Analysis of John Bunyan’s Novels

John Bunyan (November 30, 1628 – August 31, 1688) viewed his life as a commitment to Christian stewardship, to be carried on by gospel preaching and instructive writing. Although practically everything he wrote reflects that commitment, he possessed the ability to create interesting variations on similar themes, keeping in mind the needs of his lower-class audience. Thus, The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of human life and universal religious experience. In The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, Bunyan abandoned allegory and developed a dialogue between Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive through which he publicized the aims and methods of the late seventeenth century bourgeois scoundrel, whose lack of principle and honesty was well known among Bunyan’s readers (the victims of Mr. Badman). Finally, his first major work, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is a “spiritual autobiography” that presents adventures and experiences not unlike those undergone by any human being at any moment in history who must wrestle with the fundamental questions of life. The function of Bunyan’s prose in every case was to spread the Word of God and to establish a holy community of humankind in which that Word could be practiced. Once the Word took hold, Bunyan believed, the world would become a veritable garden of peace and order.

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

Published in 1666, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners remains one of the most significant spiritual autobiographies by an English writer. Bunyan’s style is perhaps more formal in this piece than in The Pilgrim’s Progress, although he did well in balancing the heavy phrasing of Scripture (as it appeared in the Authorized Version) with picturesque, colloquial English. A richly emotional work in which such highly charged experiences as the Last Judgment and the tortures of Hell become as clear as the mundane experiences of daily existence, Bunyan’s autobiography is a narrative of spiritual adventure set against the backdrop of a real village in Britain. Although he omitted specific names and dates, obviously to universalize the piece, Bunyan did not forget to describe what he had seen after his return from the army: the popular game of “cat,” with its participants and spectators; the bell ringers at the parish church; the poor women sitting, in sunlight, before the door of a village house; the puddles in the road. Woven into this fabric of reality are the experiences of the dreamer; the people of Bedford appear as though in a vision on the sunny side of a high mountain, as the dreamer, shut out by an encompassing wall, shivers in the cold storm. Such interweaving of reality and fantasy was to take place again, with greater force and allegorical complexity, in the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Bunyan’s intention in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners was to point the way by which average Christians, convinced of their own sins, can be led by God’s grace to endure the pain of spiritual crisis.Hedetermined to record how, as an obscure Bedfordshire tinker, he had changed his course from sloth and sin and had become an eloquent and fearless man of God. Of course, when he wrote the work, he had been in prison for ten years, and (as he states in the preface) he set about to enlighten and assist those fromwhomhe had, for so long a period, been separated.

From the confinement of his prison cell, Bunyan felt the desire to survey his entire life—to grasp his soul in his hands and take account of himself. Thus, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners emerged from the heart and the spirit of a man isolated from humankind to become not merely one more testimonial for the instruction of the faithful but a serious psychological self-study—one so truthful and so sincere (and also so spontaneous) that it may be the first work of its kind. Bunyan’s language is simple and direct, and his constant references to Scripture emphasize the typicality of his experiences as a struggling Christian. His fears, doubts, and moments of comfort are filtered through the encounter between David and Goliath and God’s deliverance of the young shepherd, while his lively imagination gathers images from the Psalms and the Proverbs and reshapes them to fit the context of his spiritual experiences.

The Pilgrim’s Progress

Bunyan’s ability to universalize his experience is supremely evident in The Pilgrim’s Progress, perhaps the most successful allegory in British literature. The Pilgrim’s Progress has as its basic metaphor the familiar idea of life as a journey. Bunyan confronts his pilgrim, Christian, with homely and commonplace sights: a quagmire, the bypaths and shortcuts through pleasant country meadows, the inn, the steep hill, the town fair on market day, the river to be forded. Such places belong to the everyday experience of every man, woman, and child; on another level, they recall the holy but homely parables of Christ’s earthly ministry and thus assume spiritual significance. Those familiar details serve as an effective background for Bunyan’s narrative, a story of adventure intended to hold the reader in suspense. Bunyan grew up among the very people who constituted his audience, and he knew how to balance the romantic and the strange with the familiar. Thus, Christian travels the King’s Highway at the same time that he traverses a perilous path to encounter giants, wild beasts, hobgoblins, and the terrible Apollyon, the angel of the bottomless pit with whom the central character must fight. Other travelers are worthy of humorous characterization, as they represent a variety of intellectual and moral attitudes, while Christian himself runs the gamut of universal experience, from the moment he learns of his sins until the account of his meeting with Hopeful in the river.

As always, Bunyan molds his style from the Authorized Version of the Bible. By relying on concrete, common language, he enables even the simplest of his readers to share experiences with the characters of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Even the conversations relating to complex and tedious theological issues do not detract from the human and dramatic aspects of the allegory: Evangelist pointing the way; Christian running from his home with his fingers stuck in his ears; the starkness of the place of the Cross in contrast to the activity of Vanity Fair; the humorous but terribly circumstantial trial. It is this homely but vivid realism that accounts for the timeless appeal of Bunyan’s allegory. The Pilgrim’s Progress reveals the truth about humankind—its weakness, its imperfection, its baseness—but also its search for goodness and order.

The Life and Death of Mr. Badman

The Life and Death of Mr. Badman represents Bunyan’s major attempt at a dialogue, a confrontation between the Christian and the atheist, between the road to Paradise and the route to Hell. Mr. Wiseman, a Christian, tells the story of Mr. Badman to Mr. Attentive, who in turn comments on it. Badman is an example of the reprobate, one whose sins become evident during childhood. In fact, he is so addicted to lying that his parents cannot distinguish when he is speaking the truth. Bunyan does not place much blame on the parents, for they indeed bear the burden of their son’s actions; they even attempt to counsel him and to redirect his ways. The situation becomes worse, however, as Badman’s lying turns to pilfering and then to outright stealing. All of this, naturally, leads to a hatred of Sunday, of the Puritan demands of that day: reading Scripture, attending conferences, repeating sermons, praying to God. Wiseman, the defender of the Puritan Sabbath, maintains that little boys, as a matter of course, must learn to appreciate the Sabbath; those who do not are victims of their own wickedness. Hatred of the Sabbath leads to swearing and cursing, which become as natural to young Badman as eating, drinking, and sleeping.

Badman’s adult life is painstakingly drawn out through realistic descriptions, anecdotes, and dialogue. He cheats and steals his way through the world of debauchery and commerce and creates misery for his wife and seven children. Growing in importance, he forms a league with the devil and becomes a wealthy man by taking advantage of others’ misfortunes. When the time comes for his end, he cannot be saved—nor does Bunyan try to fabricate an excuse for his redemption and salvation. As Mr. Wiseman states, “As his life was full of sin, so his death was without repentance.” Throughout a long sickness, Badman fails to acknowledge his sins, remaining firm in his self-satisfaction. He dies without struggle, “like a chrisom child, quietly and without fear.”

The strength of The Life and Death of Mr. Badman derives in large part from Bunyan’s ability to depict common English life of the middle and late seventeenth century. The details are so accurate, so minute, that the reader can gain as much history from the piece as morality or practical theology. Bunyan places no demands on the reader’s credulity by providential interpositions, nor does he alter his wicked character’s ways for the sake of a happy ending. In portraying Badman’s ways, Bunyan concedes nothing, nor does he exaggerate. Badman succeeds, gains wealth and power, and dies at peace with himself. Bunyan creates a monstrous product of sin and places him squarely in the center of English provincial life. The one consolation, the principal lesson, is that Badman travels the direct route to everlasting hellfire. On his way, he partakes of life’s pleasures and is gratified by them as only an unrepentant sinner could be. For Bunyan, the harsh specificity of Badman’s life is a sufficient lesson through which to promote his version of positive Christianity.

Beneath the veil of seventeenth century British Puritanism, for all its seeming narrowness and sectarian strife, there was something for all persons of all eras— the struggle to know God, to do his will, to find peace. If Bunyan’s first major prose work was a spiritual autobiography, then it is fair to state that the principal efforts that followed—The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman—constituted one of the earliest spiritual histories of all humankind.

Major Works
Poetry: A Caution to Stir Up to Watch Against Sin, 1664; A Book for Boys and Girls: Or, Country Rhymes for Children, 1686; Discourse of the Building, Nature, Excellency, and Government of the House of God, 1688.
Nonfiction: Some Gospel Truths Opened, 1656; A Vindication . . . of Some Gospel Truths Opened, 1657; A Few Signs from Hell, 1658; The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded, 1659; Profitable Meditations Fitted to Man’s Different Condition, 1661; I Will Pray with the Spirit, 1663; A Mapp Shewing the Order and Causes of Salvation and Damnation, 1664; The Holy City: Or, The New Jerusalem, 1665; One Thing Is Needful, 1665; A Confession of My Faith and a Reason for My Practice, 1671; A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, 1672; ANew and Useful Concordance to the Holy Bible, 1672; Saved by Grace, 1676; The Strait Gate: Or, The Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven, 1676; A Treatise of the Fear of God, 1679; A Holy Life, the Beauty of Christianity, 1684; The Jerusalem Sinner Saved, 1688; Solomon’s Temple Spiritualized: Or, Gospel Light Fecht Out of the Temple at Jerusalem, 1688.

Brown, John. John Bunyan, 1628-1688: His Life, Times, and Work. 3d. ed. Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 2007.
Collmer, Robert G., ed. Bunyan in Our Time. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1989.
Davies, Michael. Graceful Reading: Theology and Narrative in the Works of John Bunyan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Interprets Harrison, G. B. John Bunyan: A Study in Personality. 1928.
Hill, Christopher. A Turbulent, Seditious, and Factious People: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Kelman, John. The Road: AStudy of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” 2 vols. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1912.
Mullett, Michael. John Bunyan in Context. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1997.
Sadler, Lynn Veach. John Bunyan. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Spargo, Tamsin. The Writing of John Bunyan. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997.

Categories: History of English Literature, Novel Analysis

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