Edition: Penguin, 1965 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1221
The recent BBC poll to find the best loved English novel, the Big Read, chose The Lord of the Rings, a winner which is almost inevitable in this kind of listing nowadays. But if the poll could have been run a hundred and fifty years ago or more, then The Pilgrim's Progress would have been the runaway winner (so long as we ignore the fact that it is not really a novel). If a family owned one book, it was the Bible; if two, the second would almost certainly be Bunyan, far more likely than Shakespeare. Its popularity was only challenged when the Victorian mass market in novels began to open up, with the success of Dickens particularly. Today, it didn't even feature in the top 100 list. This suggests two questions: why did this book in particular become so popular? and why has its popularity diminished?
Everyone still knows what The Pilgrim's Progress is about, at least its first part: it has become an almost proverbial title. It is an allegory of the Christian life, as seen from John Bunyan's Puritan evangelical viewpoint, and takes the form of the description of a journey made by Christian from the city of Destruction to the Celestial City. The second part (published six years later) describes the subsequent journey made by his wife Christiana, following in his footsteps. Like most allegories, the point is not the story, but lies in the images used to make the point; some of Bunyan's have entered the language, such as the "Slough of Despond".
The reason for the popularity of Bunyan's work cannot really lie in the allegory itself, for his images in general are not particularly imaginative (some are copied directly from ideas which occur in the Bible). Some, like the images shown the pilgrims in the House of the Interpreter, are hardly made part of the story at all. The story itself is unevenly constructed, with at least one character met on the way disappearing from the text without his departure being recorded (this is the Atheist, though it is at least made clear that he is travelling in the opposite direction to Christian). The second part is even more problematic, as it consists of little more than a description of a tour of the places which have already been mentioned when Christian visited them. Both parts include a lot of direct preaching and theological discussion as well as the allegory, but there is also far more of this the second time around.
The popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress must have come more from the timing of its publication, and from its content rather than its quality. The evangelical revival which gave rise to Methodism was just around the corner, and many non-conformists (people who would not accept the doctrine and hierarchy of the Anglican church) emigrated to America in the next few decades. These were the groups who took up Bunyan's book, and they spread it worldwide. It even proved to have cross-cultural appeal, being widely translated and even published in Catholic countries. (For a Puritan work, it is very restrained about Rome, and its references to Catholicism are veiled, but this is still surprising.)
The value of The Pilgrim's Progress to the Puritans was that it is an extremely effective aid to applying an evangelical view of Protestant Biblical theology to the trials faced in life. Through its images and allegorical characters, it was inspirational. The Bible is a confusing document, even for those who profess to believe it literally, and the sort of theology followed by the Puritans was much easier to pick up and understand from a systematic outline; The Pilgrim's Progress is not totally systematic, but it is certainly easier to apply to real life situations than either an abstract summary (like a catechism) or the Bible itself. It picks up one of the big reasons why the parables have always been more popular reading matter than the Pauline epistles - stories are much more entertaining than the direct exposition of theology. Aids to understanding the Bible have always been popular - such aids have been produced to push just about every possible theological position - and The Pilgrim's Progress is one of the most entertaining and is certainly the best known.
So the reason for the initial success of The Pilgrim's Progress was the right content at the right time; if it hadn't been published, I suspect that a Puritan allegory would have come along sooner rather than later (after all, it had been one of the most characteristic forms of medieval literature), and that this might have become as popular. It massively overshadowed all Bunyan's other writing, only Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, his autobiography, coming anywhere near it in popularity even in his lifetime.
The drop in the popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress seems, as far as I know, to have been well under way before the decline in churchgoing which marked the twentieth century West. It may have kept its pre-eminent place in rural areas, but novels like The Pickwick Papers, or alternatively the works of Shakespeare, took over in the urban middle class home.
It seems to me that the change is likely to be connected to the big publishing explosion at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (This is really just a guess; I don't have any facts and figures to back it up.) Apparently, up until then it was just about possible, given a fair amount of luxurious free time, to read every book published in English. Then, when the novel took off, this changed. Even if this isn't actually true, there was suddenly a lot more available to read, and it was also more entertaining. (As journeys go, the Pickwick Club's progress around England may be less edifying, but it's definitely more fun.) Instead of being one of two books in the average literate home, The Pilgrim's Progress became one of dozens.
There are cleverer, subtler and more completely worked out allegories, but none which have had as big a cultural impact as this one. I wonder if today's equivalents in popularity - The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels - will prove as long lasting. It is of course noticeable that the criticism that there are cleverer novels of their type around applies just as much to these current contenders; and just as behind The Pilgrim's Progress lies one of the most popular medieval genres, they both build on many precedents.