Book 11 is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. The 1001 Books editors say we must read this book because of its popularity and continued relevance: “One of the most popular works ever written in the English language, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress continues to be published in new editions, remain on bestseller lists, and retain and enduring relevance today” (34). An example for the relevance to today’s reader is cited: “The Vanity Fair episode, in which the protogonists are assailed by temptation, apathy, self-love, and consumerist excess, seems as relevant to twenty-first century life as it was to seventeenth-century English” (34).
As an undergraduate English major, I had more than one survey class that used this text as required reading and at least one survey in graduate school had us examine it as well. Despite the multiple exposures and readings, it hasn’t stuck with me much simply because it is a christian allegory full of piety and belief that honestly doesn’t appeal to me much as a reader. In fact, this text always strikes me as a pale comparison to Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales. And, maybe that is a weird comparison, but both texts feature travelers (on pilgimages) who meet archetypical christians so that we can learn something from the encounters. Bunyan’s is told with simplicity and the encounters become emblematic of the individuals moral struggle (to be a good man is difficult). Chaucer’s tales are more entertaining, require more thought, and frankly are full of sarcasm and wit that shows critically the problems with the Church (capital C). So, while not critical of christianity, it is critical of the church’s role and much more aware than Bunyan’s tale could ever be, depite the fact that he evidently wrote part of it while in prison for religious dissent. (I know, I know, this is really like comparing apples and oranges, but I couldn’t help it.)
The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the story of Christian. The first part of the text focuses on the journey to the Celestial city and encounters with Talkative, Faithful, Evangelist, and Hopeful, but to get there he must travel through from the City of Destruction through Castle Doubt and Vanity Fair. The second part traces his wife and children as they take the same journey but have different individualized experiences. The book is available in several formats online for free.
Again, like many of the other early texts considered for inclusion by the 1001 Books editors, this one is also important for its cultural references, including
- Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) subtitled as ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’
- William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1847)
- Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has Huckleberry Finn mention The Pilgrim’s Progress as he describes the works of literature in the Grangerfords’ library to satirize the Protestant southern aristocracy
- John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath mentions The Pilgrim’s Progress as a favorite book, and was itself an allegorical spiritual journey with Christian allusions to sacrifice and redemption in a time characterized by social injustice (during the Great Depression).
I didn’t like it, but I don’t have to. Happy reading, anyway. 😮