Great Novel No. 1: “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World, To That Which Is To Come

By John Bunyan


There is probably no better work to begin a history of the English novel than The Pilgrim’s Progress (check out the full title on the original title page). Not necessarily because it’s a perfect example of the form, but because of almost exactly the opposite. From a modern perspective, this is a rotten novel. There are no chapters, none whatsoever, and the plot seems to go any which way it pleases without any regard for the rules of narrative structure. Moreover, that story is clearly designed to do one thing and one thing only: preach a message. Metaphors are not subtle and imagery is direct.

I don’t say this as criticism. None of this actually makes The Pilgrim’s Progress a bad book. Just a hard one to read for those accustomed to the conventions of modern prose storytelling. Those conventions were anything but in place during the 17th century. In fact, most of Restoration literature that isn’t drama takes the form of poetry, usually lengthy, and the prose that is prominent is non-fictional. (In fact, this particular book comes with an “apology” at the beginning, written in verse.) Any novels read in England at the time were translated from other languages, being from other countries; the word “novel” itself comes from the Italian word meaning “new”. This was a new way of telling stories. It wouldn’t take too long for it to become the most widespread and popular one.

Published in 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress came at an uneasy time in England. Less than twenty years before, the English Civil Wars had finally subsided with the Restoration of the monarchy and the coronation of Charles II. Though the conflicts had many facets and causes, a primary source of the schism was faith-based. Before the wars the Church of England held sole spiritual authority (according to the government, at any rate) and the Puritan sect played a significant role in Parliament’s revolution against the king. John Bunyan, though not himself a Puritan, enlisted in the Parliamentary army and returned to his trade after the fighting was over. He converted to Christianity in his 20s and grew to become a notable Baptist preacher in and around his home town. This got him into trouble with the Anglican Church when it returned to power and he was imprisoned for a number of years throughout his lifetime for refusing to join the state-sanctioned “true faith”. It was during those periods of imprisonment that he took up his pen and began to write–and joined a long line of lettered men and women who spent time behind bars.

Given that he was a preacher it should come as no surprise that The Pilgrim’s Progress is so didactic. Bunyan is very open in his desire to instruct rather than merely entertain with his narrative. In many ways the book treads a fine line, seeming to dip its toe in the fictional waters rather than jump in from the diving board. Bunyan even feels the need to frame the narrative as a dream. This actually allows his narration to appropriately take on some of the style of Biblical literature, especially the book of Revelation; he is constantly beginning new scenes with phrases like “Now I saw in my dream,” and, “Then I looked and saw,” making him sound like nothing so much as a prophet having a vision of the way God sees the world.

The visionary language of course extends to the tale itself. It is not written at all like any modern book would be. Instead it takes the form of a medieval genre known as Allegory. Allegory is a slightly abused word today; we generally use it as a substitute word for metaphor, and as if the meaning of the story is hidden beneath the surface (sometimes just beneath). But this isn’t the way Bunyan or other allegorists wrote. As I said before, the meaning of the story is anything but hidden: A man named Christian lives in the City of Destruction. He reads in a book and cries out in woe because it makes him aware of a great burden that is on his back and which condemns him to death along with his home and family. He meets another man named Evangelist who shows him the way to a gate that opens onto a straight and narrow road that leads directly to the Celestial City and to a King who will not only receive Christian but also remove his burden.

To make sure readers got the point, the margins of the original edition included not only explanations of some of the symbols but also Bible verses that Bunyan quotes throughout his text (both descriptively and by the characters themselves). It is telling that the margins also include frequent summaries of certain paragraphs, presumably to help guide people through this long prose story that most would be unable to read at one sitting.

Even the characters are barely characters; I would in fact describe them as archetypes. They have no function but to personify abstracts and their names are signifiers of their nature: Christian, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Faithful, Ignorance, Hopeful, and Judge Hategood. The places through which Christian journeys make up a shifting dreamscape and dramatize into imagery the trials and triumphs of real life. The Slough of Despond, a Palace called Beautiful, a town called Vanity; and the Valley of the Shadow of Death is, at least here, a very real and dangerous gorge of perpetual night. There are even monsters along the way like the beast Apollyon whom Christian fights soon after being given the full regalia of the Armour of God. The giant Despair traps Christian and Hopeful in the dungeon of Doubting Castle and tries to convince them to commit suicide. And the teaching is not limited to the plot itself. The people within it have arguments and conversations about theology as they walk along the road of their totally symbolic lives.

It may seem too much for most of today’s readers, but there is no denying the immediacy and power of Bunyan’s writing. History has proven that, given that the book has never been out of print in the centuries since its publication. It is still sometimes used today in certain Christian circles as a teaching tool. I have vivid memories of taking part in a school play based on it.

As I said, The Pilgrim’s Progress may just be the perfect place to start this journey through a history of the English language novel. The concept of a novelist has not truly been born. The form is in its infancy, or at best its toddler years. We are still learning how to walk when it comes to long prose fiction. Many people take Robinson Crusoe as the first true novel. If we accept that then I would classify both The Pilgrim’s Progress and Oroonoko (the next item on the list) as “proto-novels”. Trying something different, but still clinging to the old forms. Not fully matured, but wealthy in all the chaotic beauty of youth.


From ‘The Author’s Apology For His Book’:

Would’st thou divert thy self from Melancholly?

Would’st thou be pleasant, yet be far from folly?

Would’st thou read Riddles, and their Explanation,

Or else be drownded in thy Contemplation?…

Would’st thou be in a Dream, and yet not sleep?

Or would’st thou in a moment Laugh and Weep?

Wouldest thou lose thy self, and catch no harm?

And find thy self again without a charm?

…O then come hither,

And lay my Book, thy Head and Heart together.

(For more on the 100 Great Novels Project, see this post.)

2 thoughts on “Great Novel No. 1: “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

  1. Nice review, Steve. Having just come out of two restoration classes, there were many items you described that I’m used to seeing in novels, particularly the overt name choices as archetypes. It’s interesting that the narrator is so very intrusive in this “novel” and in many others at the time because the trend was so inconsistent. There were so few characteristics shared among the early novel, it’s no wonder why there is such difficulty determining when the novel got its official start. I’ve always heard it said in my classes that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela was the first novel.

    • “Pamela” is definitely another contender, and it is on the list. But then there are so many problems with trying to identify it; I just went with the one I heard the most often. How interesting that the one you’ve heard the most often is different from mine. 🙂

      Something I realized I forgot to mention in the original review. During conversations, character headings as in a play script take precedence over “he said” dialogue tags. Sometimes they’re even used together. Nor are there quotation marks, but those weren’t being used at the time anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s