John Bunyan, author of the immortal allegory The Pilgrim's Progress (1678, 1684), was born in 1628 in Elstow, near Bedford, to Thomas Bunyan and his second wife, Margaret Bentley Bunyan. Not much is known about the details of Bunyan's life; his autobiographical memoir, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), is concerned with external events only as they impinge upon spiritual experience. His family was humble though not wholly impoverished, and after learning to read at a grammar school he became a brazier or tinker like his father, following an itinerant trade which seems to have been much despised at the time.
The year 1644, when Bunyan was sixteen, proved shockingly eventful. Within a few months his mother and sister died; his father married for the third time; and Bunyan was drafted into the Parliamentary army, in which he did garrison duty for the next three years. He never saw combat, from which he seems to have thought himself providentially spared, since he reports that a soldier was killed who was sent in his place to a siege. Nothing more is known about Bunyan's military service, but he was unquestionably impressed by a church that was military as well as militant, and his exposure to Puritan ideas and preaching presumably dates from this time.
The central event in Bunyan's life, as he describes it in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, was his religious conversion. This was both preceded and followed by extreme psychic torment. Under the influence of his first wife (whose name is not known) Bunyan began to read works of popular piety and to attend services regularly in Elstow Church. At this point he was still a member of the Church of England, in which he had been baptized. One Sunday, however, while playing a game called "cat" on the village green, he was suddenly arrested by an interior voice that demanded, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?" Since Puritans were bitterly opposed to indulgence in Sunday sports, the occasion of this intervention was no accident, and Bunyan's conduct thereafter was "Puritan" in two essential respects. First, he wrestled inwardly with the guilt and self-doubt that William James, writing of Bunyan in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1929), characterized as symptomatic of "the divided self." Second, he based his religion upon the Bible rather than upon traditions or ceremonies. For years afterward, specific scriptural texts would speak themselves unbidden in his head, some threatening damnation and others promising salvation. Suspended between the two, Bunyan came close to despair, and his anxiety was reflected in physical as well as mental suffering. At last he happened to overhear some old women, sitting in the sun, speak eloquently of their own abject unworthiness, and this liberated him into an intuition that those who feel their guilt most deeply have been chosen by God for special attention. Like St. Paul and like many other Puritans, he could proclaim himself the "chief of sinners" and thereby declare himself one of the elect.
While he was never wholly free from inner disquiet, Bunyan's gaze thenceforward was directed outward rather than inward, and he soon gained a considerable local reputation as a preacher and spiritual counselor. In 1653 he joined the Baptist congregation of John Gifford in Bedford; Gifford was a remarkable pastor who greatly assisted Bunyan's progress toward spiritual stability and encouraged him to speak to the congregation. After Gifford's death in 1655 Bunyan began to preach in public, and his ministrations were so energetic that he gained the nickname "Bishop Bunyan." Among Puritan sects, the Bedford Baptists were moderate and pacific in their attitude. Doctrinally they stood to the left of the Presbyterians, who differed from the Anglicans mainly on points of church government, but to the right of the many "antinomian" sects that rejected dogma or revised it in a myriad of imaginative ways. Bunyan's first published work, Some Gospel-Truths Opened (1656), was an attack on the Quakers for their reliance on inner light rather than on the strict interpretation of Scripture. Above all Bunyan's theology asserted the impotence of man unless assisted by the unmerited gift of divine grace. His inner experience and his theological position both encouraged a view of the self as the passive battleground of mighty forces, a fact which is of the first importance in considering the fictional narratives he went on to write.
Bunyan's wife died in 1658, leaving four children, including a daughter who had been born blind and whose welfare remained a constant worry. He remarried the following year; it is known that his second wife was named Elizabeth, that she bore two children, and that she spoke eloquently on his behalf when he was in prison. The imprisonment is the central event of his later career: it was at once a martyrdom that he seems to have sought and a liberation from outward concerns that inspired him to write literary works. Once the Stuart monarchy had been reestablished in 1660, it was illegal for anyone to preach who was not an ordained clergyman in the Church of England, and Bunyan spent most of the next twelve years in Bedford Gaol because he would not undertake to give up preaching, although the confinement was not onerous and he was out on parole on several occasions. Grace Abounding appeared in 1666. After 1672 the political situation changed, and except for a six-month return to prison in 1677, Bunyan was relatively free to travel and preach, which he did with immense energy and goodwill. Bunyan's principal fictional works were published during the post-imprisonment period: the two parts of The Pilgrim's Progress in 1678 and 1684, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman in 1680, and The Holy War in 1682. Most of the rest of Bunyan's sixty publications were doctrinal and homiletic in nature.
Bunyan died in 1688 after catching cold while riding through a rainstorm on a journey to reconcile a quarreling family, and was buried at the Nonconformist cemetery of Bunhill Fields in London. By 1692 a folio edition of his works had been published, together with a biographical sketch that includes this portrait: "As for his person he was tall of stature, strong boned though not corpulent, somewhat of a ruddy face, with sparkling eyes, wearing his hair on his upper lip after the old British fashion; his hair reddish, but in his latter days time had sprinkled it with grey; his nose well set, but not declining or bending; and his mouth moderate large, his forehead something high, and his habit always plain and modest."
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a relatively short narrative of about a hundred pages, stands unchallenged as the finest achievement in the Puritan genre of spiritual autobiography. Its origins lie in the personal testimony that each new member was required to present before being admitted to the Bedford congregation, and Bunyan's allusions to St. Paul in the preface suggest that he intended the published work as a kind of modern-day Epistle for the encouragement of believers. Determined to tell his story exactly and without rhetorical artfulness, Bunyan promises to "be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was." What follows is a deeply moving account of inner torment, in which God and Satan vie for possession of the anguished sinner by causing particular Biblical texts to come into his head; Bunyan exclaims grimly, "Woe be to him against whom the Scriptures bend themselves."
In passing, Bunyan conveys a strong impression of a life filled with outward troubles, for instance when he speaks of "my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces." But biographical details are mentioned only when they are necessary to explain spiritual experience, which is described with harrowing clarity and honesty. Many Puritans suffered as Bunyan suffered, but only Bunyan had the gift of expressing his story in unforgettable metaphors. "O how gingerly did I then go, in all I did or said! I found myself as on a miry bog, that shook if I did but stir." Again, "I did liken myself in this condition unto the case of some child that was fallen into a mill-pit, who though it could make some shift to scrabble and sprawl in the water, yet because it could find neither hold for hand nor foot, therefore at last it must die in that condition."
For Bunyan, salvation is attainable only through the most strenuous effort, effort made possible only by the unmerited grace of God. Bunyan recounts "a kind of vision" in which the Bedford believers were separated from him by a high mountain with a narrow door in it. Repeated assaults on the door were in vain, until at last "me thought I at first did get in my head, and after that, by a sideling striving, my shoulders, and my whole body; then I was exceeding glad, and went and sat down in the midst of them, and so was comforted with the light and heat of their sun." But this experience occurs relatively early in the narrative, and one's final impression is of an unceasing oscillation between hope and fear, from which Bunyan is liberated only by energetic labor on behalf of other people and by unflinching commitment to an existential leap of faith. "If God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder [gallows] even blindfold into eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell; Lord Jesus, if thou wilt catch me, do; if not, I will venture for thy name."
Experience in Grace Abounding is represented as a succession of discrete moments, each of which is pregnant with spiritual significance. Other kinds of experience are largely ignored, and no attempt is made to organize the narrative as a causal sequence. The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan's fictional masterpiece, is committed to the same way of representing life: individual moments are elaborated in themselves rather than connected after the fashion of a conventional plot. Although Bunyan's allegory is an important ancestor of the eighteenth-century novel, it uses the realistic world of everyday experience only as a metaphor for the world of the spirit. The title page clearly announces Bunyan's subject: The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. A set of verses that conclude the book emphasize the didactic message, and also the reader's obligation to detect that message: "Put by the curtains, look with in my veil;/Turn up my metaphors, and do not fail...." Bunyan's metaphors, and the language in which they are expressed, are drawn directly from the Bible, and specific texts are constantly invoked (often in marginal annotation) to ensure that the reader gets the interpretation right.
Most of the didactic works of Bunyan's era have vanished into oblivion. His allegory's power derives from the imaginative force with which he brings didactic themes to life and the wonderfully living prose in which he dramatizes the conflicts of the spirit. The unforgettable opening paragraph, with its strong monosyllables and active verbs, surrounds the reader at once with the atmosphere of urgency: "As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled: and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, 'What shall I do?'" The den is Bedford Gaol, in which Bunyan found himself inspired to develop this artistic "dream"; the book is the Bible; the burden is the sinfulness of Christian, the story's hero. Whereas Grace Abounding was explicitly about Bunyan himself, The Pilgrim's Progress is about everyman.
The normal world of most novels, from the point of view of someone like Bunyan, would belong to the City of Destruction from which Christian flees, putting his fingers in his ears to block out the pleas of his family. He leaves them behind and enters a world of mental space, in which interior experience is given external embodiment. His trials and adventures follow no particular sequence, for life itself is full of repetitive challenges. Sometimes he fights against armed men or ogres or beasts; at other times he engages in debate with plausible tempters such as Talkative and Mr. Worldly-wiseman, or enters into companionship with a fellow pilgrim such as Faithful. Certain moments, however, are crucial: after his conversion Christian goes through the Wicket Gate (the "strait and narrow" entrance of the Gospel) and sets out along the Way; when he reaches a cross, he sees a vision (as he later explains) of the crucified Christ, and the burden falls from his back; and after long journeying he reaches the tranquillity of Beulah Land, where he can wait at his ease until it is time to cross the river of death and enter the heavenly city.
Three of the most famous episodes can serve as instances of Bunyan's allegorical method: Christian is benighted in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, mocked in Vanity Fair, and imprisoned by the Giant Despair in Doubting Castle. Vanity Fair represents everything in this world which the Puritans despised, and accordingly it holds no attractions for Christian, who endures humiliation patiently until he is set free. But the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Doubting Castle represent spiritual conditions into which Puritans were in serious danger of falling, and they are therefore represented as frighteningly oppressive. Stumbling in darkness, Christian cannot hope to prevail by his own efforts, but must commit himself without reservation to the power of God's grace. "When Christian had travelled in this disconsolate condition some considerable time, he thought he heard the voice of a man, as going before him, saying, 'Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear none ill, for thou art with me.'" The text from the Twenty-Third Psalm liberates the pilgrim from a scene which had been, in the first place, elaborated from the imagery of that psalm and other scriptural texts. The Bible provides both context and solution for Bunyan's allegorical narrative, surrounding and pervading it at every point.
Similarly, the way to escape from Doubting Castle is not to stand up and fight--the Giant Despair will always be stronger than the afflicted believer--but to accept the absoluteness of divine grace. "Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech, 'What a fool,' quoth he, 'am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a key in my bosom, called promise, that will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting-Castle.'"
Episodes such as these treat despair and similar states of mind as entirely external: despair is a giant who attacks one, not an intimate part of oneself. They reflect very accurately Bunyan's psychological experience, in which he did indeed feel helpless in the face of external threats, so that the very words that occurred to his imagination seemed to enter his mind from outside. The allegory of The Pilgrim's Progress offers a means of clarifying and understanding that experience. The self is seen as unified and determined--Christian manfully fighting the good fight--while those aspects of the self that seem unacceptable are projected outside and thereby made manageable. If despair is within one, then it is hard to know how to fight it; if despair is an alien persecutor, then it is possible to unlock the prison door and leave it behind. This was very much the message of Grace Abounding, but that book was filled with the relapses and anxieties of an author who could never be sure that he was free. The Pilgrim's Progress translates spiritual suffering into terms that are more universal and also more aggressively positive, intended for the encouragement of its readers.
The Puritans were assiduous autobiographers: life, as they saw it, cried out for interpretation, containing hidden clues to God's will and to their own election or reprobation. Just as the reader is expected to interpret the incidents in The Pilgrim's Progress, Christian himself receives an extended tutorial in interpretation when he visits Interpreter's House. A series of emblematic scenes is presented to him, and each scene is expounded by Interpreter, who quotes a crucial text from 2 Corinthians: "For the things that are seen, are temporal; but the things that are not seen, are eternal." The Pilgrim's Progress derives its energy and interest from the vividness of its narrative, but that narrative is only a screen, as it were, behind which the true story waits to be revealed. In the concluding verses Bunyan explicitly counsels the reader to do what Christian has done:
Now reader, I have told my dream to thee,
See if thou canst interpret it to me,
Or to thyself or neighbour: but take heed
Of misinterpreting; for that instead
Of doing good, will but thyself abuse:
By misinterpreting evil ensues.
Later novels, even those with didactic intent, offered tales of "real" life and allowed the reader to enjoy them for themselves, meanwhile imbibing moral lessons along with the story. Bunyan, who loved romances of knights and dragons but like other Puritans rejected them as immoral fictions, adapted their techniques to an allegorical mode in which the visible is only a mask for the invisible, and in which everything depends on interpreting rightly. One of the most persuasive speakers in the book is the "very brisk lad" Ignorance, who remains ignorant because he has not opened his heart to the sole truth of the Word, and who disappears at the end into a trapdoor that leads to damnation. "Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream."
The second part of The Pilgrim's Progress (1684) can be dealt with more briefly. Whereas the first part represents the private experience of the solitary soul, the second part dramatizes collective experience. Christiana and her children entrust themselves to the wise guidance of an experienced leader, Mr. Great-heart, and with his help they are able to avoid many of the trials into which Christian had impetuously stumbled. Bunyan felt greatly tempted by the sin of pride, and it may be surmised that he is here recommending the submissive course which he himself, like Christian, often failed to follow. Mr. Great-heart says that religious experience is not unvarying, and that a person will meet with those trials that he or she deserves. "For the common people when they hear that some frightful thing has befallen such an one in such a place, are of an opinion that that place is haunted with some foul fiend, or evil spirit; when alas it is for the fruit of their doing, that such things do befall them there." The cast of characters grows in the second part, and most of the newcomers sustain the pattern of patient obedience: Christiana's humble companion Mercy is hesitant even to attempt the journey lest she be unworthy; Mr. Fearing trembles at every hint of danger but is assured of safe passage to heaven. The second part is more like a novel than the first, in that it displays its characters in collective action. But the first part, with its profound dramatization of psychic disturbance and recovery, has much more to offer the novelists who were later to draw upon it.
In the six years between the two parts of The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan published two other fictional works. The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) is not an allegory, and its novelistic realism has often been remarked upon. The scene is the familiar world of shops and family life, and questions of social and mercantile ethics are explored at considerable length. The story is distanced, however, by being presented in a dialogue between Mr. Wiseman, who provides a running moral commentary on the events he relates, and Mr. Attentive, who interjects questions and observations of his own, and occasionally shows understandable signs of impatience. If Christian and Christiana were among the Calvinist elect, Badman is decisively one of the reprobate. From earliest infancy he is unremittingly wicked, in spite of the efforts of pious and loving family, friends, and employers. Badman marries (to the subsequent grief of his virtuous wife) from purely financial motives; he cheats his customers ruthlessly; he is sexually profligate; and worst of all, he dies unrepentantly but peacefully, proving that the Lord's vengeance is not always visibly enacted in this world. Much of the book is filled out, however, with alarming anecdotes from published collections Bunyan knew in which notorious sinners are swallowed up by the earth or snatched through barred windows in a flurry of blood. Whereas The Pilgrim's Progress is preeminently the story of the aspiring soul as seen from within, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman is a meditation, entirely from the outside, upon the behavior of the damned.
Less known than it deserves to be is Bunyan's other great allegory, The Holy War (1682). If The Pilgrim's Progress dramatizes the popular Puritan metaphor of life as wayfaring; The Holy War develops the equally popular metaphor of spiritual warfaring. The tale is at once an allegory of the individual soul and of the history of the Christian church. The town of Mansoul is infiltrated by the agents of Diabolus, who win over the governor, Mr. Willbewill, and various other characters representative of mental faculties. Shaddai (God), who dwells far away, sends his son Prince Emmanuel to win the town back, but after a temporary period of rejoicing it relapses, he departs, and Diabolus reappears in force, entering the town after a successful assault on the Eargate. This time it is far more difficult to recover from slavery to sin, and when Emmanuel at last consents to return, he can only conquer Mansoul after an extended battle, and after abject protestations of repentance on the part of the citizens.
The allegory of The Holy War derives from a medieval tradition that symbolized the self as an embattled fortress, while its narrative details are drawn directly from the recent civil wars Bunyan had seen firsthand. "Oh, the fearful state of Mansoul now! Now every corner swarmed with outlandish Doubters; red-coats and black-coats walked the town by clusters, and filled up all the houses with hideous noises, vain songs, lying stories, and blasphemous language against Shaddai and his Son." During the civil wars the metaphor had become reality; the imagery of spiritual combat, which is as old as the Epistles of Paul, enacted itself in a war that Puritan militants regarded as truly holy. But Bunyan, writing during the Restoration when Puritans were enduring relentless persecution, was drawn to the metaphor above all because it expressed the fragmented and helpless state of the embattled self. The Pilgrim's Progress dramatizes the outward militancy of the elect soul, The Holy War its passive endurance in a state of siege which its own disloyalty to God has brought about. Here, more than ever, Bunyan's tendency to externalize unwanted impulses finds expression: just as in The Pilgrim's Progress despair was projected outward as a brutal giant, so in The Holy War the doubts that afflict Mansoul are "outlandish," alien invaders from without.
In The Pilgrim's Progress grace was a mysterious power, usually mediated by agents such as Evangelist or Mr. Great-heart, who helped Christian and the other pilgrims to confront their trials successfully. In The Holy War it is visibly embodied in the direct agency of God, operating in the form of Christ (Emmanuel), that must overwhelm the sinful resistance that prevents even the elect soul from freely opening its gates to Him. In The Pilgrim's Progress man does the fighting; in The Holy War God does. "Yea, let him conquer us with his love and overcome us with his grace, and then surely shall he be but with us and help us, as he was and did that morning that our pardon was read unto us." In The Pilgrim's Progress man keeps constantly on the move in a pilgrimage whose goal is the heavenly city, even if at times the "progress" is repetitive and obstructed. In The Holy War man can do nothing but wait, trusting to the savior who will one day return and put the besieging forces to rout. As Emmanuel says at the very end in language drawn from the Book of Revelation, "O my Mansoul, how have I set my heart, my love upon thee, watch! Behold, I lay none other burden upon thee than what thou hast already. Hold fast till I come."
Bunyan's fictions arise from a particular religious faith in a particular historical setting. The Life and Death of Mr. Badman is the most conventional, and the least energetic dramatically. The Pilgrim's Progress and The Holy War serve as complementary expressions of Puritan experience, and if The Pilgrim's Progress has turned out to have the most lasting appeal, that is not necessarily because it is more accomplished as a work of literature. The Holy War, despite its imaginative power, is imprisoned within a deterministic Calvinism that few readers, from the eighteenth century onward, have found appealing. The embattled yet passive self continues to exist as a psychological type but in fiction is best suited to the kind of narrative that explores personality (or character) in a quasi-biographical manner. In The Holy War, where the self is dispersed into a host of warring factions, modern readers tend to find the treatment disappointing or disturbing or both.
The Pilgrim's Progress, on the other hand, though no longer the best-seller that it was for over two centuries, presents a permanently attractive image of fighting the good fight, confronting the never-ending threats and confusions that attack the self both from within and without, and winning through to a condition of permanent peace. It too is founded firmly upon Calvinist theology, but its positive emphasis, together with its superb use of traditional romance and adventure motifs, has made it attractive to readers who share few of Bunyan's beliefs. And its allegorical presentation of inner life proved seminal in the conception, sixty years later, of the first English novel. Robinson Crusoe, Defoe makes his hero say in a later work, is "an allusive allegoric history" of a traditional kind: "Such are the historical parables in the Holy Scriptures, such The Pilgrim's Progress, and such, in a word, the adventures of your fugitive friend, Robinson Crusoe."
— Leopold Damrosch, Jr., University of Maryland