Most of the “classic” books that I’ve read are classics for a reason: they might have unique insights to offer, or they have remarkable writing, or compelling storytelling, or some other aspect that makes them worth reading through the intervening centuries. There are books, though, that achieve classic status for more, shall we say, external reasons. Most of the books designated as classics for school probably fall into this category, where the main requirements are that they be depressing, and that they have lots of symbols (intentional or not) for readers to overanalyze.
In the case of Pilgrim’s Progress, I suspect it became a classic because it served as a blatant and approachable introduction to a certain school of Christian thought. If this is an allegory, then Dante’s Divine Comedy is pure fantasy, so heavy-handed does Bunyan make his messaging. The characters in the book don’t even have real names: the protagonist’s name is “Christian,” he is sent on his religious journey by a neighbor named “Evangelist,” he gets mired in the “Slough of Dispond,” and encounters people who try to turn him from his path named in similar fashion after the seven deadly sins.
This is often compared to the Divine Comedy, which book I did enjoy, for all it was quite a long and challenging read, but aside from the obvious religious resonances, there were few similarities. I added Pilgrim’s Progress to my reading list ages ago because it was so often lauded by historical figures (like in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography), but while I can see it being fed to eighteenth century schoolchildren, I don’t think that it has the same modern relevance of classics like Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric. The writing is unremarkable, the storytelling all but nonexistent, and the characters empty shells.
It did have a few nuggets of interest, like the terrible glory of Job’s horse’s nostrils, or a quote from the Bible in which Jesus tells us to hate our families (which is never explained, and was so out of alignment with “love your neighbor,” and “respect your mother and father” that I had to look it up – it is a real quote from the Bible, but I doubt you’ll ever find it preached upon today, as that would be a tough sermon to deliver). I think find that quote more disorienting than the part in the Divine Comedy where we learn that people who lived religiously obedient lives before Jesus came are still condemned to the Inferno because they didn’t believe in Jesus.
To be honest, I only read the first half of the book in detail, and proceeded to skim the remainder. You know I rarely tire of encouraging readers to rediscover the classics which are no longer taught as they probably ought to be, but I will not be adding Pilgrim’s Progress to that list. Most of the time, I have at least a small segment of my audience to whom I think I can recommend a book that I read, but this time I don’t know who that would be. At least it only cost ninety-nine cents. Instead of ending by saying I hope you read this book soon, I will say that I hope you read…some other book soon. Whatever you choose, you’ll probably make more progress.