Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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Pilgrim's Progress | Part 1, Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Christian hurries on to the Wicket-Gate and, arriving there, knocks repeatedly. He is greeted by Good-will, who opens the gate and quickly pulls Christian in. Beelzebub, he explains, has a castle nearby, with archers who try to shoot down pilgrims before they can get through the gate. After asking Christian a little about his journey so far, Good-will describes the next step of the journey: a straight and narrow path from which there is no turning aside. He then sends Christian on toward the house of the Interpreter, who will show Christian "excellent things."

Arriving at the Interpreter's house, Christian finds himself in a kind of museum. The Interpreter first shows Christian a picture of "a very grave person" holding "the best of books" and speaking "the law of truth," with a golden crown hanging over his head. This person, the Interpreter says, is the only one who can guide pilgrims in their greatest difficulties. Next comes a large and spacious room that is first dusted by a man with a broom, an action that kicks up choking clouds. Then a maiden arrives and sprinkles water over the place to make it easier to clean. This, the Interpreter explains, is the soul, swept by the law and sprinkled by the Gospel.

The next room has two children named Patience and Passion. The latter is given a bag of treasure immediately and squanders it all, while the former waits for the "good things" that are coming to him later. Another room holds a burning fire, which is continually doused by the devil but secretly fueled by Christ so that it never stops burning. After this, Christian beholds a stately palace, at whose gate a man sits taking down the names of those who enter. A bold man enters the palace and, after having his name set down, rushes through the gate, breaking through ranks of armed guards to enter. Another room, dark and somber, holds a man in an iron cage, which represents the despair of those who have abandoned their faith. In a final scene, a man rises from his bed, troubled by dreams of the Last Judgment. Having seen all these things, Christian thanks the Interpreter and takes his leave.

Analysis

The scenes and characters in the House of the Interpreter are mostly self-explanatory—or rather, the Interpreter spells out their meaning in detail, ostensibly sparing Bunyan the trouble of doing so. The convention of "stations" (here represented as rooms in a house) in which living tableaux represent biblical episodes dates from the earliest Christian times. Even today, a tableaux (a staged scene without movement or speech with live actors or statues, first recorded as a feature of ancient Roman theatrical presentations) depicting the Nativity of Christ during the Christmas holidays is not uncommon. The intent of such presentations is to bring the viewers closer to the actual presence of a spiritual concept. The rendering of an abstract concept, such as salvation, into a concrete representation has the effect of bringing it into an immediate reality of being.

Passion and Patience are like the 17th-century versions of American comic strip characters Goofus and Gallant. One is foolish and hasty and the other wise and cautious. The two also reflect the way in which the seven deadly sins were, in the popular imagery that had become a convention by the 1600s, matched with a corresponding virtue. Gluttony, for example, would be matched with Abstinence or Arrogance with Humility. Identification of these and their correspondingly corrective virtues in Church doctrine began in the 6th century and developed in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Despair is pictured as an iron cage that confines and constrains a captive, an image with direct connotations to Bunyan's time spent in prison. Heaven is imagined rather splendidly as a palace that must be taken by storm. Here, as elsewhere in The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan shows his sense of the hostility that a true Christian believer must expect to face. As a member of a religious minority who was imprisoned multiple times for his beliefs, Bunyan could no doubt relate to—and thus chose to echo—the Bible's many images of spiritual combat.

The scene in the dusty room reinforces a point about the law made in Chapter 1, which is revisited throughout The Pilgrim's Progress. By itself, Bunyan argues here, God's law is harsh, stirring up the "dust" of human sinfulness and bringing it into painful awareness. But simply stirring up guilt over one's sinfulness is not enough, just as morality derived from law and civility is not enough. Something more—the saving grace of Jesus—is necessary to truly clean the "house" of the soul instead of just kicking up clouds of guilt. The point is a distinctly Protestant perspective critical of the Catholic practice of pardon granted through confession of sin, whereby the sinner is forgiven without having to change his ways.

In Part 1, Chapter 5 Bunyan will return to this line of thinking, offering a personification of the law in the form of a caricatured Moses. Almost cartoonishly violent, this version of Moses "spareth none, neither knoweth ... how to show mercy to those that transgress the law." Jesus, in contrast, is for Bunyan a consummately merciful figure. Some critics, though certainly not all, have seen an element of anti-Semitism in Bunyan's juxtaposition of letter-of-the-law Israelites with Christians who live out the law's spirit.

More than three centuries later, there is today no universal consensus as to who is depicted in the Interpreter's painting. Several editions describe the figure as Evangelist, which is plausible given the major role he plays in both inspiring and encouraging Christian's pilgrimage. The "best of books" would, for Bunyan, be the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, which were written by the original four Evangelists. The "law of truth" would then be the doctrines of Christianity as expounded in the Gospels and interpreted by Bunyan and his fellow Separatists. If, indeed, it was Bunyan's intention to depict Evangelist in this portrait, he shows the character in a softer light than elsewhere: stern and forbidding, Evangelist typically appears in order to warn or chastise the pilgrims.

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