Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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Pilgrim's Progress | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

John Bunyan as the author and narrator of the story tells it as a dream he once had while wandering through "the wilderness of this world." In the dream he sees a man named Christian who is greatly troubled at learning that his city will soon be destroyed by fire. Christian tries to convince his family to escape with him, but they refuse to listen and suspect him of being mentally unsound. The despondent Christian is greeted by a man named Evangelist, who tells him to leave the city and seek out the "Wicket-Gate"—a narrow gate. Christian, who carries a large burden on his back, listens to Evangelist's instructions and resolves to follow them.

Leaving his family behind, Christian heads for the Wicket-Gate, but his neighbors Obstinate and Pliable catch up with him. He explains his plan to escape the city and convinces Pliable, but not Obstinate, to join him. The two hurry onward but soon fall into a bog called the Slough of Despond. Pliable thrashes about briefly and then turns back toward the city. Christian struggles his way out of the bog with the assistance of a man called Help, who explains that the Slough is created by the filth of sin, and that the servants of the king (God) are constantly trying to turn it into solid ground.

Walking along further, Christian encounters Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who promises him an easier way out of his burdens. He tells Christian of a nearby town called Morality where a father-and-son team, called Legality and Civility, live. These gentlemen, Worldly Wiseman says, can help Christian remove the burden on his back without all the trouble of going through the Wicket-Gate and beyond. Christian is fooled into taking Worldly Wiseman's advice, but he encounters a hazardous-looking mountain on the way to Morality. Evangelist catches up with him and warns him that Civility and Legality are frauds. The only way to salvation, he reiterates, is through the narrow gate.

Analysis

The first words of the narrator in The Pilgrim's Progress, "As I walked through the wilderness of this world," are remarkably similar to the opening lines spoken by the pilgrim and narrator in Dante's description of the pilgrim/narrator in The Inferno. This reads, "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost." The similarities between these lines might lead to speculation that Bunyan had been inspired by this epic poem, but there is no evidence that Bunyan could read Italian, and The Divine Comedy was first translated into English a good 500 years after Bunyan's lifetime. There is some possibility that Bunyan might have heard someone conversant in Italian, which was not unusual among the English aristocracy, read cantos from The Divine Comedy aloud, verbally translating or perhaps paraphrasing passages of it to English listeners. It must be noted, however, that although Dante was pointedly critical of members of the papacy he placed in various parts of hell, an Italian Catholic writer in direct reference to religious practice would have been viewed by English Separatists—the group to which Bunyan belonged—as heretical, especially since it contains references to Pagan mythology, and the pilgrim's guide in it is the Pagan Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE). It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Dante's story might have been told to listeners as a secular rather than a religious story, perhaps along the lines of the English author Geoffrey Chaucer's (1342/43–1400) The Canterbury Tales in which a group of pilgrims journey to various holy shrines in England together.

The Evangelist who first gives Christian good advice on what to do reappears later to redirect the pilgrim when the way is lost. It is speculated that the person behind this character is Bunyan's mentor, Gifford, who not only experienced some of the same youthful vices in military service as did Bunyan, but repented his sins and turned to a religious life as the pastor of a Separatist (Calvinistic) Baptist congregation in Bedford. This pattern of youthful excess followed by stark conversion echoes the autobiographical Confessions (c. 400) of St. Augustine, who "helped lay the foundation for ... modern Christian thought." The idea here is that a person can't know what is right without first experiencing wrong firsthand, and it is explored by many spiritual writers, including Dante, who, as the pilgrim in The Divine Comedy, must first pass through the subterranean depths of Inferno before being ready to ascend to Purgatory and Paradise.

The Wicket-Gate is an important symbol in The Pilgrim's Progress. As a narrow passageway and the only opening that will lead to the Celestial City, the Gate implicates the rite of baptism, or a spiritual rebirth. The American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) sheds some light into what must have been a long-standing spiritual meaning of a wicket gate by stating in his book, Mosses From an Old Manse and Other Stories (1846), that pilgrims to cathedrals were admitted inside through this smaller gate that, "by its inconvenient narrowness, was a great obstruction to the traveler of liberal mind."

It may seem odd that a book about religion sets such little store by morality, per se. Bunyan goes to the trouble of inventing a town named Morality, then locates it at the end of a dangerous detour, not along the way to salvation. It may seem that morality, in Bunyan's estimation, is to be avoided. But to understand the point Bunyan is making about morality here, it helps to look at who lives in the town: Legality and Civility. The people who take refuge in morality, without seeking for anything greater, are for Bunyan mere followers of the law (Legality) or custom (Civility). They are not foolish or dangerous because they are moral; rather, as Bunyan sees it, they are fools because they believe that living a moral life (by their own definition) is sufficient, and they are dangerous because they attempt, with some success, to convince other people of this viewpoint. Bunyan argues instead that it is only by passing through the Wicket-Gate, which represents a scripturally informed faith and deliberate acceptance of God's grace, that one can be saved. It's inadequate to be merely a moral person, a follower of the law, or a courteous neighbor. A good Christian, in Bunyan's view, need not be an especially nice person. In fact, some of the holy pilgrims in Part 2 are downright cantankerous.

The broader theme here, which is that there are no shortcuts or detours to salvation, will be reprised in subsequent chapters as a whole cast of characters try to get to the Celestial City without going through the Wicket-Gate or without bravely facing the various obstacles in the road beyond the gate. Through their foolishness or frailty, these unsuccessful pilgrims will be duped or cajoled into taking a road that seems safer or more convenient but doesn't actually lead to the Celestial City. As in the old proverb, these roads to hell are often paved with good intentions—reaffirming that, for Bunyan, good intentions are not enough.

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