The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The full title of the work is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. The work tells the story of a man named Christian who reads the Bible and thus comes to fear his doom and to feel that he is carrying a burden. He desires to be saved. Luckily, he subsequently encounters a man named Evangelist who advises him to travel to the Celestial City by a certain path. Christian tries to follow his instructions, with varying degrees of success, and (massive spoiler alert) ultimately reaches his goal.

Is it worth reading this venerable Christian text nowadays?

Unsurprisingly, the language of the original work is (whether charmingly or annoyingly) old-fashioned, since it was published in 1678. (See below for a few excerpts and you’ll get the idea.) The “plot” of the work is also rather dull, consisting as it does of a mere series of incidents. The “characters” too are dull, since they all represent ideas rather than actual people, and are in fact given the names of the very ideas that they represent (Obstinate, Pliable, Help, etc.). Welcome to the world of on-the-nose allegory.

Now you’re thinking Pilgrim’s Progress sounds rather tedious. Well, you could always read an updated version (see below) or study the hip Shmoop notes instead of trying to plough through the original, and maybe you should. This thing was super popular in its time, and thought to be rather accessible and entertaining to children as well as adults. Today it remains an old stand-by of the Christian tradition, surviving not only in English but in numerous translations. Moreover, it has left a stubborn residue in the culture of the West in the form of isolated but literary-sounding phrases such as ‘Slough of Despond’, and ‘Vanity Fair’, which you may recognize as the title of a William Thackeray novel. The novel Little Women refers to the characters, settings, and plot of Pilgrim’s Progress throughout because the characters not only read the book but piously model their games and indeed their lives on it.

In fact it was when I was re-reading Little Women recently that I finally decided it was high time for me to read Pilgrim’s Progress as well. I read the version available as Project Gutenberg 131, which—as I now realize—contains only Part I of Pilgrim’s Progress, the half that was published first. Project Gutenberg 39452 also contains Part II, published in 1684. I downloaded the file for Project 131 because it was listed first and (having entered the Gutenberg catalog much earlier) had many more downloads.

Part I tells the story of the pilgrimage of Christian, and Part II tells the story of Christian’s wife Christiana and her companions. I would have read the whole thing at one go if I had known there were two parts… Coincidentally, Little Women has a similar two-part publication history. The second half, titled Good Wives, was published later but is now considered an inseparable part of the novel.

What Stood Out When I Read Pilgrim’s Progress

Behold, the disdain for the self that is expected of Christians:

IGNORANCE. What be good thoughts respecting ourselves?
CHRISTIAN. Such as agree with the Word of God. {358}
IGNORANCE. When do our thoughts of ourselves agree with the Word of God?
CHRISTIAN. When we pass the same judgment upon ourselves which the Word passes. To explain myself–the Word of God saith of persons in a natural condition, “There is none righteous, there is none that doeth good.” [Rom. 3] It saith also, that “every imagination of the heart of man is only evil, and that continually.” [Gen. 6:5] And again, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” [Rom. 8:21] Now then, when we think thus of ourselves, having sense thereof, then are our thoughts good ones, because according to the Word of God.
IGNORANCE. I will never believe that my heart is thus bad.
CHRISTIAN. Therefore thou never hadst one good thought concerning thyself in thy life.

This guy Ignorance just doesn’t have what it takes:

HOPE. Ask him if ever he had Christ revealed to him from heaven.
IGNORANCE. What! you are a man for revelations! I believe that what both you, and all the rest of you, say about that matter, is but the fruit of distracted brains.

Next time someone says something stupid in my hearing, I will proclaim it to be nothing but the fruit of a distracted brain. Well, probably I’ll just be saying it in my head. But still. Great insult.

What happens to Ignorance in the end? Does he learn his lesson? Nope! His job is to serve as a lesson to others.

[The King, i.e., God] commanded the two Shining Ones that conducted Christian and Hopeful to the City, to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away. Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

That’s how the narrator ends Part I. Ignorance is neither bliss nor excuse nor able to be remedied, apparently.

Editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress

Original Text, Parts I and II

These contain the original text, plus various modern additions by the editors, such as introductions, prefaces, biographical information, bibliographies, timelines, notes, annotations, etc. (I’ve listed them vaguely in the order of decreasing branding strength.)

The Pilgrim’s Progress Oxford World’s Classics

The Pilgrim’s Progress Norton Critical Editions

The Pilgrim’s Progress Penguin Classics

The Pilgrim’s Progress Wordsworth Classics

The Pilgrim’s Progress Collins Classics

The Pilgrim’s Progress Dover Thrift Editions


These are rewritten or abridged or otherwise incomplete or inauthentic, but they are more accessible.

Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
This looks like a reputable modern adaptation pitched at adults. Retold by James H. Thomas.

Little Pilgrim’s Progress Moody Bible Institute of Chicago with companion book Little Pilgrim’s Progress: Adventure Guide
Rewritten 60 years ago by Helen L. Taylor as a children’s chapter book adventure story with lots of pictures.

When and Why I Read The Pilgrim's Progress

The characters of Little Women refer to the book and its setting, characters, and plot.

Genre: fiction (religious allegory)
Date started / date finished: 16-May-19 to 20-May-19
Length: 145 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 131
Originally published in: 1678
Gutenberg link: The Pilgrim's Progress