Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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Pilgrim's Progress | Symbols


Two Cities

The settings of The Pilgrim's Progress are diverse, ranging from smoke-filled chasms to bucolic hillsides. Most of these places are fairly simple and self-explanatory in their allegorical implications. The Slough of Despond, for example, is a treacherous bog land, as difficult to escape from as despondency itself. Two cities, however, stand out as the "anchors" of Christian's journey—the ends, so to speak, of the moral tightrope he must walk to secure his place among the blessed. These are the City of Destruction, which symbolizes all that is alluring about earthly life, and the Celestial City, which is a lavish allegorical depiction of heaven. In Part 1 Christian struggles to escape the former, wends his way through the varied country described above, and at last arrives safely in the latter. Christiana in Part 2 repeats her husband's journey, and her narrative adds detail to the description of both places while reaffirming their centrality to Bunyan's allegory.

Christian (also known as Graceless) starts his journey in the City of Destruction, his hometown. There, he lives a life of unthinking sinfulness alongside neighbors with such names as Lechery and Obstinate. Even after he is convinced the city will be destroyed, he is hard-pressed to find somewhere else to go, in part because he does not know there is another place to go. Christiana and her children in Part 2 have the benefit of knowing, through rumors, of the Celestial City's existence. They realize there is another, even better, place for them, but they are put off by the many dangers and inconveniences of traveling from one city to another. For them the extent of the difference between the two cities seems to get lost in translation so that it is hard for them to appreciate why the journey is worth the hassle.

Moreover, the City of Destruction is not described as an outwardly hellish place. Rather, Bunyan paints it as a pleasant if mundane city in which his typically middle-class characters can enjoy the good things of this world in relative comfort. The problem with the City of Destruction, as Bunyan portrays it, is that the citizens fall into the trap of thinking they can live there forever—that earthly life is all there is, and their sins are of no consequence. This is not to say that Bunyan's characters are atheists except, of course, for the character who is actually named "Atheist." Rather, they are Christians who procrastinate, putting off the painful but necessary journey that leads to heaven. They want one more dance, one more drink, one more day of unrepentance before they are ready to mend their ways.

The Celestial City is the opposite of the City of Destruction. It is everlasting, whereas the latter is doomed to perish in flames. It is beautiful, not in a mundane, "postcard" way but in a way that defies Bunyan's ability to describe. Everything in the Celestial City takes place on a grand scale and is saturated with light and music, opulence and ceremony. Such description as Bunyan provides follows directly from biblical precedent: the Book of Revelation speaks of "the holy city," the "new Jerusalem" (Rev 21:2) as the final dwelling place of God and his people. This city is lit from within, so that night and day are indistinguishable; it is made of a material that resembles both "pure gold" and "clear glass" and is "garnished" with precious stones of all sorts (21:18–19). In his own description, Bunyan combines the accretion of wondrous details à la Revelation with the idea of an earthly king's court. The Celestial City is, he affirms, like the best possible version of an earthly city, and life there is the best possible version of life in the service of a human monarch.

Crown of Righteousness

Clothing is another area in which The Pilgrim's Progress offers great symbolic variety, from the armor of faith to the rags that Christian casts off to be clothed anew. Within the book's metaphorical wardrobe, however, no single item gets as much attention as the crown. Early on, Christian is shown an allegorical painting in which a long-suffering saint is about to receive a golden crown as a divine reward for his perseverance. Later, Christian and his fellow pilgrims are promised crowns of their own once they reach the Celestial City. The crowns are mentioned again at particularly tough points in the pilgrims' journey, as if to evoke an "eyes-on-the-prize" mentality among the believers. In the closing pomp and circumstance of Part 1, Christian indeed receives a crown of gold adorned with pearls, which are commonly used to symbolize purity. The "shining ones" (saints) in the city wear similar crowns, suggesting that this is the common reward for righteousness in life.

Many elements of Bunyan's crown symbolism—the crown as ultimate prize, the injunction to persevere, and so forth—can be traced back directly to the New Testament letters of Peter, James, and Paul and to the Book of Revelation. The latter is the Bible's most detailed description of the end times and is even more richly—and bewilderingly—allegorical than Bunyan's writings. In Revelation 1, Jesus appears in glory to judge the living and the dead. In Revelation 2, he sends messages to various early Christian churches, promising one group of believers that if they are "faithful unto death" he will give them "a crown of life" (Rev 2:10). Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians uses fundamentally similar language in Chapter 9, Verse 25.

Although the crown is a traditional symbol of power and dominion, neither the Bible nor The Pilgrim's Progress use it to mean that the righteous are rulers in their own right. Rather, they are participants in the Kingdom of God, crowned not so much because they are the masters of themselves as because they have accepted his mastery over them. It's worth noting in this connection that the "crown" (from the Greek stephanos) of which the New Testament epistles (letters to early believers) speak can also in many cases be interpreted as the wreath of victory placed on the heads of the winners of ancient Greek athletic contests. Thus, for the writers of these letters the crown may be a prize for "leaving it all on the field" through self-denial or even martyrdom. Bunyan chooses to depict a metallic crown of the type worn by European monarchs, not a wreath of leaves, but it is safe to say that he envisions this crown more as a symbolic reward than as a conferral of authority.

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