You should never read a novel purely so that you could impress strangers by saying you’ve read it. Pride and Prejudice taught me that lesson, and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the unfortunately-named John Bunyan, drove the point home.
The narrator spends the entire story asleep, telling us what the little people in his weird dream get up to. This was the most interesting thing about Pilgrim’s Progress, because it allows for the mostly third-person narrative to interrupted by first-person descriptions of what the characters look like. Such a device deserves to be used in a much better book, I might have to steal it.
The story itself is about some guy named Christian, who abandons his loving family on the advice of the sketchy drifter Evangelist to look for the shining Celestial City. Along the way he meets people called things like Ignorance, Obstinate, Pliable. A lot like the dwarves in Snow White, really. Maybe John Bunyan had a thing about names, seeing how he shares a surname with a podiatric malady? I didn’t like any of the characters in this book. Christian begins as a naive fool and ends up as a know-it-all pious tool, and everyone else’s character is summarized by their name.
The geography of the book is just as unsubtle. Christian begins the book in the City of Destruction, is put on trial at the hedonistic dystopia Vanity Fair and is imprisoned in Doubting Castle. I don’t know about you, but as an Australian some of these names feel downright plausible. Over here we’ve got Mount Despair, Mount Disappointment and Mount Pleasant.
As I read the Pilgrim’s Progress I begun spinning wild scenarios that would liven the book up. What if Christian and his companion Hopeful consummated their close relationship? What if it turned out that Islam was the real religion, and this whole Shining City thing was a con? How do these characters dream? What if Christian ate too much junk food at Vanity Fair and spent the night crouched in a foetal position in his hotel room while his entire being throbs with the agony of a stomach ache? Would his pain be anthromorphised as tiny demons, and would they get stupid names? And who is giving these ridiculous characters names? Are they just nicknames? As of now my theory is that Pilgrim’s Progress takes place in some sort of Platonic World-of-Forms cosmos, and each character is the platonic ideal they represent. But I don’t actually understand Platonism…
What does happen is this: Christian makes it through Hell, almost literally, and gets to his city.
I wouldn’t recommend Pilgrim’s Progress to anyone. Christians deserve better allegories, and they can find them in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and the more sci-fi inclined should check out his underrated Space Trilogy.