Literature Study GuidesPilgrims ProgressThe Authors Apology For His Book Summary

Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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Pilgrim's Progress | The Author's Apology for His Book | Summary



The Pilgrim's Progress begins with a rhyming poem in which John Bunyan explains and defends his decision to publish the book. He tells how he "fell suddenly" into an allegorical style of writing while trying to complete a more conventional book on religious themes. Ultimately, the allegorical ideas began to "multiply" until Bunyan decided to put them in a freestanding book.

The author explains to the reader that when The Pilgrim's Progress was drafted, he was unsure whether, as some of his friends urged him to do so, while others did not. Ultimately, he decided to publish the book and let the world decide its merits. He defends this decision by saying that unusual methods sometimes yield good results. He states that fishermen, for instance, use different techniques to catch different kinds of fish, and fowlers (bird hunters) know to vary their tactics depending on the type of bird they are hunting.

Bunyan also defends his use of metaphors and symbols by pointing out that the Bible uses these same devices. He further observes that philosophers "write / Dialogue-wise," as he will do throughout The Pilgrim's Progress. Since he is following the example of Holy Writ on one hand and learned authors on the other, Bunyan is confident that the methods he has chosen are sound ones. The poem closes with a few lines advertising the book's contents and recommending them to readers who want to be entertained in a "profitable" way.


In 17th-century English the word apology meant "an explanation and defense" rather than "an expression of regret." Thus, Bunyan is not "apologizing" for his work in the modern sense of the word. Instead, he is addressing and answering possible objections that his readers might have. He is keen to show that The Pilgrim's Progress, despite its unusual style, is not a mere entertainment but a work of serious religious literature intended to guide the reader's own investigation into spiritual matters. The back-and-forth nature of discussion is evident here. Bunyan engages a logical appeal to the reader by presenting both sides of an argument and the logic supporting each side even though they are in opposition ("Yes, you should publish the book" and "No, you should not"). This spirit of respectful debate is characteristic of the critical thinking and analysis each individual must engage in order to mature into a genuine (as opposed to superficial) Christian morality based not only on words but also upon actions.

A major concern in the apology is the "dark" nature of The Pilgrim's Progress. Here, too, Bunyan uses an important word in a sense different from the modern one. His book is "dark" because it is obscure, not because it is morbid or bleak. It uses metaphorical characters and settings to discuss religious concepts, rather than speaking of them in a dryly direct way. Bunyan spends many lines in the apology defending this practice, which he likens to the parables of Jesus and the complicated figurative language used in the Hebrew Bible. In doing so, he calls to mind other senses of "dark" that are more familiar today. The "dark" (obscure) language of the Bible, he says, "turn[s] our darkest nights" (i.e., of gloom or hopelessness) to days of sunlight.

The contrast between light and dark throughout The Pilgrim's Progress closely follows both biblical connotations and prebiblical emotional expressions. While darkness is emotionally associated with fear of unseen enemies or hazards that could beset someone traveling at night, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge is associated with the darkness of ignorance of mind and soul in the Bible; it is sometimes symbolically presented as "blindness." Light makes it possible to perceive otherwise hidden enemies or dangers, and in many biblical passages it is associated with clarity of purpose, divine guidance, and understanding leading to wisdom. Being "in the light" is synonymous with being in God's grace, while "being in the dark" indicates separation from God.

Bunyan is certainly not the first to make this kind of comparison, as indicated in biblical text. Several scholars have paired The Pilgrim's Progress with the well-known epic poem Paradise Lost (originally published in 1667) by Bunyan's contemporary Englishman, John Milton (1608–74). Milton not only included vivid descriptions of the battle between the rebel angels led by Lucifer (meaning "light") and those angels defending Heaven from the rebellion, but also Lucifer's fall into darkness, or the non-illuminated cavern (severance from God) of hell. Italian poet Dante Alighieri's (1265–1321) Inferno (the first book of The Divine Comedy, c. 1308–21), a religious work preceding Bunyan's by 500 years, describes a blind and mute Satan as frozen in ice at the very bottom of the darkest hell (Canto 34).

Allegorical literature was hardly new or unusual in Bunyan's time; in fact, allegories were a familiar part of early modern English literature and were used for a variety of purposes. English poet Edmund Spenser's (c. 1552–99) long poem The Faerie Queene (1590), for example, was one long allegory that sought, among many other things, to glorify the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) by likening her to figures from mythology and legend. Two centuries earlier, English poet William Langland's (c. 1330–c. 1400) late medieval poem Piers Plowman (c. 1380) mingled social satire with a religious journey similar to that undertaken in The Pilgrim's Progress. The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) by the French/Italian writer Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) presents the author as both narrator and participant in the construction of the City of Ladies as guided in her dream vision by the Ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Although initially written in French, this highly influential and popular book was translated into English in 1521. These earlier works show both the value and the versatility of writing in an allegorical style of which Bunyan took ample advantage in his own writing.

Bunyan's concern in the apology is not simply to establish allegory as a legitimate literary technique, which would have been old news to late 17th-century readers. Instead, he is defending allegory as an appropriate means for discussing weighty religious ideas in a time of great sectarian strife. Langland, in his own religious allegory, had had the luxury of working in a time when the English overwhelmingly embraced a single variety of Christianity, namely Catholicism. Bunyan, a Separatist writing in a country once more hostile to religious nonconformists, had to make sure that his ideas would not be taken as heresy—and that his methods would not be seen as blasphemous.

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