Read an Excerpt
From David Hawkes’s Introduction to The Pilgrim’s Progress
To understand fully The Pilgrim’s Progress, we must remember that it was written in prison. Imprisonment is its major theme, and escape from prison is its primary purpose. Although Bunyan was without a doubt incarcerated in the literal, physical sense while he composed his work, he did not believe that he was truly in jail. He was convinced that, as Richard Lovelace had written in “To Althea, from Prison” (1642), “Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage,” and Bunyan echoed the sentiment in his own “Prison Meditations” (1665; quoted from The Works of John Bunyan, edited by George Offor, vol. 1, p. 64; see “For Further Reading”):
I am, indeed, in prison now
In body, but my mind
Is free to study Christ, and how
Unto me he is kind.
For though men keep my outward man
Within their locks and bars,
Yet by the faith of Christ I can
Mount higher than the stars.
As far as Bunyan was concerned, the real prisoners were outside the walls, in the world. The Pilgrim’s Progress aims to establish two deeply counterintuitive propositions: that its author is not in jail, and that its readers are. But while Bunyan argues that the world is the prison of the soul, he also offers us a way to escape from the world. The book’s subtitle, From This World to That Which Is to Come, indicates our ultimate destination, but the world “to come” is to be reached by a way not measurable in space or time. The pilgrim’s progress is not a literal journey along a physical road, but an exercise in semiotics: a reinterpretation of the world. As Stanley Fish puts it, Bunyan’s work teaches us that “the truth about the world is not to be found within its own confines or configurations, but from the vantage point of a perspective that transforms it” (Self-consuming Artifacts, p. 237).
In the course of his journey the hero, named Christian, learns to understand the world as an allegory. He comes to perceive his experience as a series of signs that point toward nonmaterial, spiritual referents, and this constitutes his liberation. But before he can escape from prison, he must become aware that he is in one. The progress toward an allegorical interpretation of reality is simultaneously a process of alienation from the mundane world of experience. The Pilgrim’s Progress shows us a man who becomes a stranger to the world, to the extent of rejecting empirical sense perception, as well as the laws, morality, and behavioral standards of society. The first lesson Christian learns after his conversion is that “Mr. Worldly Wiseman is an alien.”
Allegory has often been described as a suitable mode to represent the alienated, objectified character of worldly experience. This line of reasoning originates with Walter Benjamin’s seminal analysis of the genre in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928). Benjamin argues that allegory’s purpose is to teach us that the experiential world—the “carnal” or “fleshly” dimension, in Bunyan’s terms—is fallen into a disharmonious relation with its Creator: “Allegory itself was sown by Christianity. For it was absolutely decisive for this mode of thought that not only transitoriness, but also guilt should seem evidently to have its home in the province of idols and of the flesh” (p. 224). Plato had argued that, because the material world is transitory, it is also illusory, and to take empirical appearances for reality thus constitutes a philosophical error. But Christianity introduced an ethical dimension to this argument. From the Christian perspective, taking appearances for reality is not only erroneous, but also sinful, and in The Pilgrim’s Progress, understanding this fact is the first step on the way to redemption. This is a paradoxical operation, however, for the process of understanding that creation is alienated from the Creator simultaneously involves the recognition of another, spiritual, realm to which the carnal world points the way.