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For a person who is not familiar with the Christian doctrine, John Bunyan’s seminal work helps create a world, ruled by the beliefs, fears, and hopes that are the established keystones, of the life of any god-fearing Christian. He has described in great detail, his arduous journey through a lot of trials and tribulations. It is only his undying hope and belief in the promise of a place in the hereafter, to him a place of undying bliss, which conveys him from one world to the next. Right from the time he begins his journey from his native town, the main character in the book demonstrates a tenacity of will that is nothing short of remarkable.
The purpose of this essay is to point out, in as much detail as possible, the allegorical allusions to the Christian way of life, or in short, the biblical teachings that are vital to the existence of the principal characters.
Allegory as the principal theme
John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is a leading example of allegory right from the beginning to the end. Whether one is talking about the names of the characters in his book or the places that are described, there is a repeated return to what is supposed to be literary allusions to the Bible and Christian dogmas. While talking about the various places that the principal character of the book moves through, there is an allusion to the vagaries or in other words, the ups and downs of life; there is a pattern that has been followed that looks at allegorical allusions right through the book.
There are a few passages in the book, however, where the pattern of allegory is reduced to virtual non-existence. This is obvious in the description of the Bond Woman and Mount Sinai. It is true that in all novels that purport to be totally allegorical, there are passages that do not fit into the description of the same. On the other hand, there are passages where there is a clear depiction of what the author is trying to depict, rather than allude to some biblical or Christian reference. Therefore, it would be relevant to state that The Pilgrim’s Progress is by and large a study in allegory and a rich one at that.
The beginning of the tortuous trail
While referring to the spiritual journey that is undertaken by the principal character of the book, Christian, one cannot but help to wonder whether this is a ‘trail’ or a ‘trial’. He leaves his hometown, which is the “City of Destruction” on his own with a lot of burdens on his back. This is probably one of the first references to the ‘burden’ of ‘original sin’ that is part of the cross that every righteous Christian has to bear. By setting off on his own, he proves that it is the salvation of his soul that is at stake and hence does not have much time or empathy for the misery of his wife and children.
Allusions to the highs and the lows
There is a clear indication in the book that the journey to heaven is fraught with all sorts of obstacles. Going through the “Slough of Despond” is indicative of being caught up in the quagmire of depression and self-pity. Fleeing from the fires of his native town implies that he is moving out of the fires of hate and despair towards a place where peace and spirituality reign.
The name “Valley of Humiliation” might sound negative, but it is not depicted as such in the book. It refers to the humiliation suffered by Jesus Christ when he had to bear his cross right up to the spot where he was crucified. On the other hand, the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is a difficult stretch to cross as it symbolizes a journey between two very perilous places. Another indication that the celestial journey is an uphill one, is the mention of another place, the “Hill Difficulty”, which is actually bordered by two very hazardous paths called “Danger” and “Destruction”.
There are quite a few references to places of rest that Christian makes during his journey. For instance, the “House Beautiful” is a resting place for all pilgrims who can view a range of mountains, which is actually imagery of the vast Christian congregation that is also on a spiritual journey. The other places that are covered include “Vanity and Vanity Fair” and also “By-Path Meadow” and “Hill Lucre”, places that showcase various ‘temptations of the flesh.
There are brief periods of respite such as “Plain Ease” where the pilgrim sits down to admire the work of God and is spurred on to reach his celestial goal as quickly as possible.
The allegorical allusions reach their zenith in the description of “The Land of Beulah” and the “The Celestial City”. The former refers to verdant stretches that are symbolic of the gardens of Eden prior to the fall of man. The latter refers to the final goal of spiritual progress, the pilgrim’s progress that has to reach its logical end. Here again, there is a pointed reference to the location of this celestial abode, which in the book is situated atop a hill.
One of the most important references that Bunyan makes to the exclusive pathway to heaven is the “Wicket Gate”. It is an inconspicuous feature of most farmlands and Bunyan has used it to depict that this is the narrow way that best describes the surest path to the gates of heaven. It is a point of entry and only those who are prepared to pass through it can be assured of a place in heaven.
The words of Psalm 23 best describe the unshakeable faith that is expressed by the chief character, Christian: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” He is painfully aware of all the pitfalls on the way and is careful to avoid them as best as he can. He also knows that a slight misstep might cause him to be swallowed up into the gaping chasm or hole, a.k.a. hell, from which he has no hope of salvation. With the promise of heaven burning like a flaming torch, he moves towards his goal.
Though there is the predominance of allegory in the book, what is intriguing is, even in places where one would like to believe that what is written is indicative of what is actually present and is actually non-allegorical in nature, the author goes back to his allegorical style with aplomb, in order to cover the ups and downs of life here to reach the hereafter.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1957.
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Psalm 23, The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. U.K. The Gideons International. 1977.