Bridging Books and Burdens: Allegory in “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

Welcome to 2014! And for those of us in the Mid-Atlantic, I hope you’re coping well with the snow…

So one of my first acts of the new year was to finish reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the much-beloved narrative of a man named Christian and his quest from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, where he attains his deliverance from sin. As a non-Christian who read the book simply out of personal/literary interest, I found it pretty enjoyable, despite the archaic spelling and grammar and sometimes too-dense meditations on faith.

Then I started thinking about Progress as allegory, and I wondered why a story about one man’s experience in conversion should have to be presented metaphorically. Plenty of critics have written extensively on allegory in Bunyan’s work, of course, and there’s not much new material I can add to their pages. But the framework that Bunyan creates is special in its own right, and – with considerable help from more learned critics – I’m going to try to open up that framework, to see beyond the ‘faith’ of Progress and read its overarching structure. If you’re already familiar with Bunyan or allegory, this post is not going to be a terribly insightful discussion; if you’re not, you might think of it as a summary of what others have written. That being said, there’s something about Progress that makes for good reading, and since this is supposed to be a blog about reading…well, why not?

So what is allegory? Angus Fletcher provides one of the simplest definitions around in his book titled – you guessed it – Allegory. He defines the device as one that “says one thing and means another.” More usefully, Fletcher divides the word into its Greek roots: allos, meaning “other,” and agoreuein, meaning “speak openly [or publicly].” The tension between what is “other” and what is “declared” thus lends allegory its rhetorical function, which Fletcher also notes as an “inversion” of meaning. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, meanwhile, proposes a more detailed definition in The Statesman’s Manual, and one that rings closer to the literary standard today: “Now an Allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses; the principal being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot.” In effect, allegory works like an extended metaphor on two planes of meaning – there’s the level on which the stated action takes place, and then there’s the level of meaning to which that action is related.

Enough of the technicalities for now: what does allegory look like in The Pilgrim’s Progress? Here’s the opening passage:

As I walk’d through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn; And I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept I dreamed a Dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a Man cloathed with Raggs, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own House, a Book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and Read therein; and as he Read, he wept and trembled: and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, what shall I do?

A great deal happens in these six lines; for one, the speaker (a proxy of Bunyan himself) wanders the “wilderness” before sleeping in a “Denn” – which Bunyan’s notes reveal to be a jail – and conjuring the protagonist Christian in a dream. Immediately we get multiple planes of action, or multiple realities working side by side if you will. As Bunyan writes his speaker into being, so does the speaker imagine Christian as, to borrow from Coleridge’s terminology, one of those ‘picture-language’ beings who is to signify the life of a – you guessed it – Christian. That gives us a total of three worlds to contemplate, and by extension three spiritual lives to consider in the same narrative. But of course there are other parts to the scene too: the Raggs, the Book, and the burden are all derived from Biblical imagery, with (as scholar W. R. Owen observes) the rags representing “worthless claims to righteousness” (cf. Isa. 64: 6) and the burden representing “human sinfulness” (cf. Psalm 38: 4). Again, I read the book not for the faith or meaning but rather for the structure, and by my count I found levels, all shared in one text, to keep in mind:

1. Bunyan the man, as 17th-century non-conformist writer writing the speaker into being;

2. Bunyan’s speaker, the man who writes his dream;

3. Christian, the protagonist of that dream, and his physical journey through his world;

4. The Biblical symbols (rags, burden, book, etc) as objects in Christian’s world; and

5. The meaning behind those symbols.

Every stage of Progress involves some combination of those levels of meaning, and while Bunyan himself shouldn’t be counted as an active participant within the novel he writes – except for the fact that he’s writing it – his real-life struggles are clearly reflected in the journeys of Christian and his companions.

So how does Bunyan manage his message across so many planes of textual meaning? C.S. Lewis offers a useful explanation, arguing that the primacy of Bunyan’s imagery in describing Christian’s plight is what makes the allegory so resonant to its readers: “All depends on respecting the rights of the vehicle, in refusing to allow the least confusion between the vehicle and its freight.” This is especially clear when Christian visits the house of the Interpreter, who shows him a series of pictures and rooms meant to instruct him in the dangers of straying away from the faith:

Then I saw in my dream, that the Interpreter took Christian by the hand, and led him into a place where was a fire burning against a wall, and one standing by it, always casting much water upon it, to quench it; yet did the fire burn higher and hotter.

Then said Christian, What means this?

The Interpreter answered, This fire is the work of grace that is wrought in the heart; he that casts water upon it, to extinguish and put it out, is the devil: but in that thou seest the fire, notwithstanding, burn higher and hotter, thou shalt also see the reason of that. So he had him about to the back side of the wall, where he saw a man with a vessel of oil in his hand, of the which he did also continually cast (but secretly) into the fire….This is Christ, who continually, with the oil of his grace, maintains the work already begun in the heart; by the means of which, notwithstanding what the devil can do, the souls of his people prove gracious still. And in that thou sawest that the man stood behind the wall to maintain the fire; this is to teach thee, that it is hard for the tempted to see how this work of grace is maintained in the soul.

Understanding the necessity of maintaining one’s faith in God might not have been easy for Bunyan’s contemporary readers to do, but anyone would know the image of an oil fire burning brighter and brighter. That immediate metaphor for conviction, piety, and grace bridges all five levels of the text, with the mention of Christ hearkening to 2 Corinthians 12:9 (link in quote). From Bunyan as writer (1)  to Bunyan’s speaker’s dream (2), we move into the level of Christian’s conversation with the Interpreter (3), then to the level of the actual fire (4) and finally to the semantic or symbolic level (i.e., what the fire ‘means’, 5) – again, all within the same passage. Most importantly, to borrow from Lewis and Coleridge, the fire invokes an “abstract notion” – faith – in a universal, natural image, thereby linking the material world to the Christian spiritual realm. Whether or not you choose to believe in the ‘real’ existence of the latter, Bunyan’s metaphor demonstrates that reality and the creative imagination are nevertheless fundamentally linked by text, and that is where the power of allegory shines through (among many other moments) in the novel.

Northrop Frye (remember him?) once remarked that “Motive for Metaphor” that “[t]he motive for metaphor, according to Wallace Stevens, is a desire to associate, and finally to identify, the human mind with what goes on outside it, because the only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part, as Paul says, we are also a part of what we know.” Bunyan might not have been thinking in the same terms as he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, but I think he would have taken the same delight in conjuring his protagonist’s journey. Certainly his “dream” is one that exemplifies the power of allegory and its role in the creative imagination.


All images taken from Wikimedia Commons. Thanks also to W.R. Owens’ Introduction to the Oxford Edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

About csquaredetc

I'm a graduate student in English at the University of Pennsylvania (or "Penn" for short). My most prolific writing is on The Hong Kong Project, a blog about my former experience as an exchange student:
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2 Responses to Bridging Books and Burdens: Allegory in “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

  1. Pingback: “Branches Without Roots” | Shelf Reflections

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