John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is a book that deserves a permanent place on your bookshelf. It’s right up there with The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Every time I read it, I’m struck by a new part of the story. The re-readability factor is high.
The last time I read The Pilgrim’s Progress, I was inspired by Christian’s courage in the face of evil. This time, I am struck by how Christian’s hope kept him from succumbing to despair.
About The Pilgrim’s Progress
The Pilgrim’s Progress is written in a style that today’s readers will rarely, if ever, encounter in modern popular literature. Back in 1678, when it was first published, the English language was recognizable as the same language in use today. However, the vocabulary, grammar, and style of that time period are a little jarring and takes some time to get used to.
John Bunyan uses allegory in a way that is incredibly direct, with the thinnest of thin story telling veneers over it. Character development is primarily accomplished through simply naming the characters the same as their primary character trait. For example, Hopeful is a man with very strong hope. Despair is giant who makes people despair. This naming convention extends to inanimate objects as well. Doubting Castle imprisons people and makes them doubt or forget the truth.
Capture and Torture by a Giant Named Despair
The book’s protagonist, Christian, and his companion named Hopeful, are heading to the Celestial City.
At this point of the story, Christian has already journeyed a long way. He’s left his home, and escaped a bog called The Slough of Despond. He has received, lost, and recovered a certificate to enter Celestial City. He has defeated the evil monster Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation, and he witnessed his previous companion, Faithful, executed in the dangerous town of Vanity.
On the way to Celestial City, the path became rough, narrow, and difficult to follow. So, Christian leads Hopeful onto a wide and smooth field that appears to run alongside the rough and narrow road. But before long, night falls and they found themselves weathering a great storm. They became lost and the giant, named Despair, finds them and captures the two men. Despair brings them to Doubting Castle and locks them in the dungeon.
The Giant therefore drove them before him, and put them into his Castle, into a very dark Dungeon, nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men. Here then they lay from Wednesday morning till Saturday night, without one bit of bread, or drop of drink, or light, or any to ask how they did; they were therefore here in evil case, and were far from friends and acquaintance. Now in this place Christian had double sorrow, because ‘twas through his unadvised haste that they were brought into this distress.
Christian starts his imprisonment feeling especially low because it was his prompting that caused them to leave the road and be captured. On top of that, Despair’s wife, named Diffidence, advises her husband to be particularly malicious toward Christian and Hopeful.
Then she counselled him that when he arose in the morning he should beat them without any mercy. 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 of 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. This done, he withdraws and leaves them, there to condole their misery, and to mourn under their distress: so all that day they spent the time in nothing but sighs and bitter lamentations.
Christian and Hopeful are helpless. The giant couple are literally torturing them. The giants continue their efforts the next day. This time they engage in psychological attacks by encouraging the companions to commit suicide.
So when morning was come, he goes to them in a surly manner as before, and perceiving them to be very sore with the stripes that he had given them the day before, he told them, that since they were never like to come out of that place, their only way would be forthwith to make an end of themselves, either with Knife, Halter, or Poison; For why, said he, should you chuse life, seeing it is attended with so much bitterness?
Then the giant leaves the dungeon because he experiences a “fit” which causes him to temporarily lose the function of his hand. This event isn’t well explained other than he’s prone to fits when the weather is sunny.
Hopeful Helps Christian Fight His Despair
Christian falls into despair and tells Hopeful of his misery. But Hopeful encourages Christian:
…Let us consider again, that all the Law is not in the hand of Giant Despair. Others, so far as I can understand, have been taken by him as well as we, and yet have escaped out of his hand. Who knows but that God that made the world may cause that Giant Despair may die? or that at some time or other he may forget to lock us in? or but he may in short time have another of his Fits before us, and may lose the use of his limbs? and if ever that should come to pass again, for my part I am resolve to pluck up the heart of a man, and to try my utmost to get from under his hand. I was a fool that I did not try to do it before; but however, my Brother, let’s be patient, and endure a while; the time may come that may give us a happy release; but let us not be our own murderers. With these words Hopeful at present did moderate the mind of his Brother; so they continued together (in the dark) that day, in their sad and doleful condition.
Hopeful reminds Christian that there’s still the possibility of surviving the giant’s abuse. He encourages Christian to endure. And though the allegory may not be subtle, it’s true that a man with hope will endure the onslaught of abuse and despair better than a man without it.
But, the giant is not finished. He is angered during his third visit because the two prisoners are still alive.
But, I say, he found them alive; at which he fell into a grievous rage, and told them that seeing they had disobeyed his counsel, it should be worse with them than if they had never been born.
This greatly affects Christian, for again he considered suicide. But Hopeful comes to Christian’s aid by encouraging him a second time. Hopeful reminds Christian of his journey so far, including victory in his previous battle with Apollyon.
Hope. My Brother, said he, remembrest thou not how valiant thou hast been heretofore? Apollyon could not crush thee, nor could all that though didst hear, or see, or feel in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror, and amazement hast thou already gone through, and art thou now nothing but fear? Thou seest that I am in the Dungeon with thee, a far weaker man by nature than thou art; also this Giant has wounded me as well as thee, and hath also cut off the Bread and Water from my mouth; and with thee I mourn without the light. But let’s exercise a little more patience; remember how thou playedst the man at Vanity Fair, and wast neither afraid of the Chain, nor Cage, nor yet of bloody Death: wherefore let us (at least to avoid the shame, that becomes not a Christian to be found in) bear up with patience as well as we can.
The giants are not yet done with their mental onslaught. For a fourth time they attack the men to entice them to despair.
So when the morning was come, the Giant goes to them again, and takes them into the Castle-yard and shews them as his Wife had bidden him. These, said he, were Pilgrims as you are, once, and they trespassed in my grounds, as you have done; and when I thought fit, I tore them in pieces, and so within ten days I will do you. Go get you down to your Den again; and with that he beat them all the way thither.
Christian Remembers His Key Called Promise
Christian and Hopeful are nearing their death. They can only survive so long without food and drink. They pray. Then Christian has a revelation.
What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That’s good news; good Brother pluck it out of thy bosom and try.
Christian and Hopeful are able to escape with the key called Promise. Promise can open every lock inside Doubting Castle. The lesson here is that the promise they hoped in was a true promise. And since the promise was true, and their hope was not misplaced, then they were able to resist falling into despair and survive long enough to reach the King’s Highway again.
Nourish Your Hope Rather Than Your Happiness
Human beings have always been very susceptible to sadness and despair. These days there’s even a term called “Black Pilled” that describes people who are despairing so desperately that they don’t believe there is any way out of the problems they face.
Some people say that we should strive to simply stay happy. Or, that we should pursue happiness. For Americans, the pursuit of happiness is ingrained deep in our culture. We have taken an idealistic reactionary feeling…literally something that “happens” to us…and we’ve confused it for a virtue.
Bunyan does not share that opinion. He shows through his allegory that the antidote to despair is not happiness, rather it’s hopefulness. And it’s not unfounded hope, it’s hope resting on a foundation of a true promise.