Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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Pilgrim's Progress | Part 1, Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

As they make their way out of the wilderness, Christian and Faithful are approached by Evangelist, who set Christian on his pilgrimage several chapters ago. He now warns them to be steadfast in their faith, even to the point of death. Courage will be necessary, he says, in the town they are coming to, where one or both men will likely be killed. Soon enough, the two pilgrims arrive in the town of Vanity, where the famous Vanity Fair is held year-round. There, all kinds of vain worldly goods are sold, and all sorts of crimes and subterfuges are committed. Presiding over Vanity Fair is Beelzebub, who in fact founded the fair for the express purpose of ensnaring and distracting pilgrims. Jesus (referred to here by the title Prince of Princes) was, Bunyan reveals, once tempted by the fair's finest merchandise, but he resisted.

Christian and Faithful pass through the fair, drawing attention on account of their strange clothes and their distaste for the fair's goods. The crowd begins to mock them and eventually throws them into a cage as if they were madmen. The pilgrims remain calm, but their refusal to retaliate or lash out only aggravates the townspeople. Christian and Faithful are brought to trial before a judge named Lord Hate-good, where they stand accused of creating a public disturbance and speaking seditiously against Beelzebub. Three witnesses—Envy, Superstition, and Pickthank—are called, all of whom speak out at length against the two pilgrims and their vanity-hating ways. Hearing their testimony, Lord Hate-good calls for Faithful's execution, which is carried out immediately via a series of painful tortures. Christian, who is granted a brief respite, escapes from Vanity and resumes his pilgrimage.

Analysis

The way in which the town of Vanity and its year-round fair is described in careful detail is likely due to several points Bunyan wished to put to the reader. Since he had first followed his father's profession as a metalworker and was later stationed in the military, Bunyan was, in his early life, likely in the company of every unsavory character who preyed on unsuspecting victims amid the many lighthearted distractions of an urban street fair. He probably was himself a victim of fraud, theft, and con games popular in the day, and he may have learned some of the tricks to pull on others. In any case, placing the town of Vanity near the Celestial City reminds the reader that the closer the pilgrim comes to the goal, the stronger are the efforts of evil to dissuade his purpose. This is also the case with the wicket gate by which pilgrims traditionally entered a cathedral, in that not only did they have to enter one at a time but they were also at risk of being shot with arrows by Beelzebub, a sort of lieutenant to Satan. Once they had crossed the threshold between the secular world of vanities into the sacred space of worship, evil could not touch them. Bunyan refers to this danger when in the first chapter Christian has reached the Wicket-Gate and knocked until Good-will answers and lets him in. Good-will assures him he is now safe from the arrows that Beelzebub and his evil followers shoot at travelers approaching the gate.

The special bitterness with which Bunyan depicts Vanity and its court system may reflect his own longtime status as a prisoner of conscience. The first installment of The Pilgrim's Progress was written while Bunyan was in jail for refusing to give up preaching, a casualty of the changes in religious climate brought by the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. In 1661 Bunyan was rounded up as part of a larger effort to repress Separatist preachers. He remained imprisoned for over a decade because he would not take a vow to stop preaching should he be released.

Bunyan left prison in 1672, not because he renounced his principles, but because King Charles II had temporarily backed down from his persecutory campaign. The Declaration of Indulgence, the king's official proclamation of this policy change, effectively suspended the harsh penal laws enacted during the early 1660s. Now licensed to preach, Bunyan was freed just long enough to establish himself at a congregation in Bedford before the pendulum swung back toward intolerance. He spent a further six months in prison, again on charges related to his religious nonconformism, and he published The Pilgrim's Progress not long after his release.

To be clear, Bunyan was not persecuted as harshly as Christian and the hapless Faithful in this chapter. Prison in early modern England was a pay-as-you-go, or more accurately, a bribe-as-you-go system. Both of Bunyan's jail sentences were served close to his family and congregation in Bedford, and he was occasionally permitted visits by family and other supporters. Moreover, though Bunyan himself was by no means affluent, he had enough friends in his dissident congregation that he could bribe the guards for various comforts and necessities. Still, Bunyan's imprisonment severely limited his ability to earn money to support his family. The work available to inmates was repetitious and poorly paid, consisting mostly of small manufacturing trades such as lace making. Bunyan himself spent a lot of time making shoelaces for little pay.

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