The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come by John Bunyan (1629-1688) is a Christian allegory (a story in which people, places and events represent abstract concepts). The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678, but this illustrated edition is from 1815.
John Bunyan was an itinerant tinker and a non-comformist who spent many years in prison for refusing to obey injunctions not to preach. He wrote the greater part of Pilgrim’s Progress while in Bedford Gaol. The work was an instant publishing success, running to 11 editions within a decade of its original publication and selling possibly 100,000 copies in its first 15 years. During the later 18th and the 19th centuries it became regarded in Britain as essential family reading, and has been claimed as one of the 10 most published books of all time.
The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the story of Christian and his journey from The City of Destruction (representing earth) to the Celestial City (representing heaven). Along the way he meets characters such as Pliable, Obstinate and Hopeful who, as their names suggest, embody particular qualities that may help or hinder a Christian in his or her journey to heaven. The work’s language is permeated by that of the King James Bible, which Bunyan mixes with the colloquial language of his day. In applying the idea of the voyage/quest narrative to a spiritual subject, The Pilgrim’s Progress is an early model for the novel as a journey of the self towards fulfilment, seen later in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (the title of which is taken from Bunyan’s work), George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.
Maggie Tulliver reads The Pilgrim’s Progress as a young child. Her edition, like this one, is illustrated, and she takes particular pleasure of a picture showing the devil ‘in his true shape, [fighting] with Christian’ (Book I, Ch. 3).
Like Christian, Maggie struggles with temptation and obstinacy on her quest for salvation and fulfilment. The Pilgrim’s Progress was so widely read in the 19th century that Eliot could count on her readers being familiar with it; many of them, like Maggie and Eliot herself, would have read it as children. Eliot alludes to The Pilgrim’s Progress throughout The Mill on the Floss. The title of Book Fourth is ‘The Valley of Humiliation’, which is one of the places Christian encounters in The Pilgrim’s Progress. The chapter ‘The Golden Gates Are Passed’ may also be a reference to Bunyan, since Christian passes through many different gates on his way to the Celestial City. Through such details, Eliot encourages her readers to compare Maggie’s journey with Christian’s, and her novel with Bunyan’s allegory.