The Good Book
Everybody used to read 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Now you should, too.
Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By BARTON SWAIM
Pilgrim's Progress is among the most powerful arguments ever made for the primacy of the individual conscience. The story's villains don't want to kill Christian so much as persuade him to abandon his pursuit. Apollyon himself offers to spare Christian's life, "if now thou wilt turn again, and go back." In that respect, at least, Pilgrim's Progress is as essential to the American character as the Declaration. No book had greater influence over the development of American piety. And the evidence of that influence is all around us: There is no higher virtue in our politics than "staying true to your principles, regardless of the cost."
What makes the book so special? How is it that an allegory told by an unlettered latter-day Puritan--a Baptist whose intellectual interests extended to the Bible and a few other books--can hold so much power for believers of every Christian tradition--and, indeed, for agnostics and unbelievers as well?
Part of the answer lies in the sheer simplicity of its idiom. It is surely the least self-consciously literary book in English literature. Bunyan's story isn't quite an allegory in the usual sense, for the word allegory--a story intended to illustrate something else--implies an element of artifice that's plainly absent from Pilgrim's Progress.
An allegory is the thing signified, not the thing itself, but Bunyan constantly threads between the two. Sometimes Christian is a pilgrim traveling to the Celestial City; sometimes he is a Christian believer laboring to maintain his belief in a world of doubt and cynicism; somehow he is both simultaneously. The effect is magical: The reader sits poised between the real and the unreal, with the result that "suspension of disbelief," as Coleridge had it, seems weirdly unnecessary.
But what really makes Pilgrim's Progress a great book is what makes all great books great: its author's insight into what makes people behave as they do. Bunyan had a marvelous gift for presenting human propensities in the abstract, but doing so in ways that strike one as deeply--indeed uncomfortably--familiar. Everyone has a favorite passage; my own appears in part two when Christiana (Christian's wife, who makes the journey in part two) visits the house of Interpreter.
Interpreter shows Christiana and her fellow pilgrims a room where there was
a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand. There stood also one over his head with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered to give him that crown for his muck-rake; but the man did neither look up, nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, the dust of the floor.
Interpreter--this is an allegory within an allegory--explains that the spectacle "lets thee know that earthly things when they are with power upon men's minds quite carry their hearts away from God." He continues: " 'Give me not riches' is scarce the prayer of one of ten thousand. Straws and sticks and dust with most are the great things now looked after."
With its archaic diction and its severe, sometimes terrifying vision of religious life, Pilgrim's Progress isn't an easy read. But it has the power to lift one's gaze, if just for a moment, from straws and sticks and dust. It's worth the effort.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.