The Pilgrim Travels on: Literary References to The Pilgrim’s Progress

Few works of literature have had the cultural reach of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  That’s pretty amazing—who would have thought an adventure story that pauses every few pages for long discussions of Christian theology would have such a grip on the Western world’s imagination? Clearly Bunyan tapped something deep in the human spirit. The idiom of life’s journey, with all the struggles and respites along the way, is common to all mankind.

One doesn’t even have to be a Christian to experience them.  When someone speaks of his “Slough of Despond” or mentions her “Celestial City,” he or she is hearkening back to one of the seminal quest stories of the western world.  Authors, composers, and artists have taken the allegory as their inspiration for retellings, or alluded to it in ways they expected their readers to understand.  Here are just a few references to The Prilgrim’s Progress in classic (and more contemporary) literature.

Vanity Fair is a novel by William Makepeace Thackary, charting the struggles of anti-heroine Becky Sharp as she claws her way upward in early Victorian high society.  (The recent Amazon mini-series comes highly recommended.)

And of course, there’s this:

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s satirical short story “The Celestial Railroad” imagines pilgrims taking a shortcut to heaven under steam power.  Needless to say, the mode of transportation has its drawbacks.

The Innocents Abroad, one of Mark Twain’s most popular early books, is alternatively titled The New Pilgrims’ Progress.  An Episcopal clergyman was one of his companions on the journey, and the two of them have lots of conversations about religion, all with the author’s humorous/skeptical twist.

John Buchan, best known for The Thirty-Nine Steps, wrote two follow-up novels set during World War II.  The second, Mr. Standfast, takes its title from a Bunyan character and the protagonist uses a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress to decipher coded messages.

Revered artist Alan Moore recruited Christian as a character in his graphic novel Prospero’s Men, a prequel to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In the plot, Christian takes a wrong turn into an alley and finds himself in a different time.

Oliver Twist, one of Charles Dickens’ best-known novels, is subtitled The Parish Boy’s Progress.

Little Women is practically a trove of Pilgrim’s Progress references, from the first chapter (“Playing Pilgrims”) to “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation,” “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful,” Jo Meets Apollyon,” and “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.”  In “Castles in the Air,” the girls dress as pilgrims and hike up the nearest hill, where each one (along with Laurie) describes her ideal castle.

The protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is named Billy Pilgrim, an obvious nod to Christian.  His “progress” is through the slaughterhouse of World War II, and his destination is fatalism and disillusionment.

The title character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre sees herself as a pilgrim on a quest, and refers to Bunyan’s novel frequently, especially at the end.

Cartoonist Winsor McCay, best known for the Little Nemo series, penned an allegorical comic strip in which a Mr. Bunion (get it?) travels through his life experiencing constant frustration with “Dull Care,” which he can’t seem to drop.

Hind’s Feet on High Places, a beloved Christian classic by Hannah Hurnard, enlists the Bunyan character Much-Afraid as a protagonist and charts her journey from fear to assurance in Christ.

And the journey goes on!  Watch for further reviews of Pilgrim’s Progress adaptations and updates in the following week.

ALSO: Have you seen the movie yet? Christianity Today has uploaded a podcast series, The Way to Glory, in conjunction with movie release. Each podcast is based on a different character or section of the allegory.
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