Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Narrative, Ritual, and Irony in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Narrative, Ritual, and Irony in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress

Article excerpt

Modern critics of The Pilgrim 's Progress have questioned for over thirty years whether the allegory is really about a Christian pilgrim and whether the hero makes any progress. The revisionist readings of Christian have found him to be anything from a self-justifying Calvinist exclusionist (Dutton) to a symbol of the soul plunging into the life stream of the unconscious (Harding). Some critics of his pilgrimage found that beneath the narrative progression, there is no progress, either because the 'real' journey is totally interior, totally the predestined effect of divine grace, or totally a device to entrap the reader (Kaufman, Sim, Fish). More recently since the book's tercentenary, contextual critics have discerned complex connections between Bunyan's theology or pastoral works and the details of his dialogue, characters, and narrative in The Pilgrim's Progress.1

What few of these critics have done, however, is to account for The Pilgrim's Progress strength as a complex narrative. Without such an examination of its narrative surface and structure, both in its overall pattern and its individual sequences, one can hardly account for the story's unrivaled popularity for two hundred years. Although its place in the canon derives originally in part from what Hazard Adams has called historical "power criteria," its continuance there despite centuries of religious decline calls for a more adequate analysis of its accord with "literary criteria" (Adams). Such an analysis might also suggest why Walter Allen dares to call it the work of "a transcendent popular genius" who set "a standard in story telling, vivid characterization, and natural dialogue" for the next two centuries (17). Similarly, such an analysis might help readers understand why the story has been called at one extreme, "the universal quest of man for the goal of his supreme desiring" and, at the other, the tale of "a character at odds with . . . conventional society, even at odds with himself, constantly checked and beaten, but who finally triumphs by maintaining his integrity" (Winslow 146, Dutton 445). Whether as a displaced quest romance or an undigested pre-novel, The Pilgrim's Progress deserves a closer look at its narrative structure and complicated logic.

The recently emphasized theological beliefs of Bunyan are incorporated in his story as variants of what Tsvetan Todorov calls a narrative logic in tension with a ritual logic. Its narrative logic, with its focus on cause and effect events in the present moment on earth, is complicated by the mixture of both romance and realism. As I shall demonstrate, its romance subgenres allow for preternatural characters, conflicts, coincidences, and miracles, subject only to the limits of imaginative possibility. Alternating with these romance episodes are realistic tales that focus on ordinary life events and natural causality according to a norm of human probability, freedom, and character consistency. In contrast to the narrative logic of both its romance and realism is Pilgrim's Progress' ritual logic, which derives from its place within a religious allegory in a Christian tradition. Its ritual or religious logic follows from its theological premises, which for Bunyan as a Puritan with both Calvinistic and Lutheran roots, emphasize the doctrines of double predestination and of salvation by faith alone. Such a ritual logic highlights the radical difference between an infinite, eternal, all-good God and finite, temporal, and fallen human beings who are in need of the grace of salvation on their journey toward a final eschatological kingdom. In this article, I will suggest why even the strength of Bunyan's narrative logic cannot always accommodate the ritual logic of some of his theological premises.

An analysis of the structure of Pilgrim's Progress, Part I, shows that the narrative consists of six tales, beginning with a Conversion Story (Bunyan 8-38), followed by a Test Romance (39-66), a Realistic Temptation Story (67-97), a second Test Romance (97-123), a second Realistic Temptation story (124-154), and concluding with an Eschatological Transformation (155-163). …

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