyan heightens the dramatic effect of his story, for example, with the picture of Christian opening the book at the beginning of the dream, reading, weeping, and asking, “What shall I do?”
Bunyan was apparently a simple man, or at any rate, he had a keen sense of priorities about his life. In his autobiography, he does not name his father or mother, and he hardly mentions such ordinary points in time as his birthplace or home. Such lack of detail indicates a literary intention: Bunyan aims, in his autobiography, to universalize his experience. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners tends to emphasize Bunyan’s own personal conflicts, while playing down other people in his life. Bunyan understood well what was real to him, and it is this sense of realism that has made The Pilgrim’s Progress a classic. The Pilgrim’s Progress is thoroughly convincing in describing the momentousness of Christian’s experiences. Bunyan’s ability to convey this significance endows the novel with the enduring quality of universality.