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Analyzing John Bunyan's The Pilgrims Progress

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2235 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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John Bunyan (28 November 1628 – 31 August 1688) is considered to be one of the important figures of the 17th century England. The idea of Puritanism being one of the major tenets of the century was mostly practiced by different religious writers among whom Bunyan was a leading practitioner. He is known nowadays not only for being one of the major writers of the period, but also for being a strict preacher. Other than his masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, only for which he is known nowadays and by which he was brought a never lasting fame, he wrote some other allegories and sermons throughout his life which the major ones are called The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, The Holy War and Grace Abounding the Chief of Sinners.

Bunyan’s masterpiece The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That which Is to Come in the Similitude of a Dream is considered to be one of the best allegories of the English literature. It was once considered that this book was the most widely read book in English language after the Bible.

In reading John Bunyan’s masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress, one comes to notice the easily floating process of its text when being read:

As I walked through the wilderness of his world, I lighted on a certain place where a Den was, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. (Bunyan 9)

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One element which helps keep the reader alert and enthusiastic all the time encountering difficult situations and predicaments throughout The Pilgrim’s Progress, parts I and II, is the story’s narration. The way this religious allegory has grabbed the attention of many critics and the elites, not mentioning ordinary people for whom the book was written in the first place, is its specific narrative style making it outstanding as a work of literature. This simple but worthy style immediately brings to any sensitive and smart reader’s mind, the simple but effective style of the Holy Bible. Some believe that book one stands for the Old Testament whereas the second book brings to mind the New Testament. This belief is of course due to the way their texts have been written and also due to the use of diction and syntax in them compared to the Bible in general. According to R. M Frye’s essay “The Way of All Pilgrims”

Pilgrim’s Progress consists of two parts, each complete in itself. The first recounts the full journey of the pilgrim…. Concerned as it is with the individual, this first part presents one facet of the Christian life, and does not deal primarily with the larger life of the Christian community. The second part of the allegory supplies the perspective of the Church, the body of Christians moving over the same ground the Christian had earlier covered…. By the device of two juxtaposed narratives, Bunyan provides a stereoscopic view of the Christian life….

The Pilgrim’s Progress is about the idea of life being a journey through which people by either their good deeds or bad ones gain salvation or damnation. The story revolves around the life of a specific Christian character that feels a heavy burden on his back one day and realizing that it is the heavy burden of his sins, decides to leave his wife, children and hometown behind and to start a journey to the Celestial City, the ultimate destiny of all human beings, so that he can let go of his burden. Despite his family’s begging and moaning and despite all the difficulties encountered on the way, he is decisive enough to ignore them all and start his journey. The story moves on as to reveal that throughout his journey, Christian meets different dilemmas and difficulties from which he overcomes all in the end.

In the second book which was written six years after the first and published in 1684, Bunyan once again depicts this idea of life as a journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Of course this time it is the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife Christiana and their four sons.

There are some major narrative differences between the first book and its sequel as it came to be called. One of the differences is that in spite of the first book which was shown as a personal and a solitary pilgrimage, the second book leads a collective pilgrimage in which not only Christiana and her sons are involved but also some other characters, the most important of all being called Mercy, accompany them too. Due to being a collective pilgrimage and also because of the gender of the main pilgrim, a female, the narration and the style of this sequel has undergone some changes compared to that of the first book. The diction as well as the syntax other than the plot seems to be somehow less harsh and tough. They give less of a sense of awe and despair.

Since this masterpiece, due to the significance of its style, its narrative and the words which have been meticulously -rather than arbitrarily- chosen, lends itself to Narratology, this study aims at reading Bunyan’s allegorical narrative, The Pilgrim’s Progress, according to Gerard Genette’s theories of a narrative work of fiction, in order to bring to light some hidden or unnoticed aspects of the masterpiece so that later generations would be able to look at the work in new perspectives and end in new understandings.

Narration or the act of telling or writing is one of the important issues of Narratology. According to Gerard Genette, one of the precursors of Narratology, in any work of fiction, there is “the events, their verbal representation and the act of telling or writing” (Rimmon Kenan 3). These are what Genette in his theories relates to as ‘histoire’, ‘récit’ and ‘narration’ (ibid 3). So in any literary work, the story or the plot is what specifically the work is about and is the events told in an ordinary, not twisted, chronological order. Text on the other hand is the written or the printed words seen on a page when reading a book. So the text is where we encounter either the ordinary way or the twisted form of a plot, and it should be mentioned that the text does not necessarily appear in a chronological order. This written text presupposes somebody in having it written down (implied author) and also somebody in having had it said (narrator). This act of producing is what Genette refers to as ‘narration’.

In any work of literature it is of prime importance to notice the narration as well as the text within which it has been narrated other than the story it leads. As a matter of fact, the text of any literary work is the only tangible material available to the reader and it is through the text that the reader comes to an understanding of the story and its narration.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, although the author gives an overview of the plot of his work in the opening of the novel in the form of verse, the text of the work is what which makes all the difference. It is only through the text which the readers get a better understanding not only of the narration of the work in general, but also the story and its ups and downs in different situations and episodes where the characters encounter difficulties or God-given graces throughout their journey.

Genette has some key concepts in his definition of narrative and narration which very interestingly can be applied to the style of Bunyan in this specific case to which this study tries to attend. The research does its best to trace those elements of Genette’s theories not only in the work’s narrative in general but also according to the speech and attitudes of the characters in particular.

In his Narrative Discourse: An Essay, Genette tries to make a distinction between different aspects of a narrative as he has categorized them under the terms: récit or the printed text of the work, histoire or the plot and the events of the work as they occur chronologically and also narration or the act of narrating or telling the work (Tyson 219).

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Although Genette believes that all three levels of a narrative fiction work together, récit is what concerns him and his theories most. What he does in analyzing a work of literature is that he separates parts of the text which cannot actually function separately only to see how those parts interact in order to make that inseparable original text. Genette believes these three levels of a work of literature interact by the help of the three qualities of tense, mood and voice (ibid 219).

Tense being “the arrangement of events in the narrative with respect to time” includes within itself the elements of order, duration and frequency. Mood on the other hand is “the atmosphere of the narrative” which also consists of the notions of distance and perspective. By voice, Genette means the voice of the narrator. The element of voice helps us “determine the narrator’s attitude toward the story” (ibid 219-21).

It is interesting to acknowledge that despite some beliefs that the narration of the work and its style and the way some narrative elements such as tense, mood and voice have been spontaneously chosen, Bunyan has very masterly figured these elements out in a way so that he has chosen the best and most proper words, tenses and moods in different situations for different characters throughout the piece. For example, in reading the work carefully, one of the things which attract the reader’s attention in respect to the narrative of the work is the specific tenses which Bunyan has masterly employed. The main story being a traditional narrative is told in the past tense:

But I replied, Lord, I am a great, a very great sinner. And He answered, My grace is sufficient for thee. Then I said, [b]ut, Lord, what is believing? And then I saw from that saying, [h]e that cometh to [M]e shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst…. Then the water stood in mine eyes, and I asked further. (115, book I)

Whereas there are some marginal notes within the allegory which if looked at carefully, are all narrated in the present tense

So when he arose, he getteth him a grievous Crab-tree Cudgel, and goes down into the Dungeon to them; and there, first falls to rateing them as if they were dogs, although they gave him never a word of distaste; then he falls upon them, and beats them fearfully, in such sort, that they were not able to help themselves, or to turn them upon the floor. (93, book I)

The atmosphere or the mood of Bunyan’s masterpiece is also of significance. Wherever there is a talk about God given graces or salvation, Bunyan has very meticulously chosen a smooth narrative trend with relieving words and expressions:

In this country the sun shineth night and day; wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and also out of the reach of Giant Despair; neither could they from this place so much as see Doubting-Castle. (Bunyan 195)

On the other hand, wherever there appear harsh words and nasty sentences as to create a frightening mood, the reader can easily guess that there is something awful happening. In such cases either the characters are getting near a destructive place or situation or have committed a sin. This dual atmosphere is perfectly juxtaposed in the book as a whole. The harsh mood is mostly applied to the first book where Christian is on a solitary pilgrimage and encounters the difficulties all alone and by himself without any specific person as a guide next to him; whereas the more soothing and relieving atmosphere belongs to the second book where we have a collective pilgrimage. In this second part, Bunyan has decided to take everything easier. Here other than having most of the characters as female pilgrims who are sensitive to harshness, the difficulties which they encounter on their way are all already known to the readers. This lessens the stressful condition not only for the readers but also for the pilgrims themselves too, because having heard about Christian’s adventures on their way, these pilgrims are somehow already familiar with the quests and have fully prepared themselves beforehand. It is of importance to note that these pilgrims had a Mr. GREAT-HEART as a full employed guide accompanying them all the time. So once again this relieving mood is emphasized.

The voice of the work also shows us the narrator’s (dreamer’s) attitude toward the characters in different situations. The narrator’s voice changes according to the situation in which he is in and the places he is narrating, whether a good one or a bad one.

All in all Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has this smooth way of narration which is considered to be one the most important reasons of its popularity among all kinds of readers. Other than its triggering plot, the use of everyday vocabulary and the idiosyncratic style which Bunyan has employed in this work of his, adds to its popularity throughout centuries.


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