Study Guide

The Pilgrim's Progress Themes

By John Bunyan

  • Choices

    Decisions, decisions. The choices that Christian is faced seem clear: follow what Evangelist and the gospel tell him to do or.... don't.

    But as anyone who's ever tried to follow religious teachings in real life knows, right and wrong rarely seem black and white. The choice between good and bad often, in the moment, hardly seems like a choice at all—the line can be super-fine. But The Pilgrim's Progress states that we're constantly making choices about our commitment to Christ's principles. As Evangelist says, you're never "out of the gun-shot of the devil" (P462). And the devil has a gun with a long range.

    Questions About Choices

    1. How does Bunyan represent the nature of choice-making in his story? When are people consciously making a choice? When are they unconsciously making a choice?
    2. Alongside the importance of responsible, personal choice-making is the importance of obedience. How does the fact that Christian follows the direction of Evangelist and the teachings of the Gospel themselves affect your understanding of the importance of choice in this story?
    3. How realistic do you find Bunyan's depiction of the experience of making tough choices?
    4. Though this story is definitely about the the importance of making the right choices, it's also laced with the idea of predestination. This is the notion that people are "destined" by God to go to heaven or hell from birth no matter what they choose to do. Where do you see examples of these seemingly opposing ideas in the story? How does Bunyan show these working together in Christian's journey?

    Chew on This

    In The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan often uses literal excerpts from scripture when Christian has a big choice to make; this is an attempt to show that the Bible can help one make the right decisions in life. 

     In The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan uses opposing choices to dramatize moral lessons. Forks in the road and the depiction of what results from making a choice allow him to use contrasting outcomes to give the moment of decision greater weight.

  • Perseverance

    Facing demons, slaying monsters, escaping giants… The Pilgrim's Progress doesn't skimp on the daring deeds. But perhaps the hardest thing Christian has to do in this story (and the thing he comes closest to failing at) is simply to keep going.

    Bunyan allegorizes the importance of perseverance both in the physical fatigue that Christian faces and in his emotional discouragement. The Slough of Despair, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Doubting Castle are all places where his simple ability to keep going is seriously questioned. In all of these instances, Bunyan shows how the help of companions and the words of the Bible can help you keep on keepin' on.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. How does Bunyan's allegory of the pilgrim speak specifically to the importance of perseverance?
    2. What do you make of the spiritual perseverance that Bunyan is trying to show? What is spiritual perseverance?
    3. What are some of the things that enable Christian to persevere in his story?
    4. In contrast to perseverance is despair. In what places does Bunyan allegorize the experience of despair into actual places and characters? How do these situations help you to understand more specifically what it is to "give up"?

    Chew on This

    The imagery of despair as a prison in The Pilgrim's Progress suggests that perseverance is the key not only to staying out of despair, but to finding one's way out of doubt as well. 

    The allegory of physical obstacles in The Pilgrim's Progress is used to convey the frequent difficulties of living a Christian life.

  • Respect and Reputation

    Vanity, Vanity. Of all the distractions that prey on characters in The Pilgrim's Progress, respect and reputation are the most consuming. Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Pliable, Formalist and Hypocrisy, Pickthank, By-ends, and Atheist are only a few of the characters who are fatally devoted to appearances rather than truth.

    Vanity Fair is the epicenter of this problem in the story. It's the place where Bunyan shows most clearly his idea that good Christians just aren't worried about their reputations all the time. All of these citizens of Vanity Fair believe not only that cash rules everything around them (C.R.E.A.T?), but so does keeping up with the Joneses.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Why is concern over reputation dangerous, or in opposition, to the life of a Christian pilgrim?
    2. How does Bunyan criticize the desire for wealth, respect, and rank?
    3. Is it possible, within Bunyan's worldview, to follow the gospel and to care about one's reputation at the same time? Why or why not?
    4. Certain characters in the story, like Talkative and By-ends, are known to Christian already by their reputations. To you, does this consideration of reputation bias Christian in a bad way? How can reputation be important in some instances, but vain and shallow in others?

    Chew on This

    In Vanity Fair, reputation is not only for sale among the vendors, but targeted by Bunyan as one of the most dangerous commodities. 

    In The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan creates a hard distinction between what men see and care about and what matters to God.

  • Humilty

    Eating humble pie is pretty much the prerequisite of every good choice, deed, or thought in The Pilgrim's Progress. At the top of the story, Christian is totally unable to help himself by himself. This seems to represent the idea that it's necessary to be humble if you want to be converted.

    In Bunyan's mind, you've got to admit that you're lost without Christ before you can be saved. As is frequently repeated, characters can either choose to be first or be last—to be self-interested, self-willed, and powerful now, or be humble and glorified later. The choice, good pilgrims, is yours.

    Questions About Humilty

    1. What are the factors that cause and prevent the attitude of humility in The Pilgrim's Progress?
    2. Of all the religious types Bunyan could have used, how does the pilgrim represent his notion of humility?
    3. Are there places in the story where Christian, in a sense, forgets to be humble? What causes him to get a fat head and how does Bunyan warn against this?
    4. He may be humble, but Christian also knows his mind and how to argue… particularly as the story progresses. How does humility relate to intellectual strength and success in Bunyan's worldview?

    Chew on This

    Not all authorities are created equal… and no man can serve two masters in The Pilgrim's Progress. Throughout the story, Bunyan's creation of two opposing powers (Christ and Satan) emphasizes the inevitability and exclusivity of allegiance. 

    Throughout Bunyan's allegory, images of nature, both horrible and majestic, are used to impress on Christian the extent of God's power.

  • Suffering

    Suffering comes in many flavors in The Pilgrim's Progress. There are way more than fifty shades of suffering going on here.

    Not a fan of acute anxiety and dread of inescapable damnation? Consider hauling a heavy, nondescript "burden" on your back instead. Being beaten by giants not your cup of tea? Why not give The Shining One's conscience-easing whippings a try instead? It seems like to Bunyan, however, there's such a thing as good suffering and bad suffering. Bad suffering is the kind of thing Christian experiences in the City of Destruction, where he suffers because he's living the wrong way. Good suffering, on the other hand, is the kind of discomfort you have to put up with for the sake of a future good.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Think of a time in your life when you'd say you were not simply "in pain," but suffering. How did the experience change you? Do you see any similarities with the way suffering affects Christian?
    2. Think of an example of physical suffering from the book. How could it be seen as being symbolic of spiritual suffering?
    3. How does Bunyan's tone change when describing different kinds of suffering? Like, for example, the suffering of the sinful or literally damned as opposed to the suffering of Christian and his friends?
    4. All of the instances of suffering in this story are literally being observed by the dreamer. Why is the witnessing of suffering so powerful?

    Chew on This

    The pilgrim's journey symbolizes the journey of all of our lives, and it symbolically asks us to measure our suffering against the suffering of Christ.

    Rather than something to be shunned or simply kept out of view (as Worldly-Wiseman advises), suffering, for Bunyan, is an experience not only to endure but to embrace.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Compassion and forgiveness may be one of the trickiest (and, ironically, least satisfying) issues in The Pilgrim's Progress. Compassion is central to the bonds Christian forms with fellow pilgrims and helpers along the way. It's the reason he can talk with and get help from the ladies of the Palace Beautiful and the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.

    What's difficult in this story are the places where compassion and forgiveness seem to be withheld. The man in the iron cage, for example, is said to be beyond Christ's forgiveness. You have to pick your compassion battles, at least according to Bunyan.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Which characters in Bunyan's allegory seem to be most and least compassionate?
    2. Christian makes a number of mistakes throughout his journey, but is always forgiven. Why is this? What is it that makes him forgivable, while other characters who go astray end up completely forsaken?
    3. Compassion literally means "to suffer with." What are some instances in the story where characters either chose to suffer or feel with another, or where shared suffering lightens the burden? Why is this? (You might try thinking of similar moments in your own life.)
    4. Our hero's story begins in a seemingly merciless situation. How do you understand his apparent need to seek forgiveness and salvation from destruction—particularly when he seems to have done nothing wrong?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes compassion is spontaneous. At other times, though, it takes a little effort. Throughout The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan—through his characters' frequent struggles to forgive—shows that compassion is often a specific choice.

    Of all the characters in the story, Apollyon (aka Beelzebub or Satan) is by all accounts the least forgiving.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Justice (real or false) is all over the place in The Pilgrim's Progress. The looming specter of Judgment Day, the trial and execution at Vanity Fair, even the situation of our narrator, dreaming his dream in a jail—judgment is everywhere.

    On a deeper level, though, you might think of what this says about the importance of consequences to Bunyan's conception of action. No one does anything in this story without a corresponding punishment or reward (or the promise of one or the other). To Bunyan, somewhere up there God is looking down and judging every single action we take.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Consider the trial at Vanity Fair. How do Bunyan's details of the proceedings critique the justice system?
    2. How does Bunyan's use of allegorical names play with our tendencies to judge? What are some examples from the story of unfair judgment?
    3. The nightmare of Judgment Day experienced by the man at the House of the Interpreter is deeply moving for Christian. What is it about the details of this dream (or the prospect of "judgment" itself) that makes it enforce obedience so powerfully?

    Chew on This

    In his allegory, where characters frequently appear and leave on one page, John Bunyan uses key external traits (and clever names) to elicit certain judgments from his readers.

    Using the format of a story, a narrative (as opposed to a sermon to express his teachings), Bunyan allows readers to make their own judgments.

  • Religion

    How is this even a "theme," you might ask. Isn't the whole book about religion—a moral lesson disguised as an adventure story? Well, yes and no.

    The notion of organized religion, with hierarchies, traditions, forms of worship, etc., are ideas that Bunyan examines very closely in The Pilgrim's Progress. The Puritans stood for a return to the word of the Bible itself and rejected the "worldly" nature of institutions like the Church of England or Roman Catholicism. One thing he's trying to do in this story is to highlight how the big Christian institutions during his time have become, in his mind, not that Christian at all. 

    Questions About Religion

    1. What are some examples of organized religion that Bunyan represents in the text?
    2. What aspects of religion come under fire in particular? How does the approach of Christian differ from standard religious forms?
    3. While Catholicism and Judaism take a lot of flack in this allegory, do atheists fare even worse? What specifically does Bunyan target and criticize in his depiction of Atheist and Ignorant and their conversations with Christian?
    4. Who are some examples of biblical figures that Bunyan directly references in his text? Why does he do this? What is the effect of it in a story where no one else has a distinct name or country?

    Chew on This

    Bunyan's examples of different religions draws a clear line between "bad" religions (Judaism, Catholicism) and his own form of faith (Puritanism).

    The extent of Bunyan's allegory and its incorporation of key symbols (the cross, the lamb, the shepherd, etc.), place it in an ancient Christian literary tradition.