One of the most obvious themes in The Pilgrim's Progress is that of the pilgrimage or journey. Bunyan writes the allegory entirely as a journey. Christian's temporal journey moves from the City of Destruction to the City of Zion. However, the more significant journey is the one that happens inside a pilgrim. This happens when the person realizes the blessing of their election and changes his or her life to devote it to the Gospel. Ultimately, Christian must "cross the river," or die trying and join the Father in Heaven, which the ultimate achievement of the journey. However, before arriving at this point, he must face many obstacles along the way.
Bunyan makes sure to underscore the importance of the proper sequence of the pilgrimage. It is not an option for a pilgrim to start and stop as he or she pleases, or to undertake the journey with personal designs. From the very beginning, the reader understands that this particular type of journey is prescribed by a greater power, and that only a few can succeed. Bunyan often describes the path as narrow, with tragic outcomes for the pilgrim that strays (75). Moreover, a pilgrim can only gain entrance to the path through divine intervention. For example, the Evangelist comes to Christian, and Secret visits Christiana. It is only by the Evangelist's good information that Christian knows where the Wicket Gate even is, and thereby can enter the path. The Wicket Gate itself is a scriptural allusion to the gate described in Luke 13:24, through which few will be able to pass (see p. 15). Later on, when Christian meets Formalist and Hypocrisy on his journey, it becomes clear that they have not entered via the gate. Christian then quotes John 10:1, telling them "he that cometh not in by the Door, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a Thief and a Robber" (47).
Another important aspect of the journey theme is that it means the protagonists are travelers, and thus, have given up residence in the civilized world. A crucial aspect of the Puritan experience was the understanding that by choosing such a faith, a pilgrim voluntarily renounced the fetters of the material world.
The Limitations of Human Perception
Bunyan makes it clear in the text that humans are blinded by virtue of their fallen-ness, and thus, often have trouble seeing the divine truth. Indeed, every time that Christian strays from his course, it is due to the limitation of his perception. In the Slough of Despond, Christian doesn’t see the stairs until Help points them out (20). Immediately after that, Christian is easily deceived by Mr. Worldly Wiseman and goes down the path to Morality (27ff.). When the Evangelist comes to find Christian, he asks him why he did not see that Mr. Worldly Wiseman was leading him into a trap. Following that, the whole purpose of Christian's visit to the Interpreter’s house is to expand the boundaries of his understanding, and for him to learn to perceive meaning in symbols that he would otherwise find unintelligible. Furthermore, Faithful explains that man’s corrupted nature is the reason that he often has trouble discerning true works of grace (96-97). Bunyan makes the point throughout the narrative is that even good Christians, such as Christian, are blinded because of their inevitable fallen humanity.
A person needs constant vigilance and dedication to the faith to avoid the pitfalls that such limited perception can lead to, a quandary that Bunyan alludes to repeatedly throughout the text. At the end of Part II, in the haze, the band of pilgrims must rely on their faith to lead them to the right, for the path is obscured and “they walked not by sight” (323). Christian, too, must follow the words of the Evangelist, who represents the Gospel, which is the substance of Christian’s faith. Christian’s faith in God saves the pilgrims from the dungeon of Giant Despair. A night of prayer results in Christian finding the key to their escape within himself (135). Sleep (of the dreamless variety) generally represents the lack of vigilance that leads to trouble. A pilgrim's perception of reality is especially compromised while he or she is slumbering (in sleep, “man perceiveth not,” p. 246), and the pilgrims who have fallen asleep often serve as a cautionary tale. For example, when Christian falls asleep at an unappointed time, he loses the roll that confirms his election (51).
As Christian’s pilgrimage advances, his faith gets stronger. Concurrently, his perception increases because his faith deepens, and so does his awareness of the things that might delude him. He is never perfect in his assessment of reality, but he certainly does progress spiritually throughout his journey.
The Role of Fear in Faith
Fear plays an important role in the pilgrimage of Christian and the other pilgrims. Bunyan believes that the “fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom”. He repeats this truth twice, verbatim, (once in each part of the text, see p. 168 and 279). Christian also experiences inspiration by the fear of God firsthand. After he has seen all the visions at the Interpreter’s, he says that he has been filled with both hope and fear (44). However, Bunyan makes it clear that the fear of God is valuable, but it is different from the fear that results from cowardice. To fear God is to be in awe of and believe in his mercy, power, and grace, while to be frightened holds no such virtue.
Christian often overcomes this second type of fear, and at one point realizes that “to go forward, is Fear of death, and Life everlasting beyond it: I will yet go forward” (51). It is significant that Christian overcomes the fear and does not let it hinder his faith or his progress. Meanwhile, Mr. Fearing exemplifies not only this second kind of fear, but a general lack of conviction, which slows his progress and unnecessarily burdens him. Though Mr. Fearing is bold (277), Bunyan does not advocate for the kind of Christianity that he represents. He believes that it is better to be like Christian and stand up for one’s beliefs, than to be paralyzed by fear and worry. In Bunyan's time, to be a Christian was often a scary thing, but having faith in God and the ultimate triumph of the good, Bunyan reassures his readers, can allay those fears and inspire courage.
One of the central themes in Pilgrim's Progress is imprisonment and the subsequent struggle for liberation. Bunyan wrote the first part of the book while he was in jail, and therefore, the pilgrims' struggle for liberation from the temporal world is central to the text. Time and again, Bunyan’s characters find themselves in prison, particularly in Part I. Christian sees a man in an iron cage at the Interpreter’s house (41); Christian and Faithful are jailed in Vanity-Fair (106-114); Christian and Hopeful are imprisoned by Giant Despair (131ff.) and again by the Flatterer (151). In all of these cases, the deliverance from prison comes from some internal revelation or divine intervention, which readers can interpret as manifestations of God’s grace. God’s grace is always the means of liberation. The physical prisons represent the spiritual imprisonment of a non-believer. Bunyan makes this point explicitly in certain moments. For instance, when he describes the creatures in the Valley of the Shadow of Death who “there sat bound in affliction and irons” (74). Hawkes notes that this is one particular section where Bunyan expresses, in no uncertain terms, the reality of a spiritual imprisonment.
In several sections, Bunyan also writes about bondage and the struggle for liberation from spiritual imprisonment. The material world keeps people in bondage, such as Hopeful, and a catalyst, like the martyrdom of Faithful, is required to liberate him. In Reformation theology, sin was seen as a kind of bondage, from which humanity was freed by Christ’s death on the cross. Bunyan illustrates this theological point when the sight of the cross causes Christian’s burden to tumble from his back (45). In this moment, Christian is liberated from his sin, and again, the reader is led to understand that grace is the liberating force.
The Alienated Community
Although it may seem counter-intuitive to some readers, alienation and community go hand in hand in The Pilgrim’s Progress. The life of the pilgrim is a difficult one, and Christian often meets with scorn, malice, and ignorance. A pilgrim exists temporally in one world while simultaneously renouncing it and pursuing another means that the life of a pilgrim is filled with constant denial and anticipation. In one sense, the pilgrims are completely alienated from the material world which they were born into. In Vanity-Fair, for instance, Christian and Faithful’s creedal differences are manifested in their unusual clothing and the foreign language that they use (104-105). The locals are immediately recognize the pilgrims as outsiders. They choose their alienation freely, but the fact that it is self-willed does not lessen their suffering.
Even though the pilgrim must alienate himself from the world of most men, it does not mean that he must be alone. Except for the very first part of his journey, Christian is never alone. Indeed, even when he is by himself, he often finds himself in community of people filled with goodwill. It is clear throughout the text that the individual cannot complete the pilgrimage without the assistance of others. The fallen nature of humanity and man’s resulting blindness will always get in the way, and pilgrims can help to guide each other through rough spots. Bunyan makes it clear that he thinks it is all right for pilgrims to ask for help and to rely on good souls around them.
The reality of the alienated community is typified by the church. In the second part of the book, the company of pilgrims represents this church community, which is welcoming and ever-expanding, but is still alienated from the world, like Christian was. The pilgrims in Part II rely on each other for strength and truthful dialogue. Feeble-mind, for instance, benefits greatly from the community. Great-Heart tells him they will not desert him and “will deny ourselves something both Opinionative and practical, for [his] sake” (296). In return for this unwavering support, the pilgrim must not forsake or compromise the community. Christianity is, in its essence, a neighbor-oriented faith, and though an individual relationship with God should be maintained, the pilgrimage should be undertaken with like-minded souls. This is a fact which Bunyan makes resoundingly clear throughout the entirety of the work.
The Violent Fight for Faith
A persistent theme in in The Pilgrim’s Progress is that faith and truth cannot triumph without a fight, and that fight is often violent. The pilgrim's struggle for faith is an active one indeed, and the military imagery and violence in the text reinforces that fact. At the Interpreter’s House, Christian sees a vision in which a man wields a sword and hacks his way into heaven (41). Further along the road, at the Beautiful Palace, Christian sees the armory, which contains weaponry for pilgrims to protect themselves, as well as a museum of weapons that biblical figures used (65). In the Valley of Humiliation, Christian finds himself in mortal combat with Apollyon, the first of many.
Great-Heart, the guide, is equipped with only three named implements: a helmet, a shield, and a sword (230). He is also well-versed in scripture and theology, but the gear that he puts on is explicitly for physical defense. The weaponry is not just a precaution, because Great-Heart’s sword is incredibly active on the journey, killing giants and monsters with skill and courage.
The aggression and violence that the pilgrims perform in the text is neither wanton nor unwarranted. They often act in self-defense, or for the protection of future pilgrims. However, when other people, not pilgrims, enact violence in the text, it is often unjustified. Giant Despair kills the trespassers on his grounds, which seems excessive, and the burning of Faithful seems absurd because he had not committed any transgression. Through Faithful, Bunyan makes a commentary on the excessive violence towards dissenters in Restoration England. As Bunyan was frequently persecuted, the fight for the triumph of truth was often literally violent, and he brings out this reality throughout the text.
Power of the Word
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan emphasizes the power of the word, God’s or otherwise, in the pilgrim’s quest. First and foremost, the text abounds with scriptural allusions, which Bunyan's readers would have been very familiar with. Biblical literacy was of primary importance to the Puritans, and the weight of scripture cannot be underestimated. Indeed, almost the first image of the text is of Christian being affected to conversion by what he has read in his Book, which the reader can assume to be the Bible (13). Therefore, the Word of God is the catalyst of the entire plot.
Even when it is not scripture, the written word plays an important role in the text. Often, warnings or instructions appear on signposts so that pilgrims know to be alert. The Wicket Gate, for instance, has instructions over the top of it. Along the journey, the pilgrims often erect monuments with warnings for other pilgrims, often with the heads of monsters they have killed.
The words of scripture are as powerful when verbalized as they are when read, and the characters often quote scripture to one another. They also speak aloud to comfort themselves and one another, as when Christian is in the Valley of the Shadow of Death (77). Moreover, the pilgrims spend a great deal of time of their pilgrimage in conversation, and Bunyan uses these dialogues as an opportunity to communicate theology to his readers. The written word as scripture was the crux of Puritanism, and accordingly, the word is an exceptionally important motif in this seminal Puritan text.
Pilgrim’s Progress Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Pilgrim’s Progress is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.