The allegory of this book has antecedents in a large number of Christian devotional works that speak of the soul's path to Heaven, from the Lyke-Wake Dirge forward. Bunyan's allegory stands out above his predecessors because of his simple and effective prose style, steeped in Biblical texts and cadences. He confesses his own naïveté in the verse prologue to the book:
- "I did not think To shew to all the World my Pen and Ink In such a mode; I only thought to make I knew not what: nor did I undertake Thereby to please my Neighbour; no not I; I did it mine own self to gratifie."
John Bunyan himself wrote a popular hymn that encourages a hearer to become a pilgrim-like Christian: All Who Would Valiant Be.
Because of the widespread longtime popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress, Christian's hazards — whether originally from Bunyan or borrowed by him from the Bible—the "Slough of Despond", the "Hill Difficulty", "Valley of the Shadow of Death", "Doubting Castle", and the "Enchanted Ground", his temptations (the wares of "Vanity Fair" and the pleasantness of "By-Path Meadow"), his foes ("Apollyon" and "Giant Despair"), and the helpful stopping places he visits (the "House of the Interpreter", the "House Beautiful", the "Delectable Mountains", and the "Land of Beulah") have become commonly used phrases proverbial in English. For example, "One has one's own Slough of Despond to trudge through."
Context in Christendom
The explicit Protestant theology of The Pilgrim's Progress made it much more popular than its predecessors. Bunyan's plain style breathes life into the abstractions of the anthropomorphized temptations and abstractions that Christian encounters and with whom he converses on his course to Heaven. Samuel Johnson said that "this is the great merit of the book, that the most cultivated man cannot find anything to praise more highly, and the child knows nothing more amusing." Three years after its publication (1681), it was reprinted in colonial America, and was widely read in the Puritan colonies.
Because of its explicit English Protestant theology The Pilgrim's Progress shares the then popular English antipathy toward the Roman Catholic Church. It was published over the years of the Popish Plot (1678–1681) and ten years before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and it shows the influence of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments. Bunyan presents a decrepit and harmless giant to confront Christian at the end of the Valley of the Shadow of Death that is explicitly named "Pope":
Now I saw in my Dream, that at the end of this Valley lay blood, bones, ashes, and mangled bodies of men, even of Pilgrims that had gone this way formerly: And while I was musing what should be the reason, I espied a little before me a Cave, where two Giants, Pope and Pagan, dwelt in old times, by whose Power and Tyranny the Men whose bones, blood ashes, &c. lay there, were cruelly put to death. But by this place Christian went without much danger, whereat I somewhat wondered; but I have learnt since, that Pagan has been dead many a day; and as for the other, though he be yet alive, he is by reason of age, and also of the many shrewd brushes that he met with in his younger dayes, grown so crazy and stiff in his joynts, that he can now do little more than sit in his Caves mouth, grinning at Pilgrims as they go by, and biting his nails, because he cannot come at them.
When Christian and Faithful travel through Vanity Fair, Bunyan adds the editorial comment:
But as in other fairs, some one Commodity is as the chief of all the fair, so the Ware of Rome and her Merchandize is greatly promoted in this fair: Only our English Nation, with some others, have taken a dislike thereat.
In the Second Part while Christiana and her group of pilgrims led by Greatheart stay for some time in Vanity, the city is terrorized by a seven-headed beast which is driven away by Greatheart and other stalwarts. In his endnotes W.R. Owens notes about the woman that governs the beast: "This woman was believed by Protestants to represent Antichrist, the Church of Rome. In a posthumously published treatise, Of Antichrist, and his Ruine (1692), Bunyan gave an extended account of the rise and (shortly expected) fall of Antichrist."
Foreign language versions
Beginning in the 1850s, illustrated versions of The Pilgrim's Progress in Chinese were printed in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Fuzhou and widely distributed by Protestant missionaries. Hong Xiuquan, the quasi-Christian leader of the Taiping Rebellion, declared that the book was his favorite reading.
Little did the missionaries who distributed The Pilgrim's Progress know that the foreigners would appropriate it to make sense of their own experiences. Heaven was often a place designed to resemble what they had gone through in life. For example, in South Africa, a version was written where the injustices which took place in that country were reformulated.
There are collections of old foreign language versions of The Pilgrim's Progress at both Elstow's Moot Hall museum, and at the John Bunyan Museum in Mill Street Bedford.
The "Third Part"
The Third Part of the Pilgrim's Progress was written by an anonymous author; beginning in 1693, it was published with Bunyan's authentic two parts. It continued to be republished with Bunyan's work until 1852. This third part presented the pilgrimage of Tender-Conscience and his companions.
The book was the basis of an opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams, premiered in 1951; see The Pilgrim's Progress (opera). It was also the basis of a condensed radio adaptation starring John Gielgud, including, as background music, several excerpts from Vaughan Williams's orchestral works. This radio version, originally presented in 1942, was newly recorded by Hyperion Records in 1990, in a performance conducted by Matthew Best. It again starred Gielgud, and featured Richard Pasco and Ursula Howells.
English composer Ernest Austin set the whole story as a huge narrative tone poem for solo organ, with optional 6-part choir and narrator, lasting approximately 2½ hours.
References in literature
Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838) is subtitled 'The Parish Boy's Progress'.
In 1847 William Makepeace Thackeray entitled his work Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero with the Vanity Fair of Pilgrim's Progress in mind.
Mark Twain gave his 1869 travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, the alternate title The New Pilgrims' Progress. In Twain's later work Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry Finn mentions The Pilgrim's Progress as he describes the works of literature in the Grangerfords' library. Twain uses this to satirize the Protestant southern aristocracy.
E. E. Cummings also makes numerous references to it in his prose work, The Enormous Room.
"The Celestial Railroad", a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, recreates Christian's journey in Hawthorne's time. Progressive thinkers have replaced the footpath by a railroad, and pilgrims may now travel under steam power. The journey is considerably faster, but somewhat more questionable...
John Buchan was an admirer of Bunyan, and Pilgrim's Progress features significantly in his third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which also takes its title from one of Bunyan's characters.
Alan Moore in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen enlists The Pilgrim's Progress protagonist, Christian, as a member of the earliest version of this group, Prospero's Men, having become wayward on his journey during his visit in Vanity Fair, stepping down an alleyway and found himself in London in the 1670s, and unable to return to his homeland. This group disbanded in 1690 after Prospero vanished into the Blazing World; however, some parts of the text seem to imply that Christian resigned from Prospero's league before its disbanding and that Christian traveled to the Blazing World before Prospero himself. The apparent implication is that; within the context of the League stories; the Celestial City Christian seeks and the Blazing World may in fact be one and the same.
In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, whose protagonist Jo reads it at the outset of the novel, and tries to follow the good example of Bunyan's Christian.
The cartoonist Winsor McCay drew an allegorical comic strip entitled "A Pilgrim's Progress" in the New York Evening Telegram. The strip ran from 26 June 1905 to 18 December 1910. In it, the protagonist Mr. Bunion is constantly frustrated in his attempts to improve his life by ridding himself of his burdonsome valise, "Dull Care".
C. S. Lewis wrote a book inspired by The Pilgrim's Progress called The Pilgrim's Regress, in which a character named John follows a vision to escape from The Landlord, a less friendly version of The Owner in Pilgrim's Regress. It is an allegory of C. S. Lewis' own journey from a religious childhood to a pagan adulthood in which he rediscovers his Christian God.
Henry Williamson's The Patriot's Progress references the title of The Pilgrim's Progress and the symbolic nature of John Bunyan's work. The protagonist of the semi-autobiographical novel is John Bullock, the quintessential English soldier during World War I.
The character of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-5: The Children's Crusade, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a clear homage to a similar journey to enlightenment experienced by Christian, although Billy's journey leads him to an existential acceptance of life and of a fatalist human condition. Vonnegut's parallel to The Pilgrim's Progress is deliberate and evident in Billy's surname.
Charlotte Brontë refers to Pilgrim's Progress in most of her novels, including Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette. Her alterations to the quest-narrative have led to much critical interest, particular with the ending of Jane Eyre.
A classic science fiction fan novelette, The Enchanted Duplicator by Walt Willis and Bob Shaw, is explicitly modeled on The Pilgrim's Progress; it has been repeatedly reprinted over the decades since its first appearance in 1954: in professional publications, in fanzines and as a monograph.
Enid Blyton wrote The Land of Far Beyond as a children's version of Pilgrim's Progress. First published in 1942 by Methuen.
John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath mentions The Pilgrim's Progress as one of an (anonymous) character's favorite books. Steinbeck's novel was itself an allegorical spiritual journey by Tom Joad through America during the Great Depression, and often made Christian allusions to sacrifice and redemption in a world of social injustice.
The book was commonly referenced in African American slave narratives, such as "Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom" by Ellen and William Craft, where it would serve to emphasize the moral and religious implications of slavery.