Nope—the answer is not just "they're full of adventure" or "they're full of creepy monsters" or "they're about long trips." These four very different-seeming works of literature (we count films as literature, btw) are all allegories.
The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory of Puritan ideals; a story that is really an extended metaphor representing larger concepts or ideas. Instead of using a quick 'n' dirty metaphor like "This movie is garbage" or "That guy is a fox," you keep the metaphor going as long as your little heart desires. Allegories can represent complex things like, oh, "All the stuff you have to do to get to heaven." Basically, everything in an allegory is a metaphor for something else, and all of it together is trying to make some larger point.
So, when you read The Pilgrim's Progress, every element of the story (characters, actions, events, dialogues, etc.) is always going to be an analogy for typical Christian concepts (faith, hope, love, temptation, salvation, etc.). Unlike a lot of other allegories, however, in this tale, Bunyan is always reminding you—very clearly—of what things are an allegory for.
The character that stands for ignorance? Well, instead of Harold or Bilbo, his name happens to be Ignorant. So, yeah, Bunyan is always pretty much telling you what concept or idea he's referring to with a character. Thanks, Reverend!
Published in 1678, John Bunyan (no relation to Paul Bunyan—sadly, there's no lumberjacks or big blue oxes to be found here) wrote this story from jail (or, as he spells it, "gaol") in Bedford, England, where he was imprisoned off-and-on for twelve years for his radical preaching. And we mean radical.
Bunyan was a Puritan, part of a group of strict, simple-living, scripture-based Christians in England who were deeply and openly critical of the dominant Church of England. As you might imagine, this wasn't too cool with the government of England, which funded and controlled the Church. It was because of the tension between Puritans and the rest of their country that they eventually immigrated to the "New World"—what we know today as New England.
Bunyan's real-life persecution as a Puritan is not only the frame for the story, but is also central to how he depicts the "Progress" of his protagonist, Christian. Christian's conflicts in this story stand for the experiences of all "Christians" (as Bunyan saw it).
Christian isn't only struggling against the world, though; he's also struggling against himself. In this way, Bunyan asks you to not just think of your relationship with others, but also with yourself. Yep, John Bunyan was writing self-help books way back in the 17th century.
It's the 21st century. Puritans are nowhere to be seen, outside of the odd performance of The Crucible. Today we associate this religious group with wearing cute white caps and drab black clothing, and calling each other "Goody." They're not terribly pertinent, right?
So, how can this text have any relevance to us? There's nary a Goody Shmoopwife among us. Why should we care about this musty old Puritan allegory?
If we were to raise Bunyan from the dead to ask this question, there's a pretty good chance he'd shake his skull and point a bony finger toward the apology at the start of his book. The story of The Pilgrim's Progress may be filled with 17th-century Christian teachings and even the cultural/political climate of England at the time, but the fact that he wrote an allegory separates it from any distinct time or place. Because of this, characters like Worldly-Wiseman, Pliable, and By-Ends could just as easily be co-workers at a modern corporation or the friends and frenemies you know and love (and love to hate).
Bunyan is really giving us portraits of human nature: how we read each other, judge each other, hurt and help each other. Give-away names like Hypocrisy and Helpful might not seem to require much analysis, but that sort of forces you to turn the analysis on your own experience. Who in your life in an Interpreter? What have been Valleys of Humiliation or Delectable Mountains in your life? What's your own personal Slough of Despond?
And not only is The Pilgrim's Progress a surprisingly awesome self-help book (one that the March sisters used for guidance in Little Women, btw), but it also is pretty dang interesting reading for modern-day Americans who are curious about how the American national personality was shaped. Puritanism is said to have "established what was arguably the central strand of American cultural life until the 20th century." Puritan views on conduct and morality (and yes, saying no to pleasure) really helped make America specifically "American" for the first hundred years it was a country.
So whether you're fascinated by American history or sociology, literary devices or old-school writing techniques, Biblical allusions or the history of Christianity—or hey, even if you just like to navel-gaze (we sure do)—The Pilgrim's Progress has plenty to offer.
Not too shabby for a centuries-old book that was partially written in prison, is it?
Read It for Free!
Yep: it's old. And that means your one-stop shop is good ol' Project Gutenberg. We love those guys.
He Was a Poet, and He Knew It
Bunyan's verse gets the Poetry Foundation treatment, and you get an excellent bio of the man himself.
Get Your Facts Straight
Encyclopedia Britannica doesn't mess around—get all your Bunyan factoids.
Luminarium is Luminous
Luminarium is an amazing resource for anyone studying literature from the Medieval period through the Restoration. The page devoted to Bunyan is a stand-out.
Love that Bunyan
A site devoted to the works and life of John Bunyan. You can even find some of his sermons here.
Voice Recording of The Pilgrim's Progress
At this link, Project Gutenberg offers a free download of the book being read aloud.
1693 Edition Engravings—Old and Awesome
Here you can see images of the engaved illustrations from the 1693 version, each matched with one of the pilgrims' songs.
Map of the "Progress"
This site has the image of an actual 1678 map of Christian's allegorical journey—and it's gorgeous.
A Colorful Journey
Here are illustrations from the text that you can print out and color. No, really.