“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” Tolkien, preface to Lord of the Rings
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory. That is to say, it superposes two ways of understanding reality: a chronological lived-experience way and an allegorical spiritual way. Various things happen in the story of The Pilgrim's Progress, people are encountered, places are visited and so on, and all of these are “allegorical” representations of various things that are happening in another story, which we can intuit from what we read but which is not specifically told: the story of a person trying to live a life true to their Christian faith in “our” world. The book is about this balance, or tension, between the allegorical and the real. So far, so bleeding obvious.
We all know this doubled story of course. A man called Christian, who previously went by the name Graceless, is an inhabitant of the City of Destruction. As the narrative opens he is reading a book—the Bible, we presume, though it's not specifically spelled out—and realising he must be saved. By reading he has acquired a gigantic pack on his back that weighs him down: an allegorical representation of his awakened conscience or his consciousness of sin. Resolving to go on pilgrimage, he abandons his wife and four sons and soon meets a man called Evangelist, “walking out in the fields”, who directs him to the “Wicket Gate” through which he has to pass, and so begin his trek to the “Cœlestial City” of Zion, which is heaven.
On the way to this gate Christian falls into the Slough of Despond, a boggy mire that is the sink of all the sins of his city's inhabitants, but he is pulled out by Help, and he gets to the Wicket Gate and through it onto the road of Salvation. One of the first things he comes to is a Cross standing over an open sepulchre, at which sight “his burden loosed from off his Shoulders” and rolled down into the open grave “where it fell and I saw it no more” [32; my page refs are all to this edition].
Christian's journey, though, is only just beginning, and each subsequent stage has its double signification, an in-text worldbuilding meaning and an allegorical outwardly-referring meaning. Often the latter is indicated by a marginal gloss attached to the appearance of the former: Christian is directed to a “high hill”, and the note says “Mount Sinai”; the topography of the gate is described (“a little distance from this Gate” stands “a strong Castle” and “them that are within Shoot Arrows at those that come up to this Gate”—Christian only escapes being shot because the Gatekeeper, Goodwill, pulls him suddenly inside) and glossed (“Satan envies those that enter the straight Gate”).
Indeed, in an intriguingly meta-move, Bunyan builds this hermeneutic, these pointers to the meanings of the allegory, actually into the in-text logic of the world he is describing. Christian spends some time in the house of a man called Interpreter, who shows him a number of pictures and artefacts and explains their meaning. To recap: Bunyan starts his book with a poem explaining that it is an allegory; he gives his places and characters transparently allegorical names, and adds marginal glosses at various places decoding the text's references. And he includes an in-text character whose whole purpose is showing allegorical representations to other in-text characters and explaining what they are allegorical of. We take the point.
Moving on, Christian climbs a hill called Difficulty, and meets naysayers and wicked people with names like Mistrust and Timorous, as well as encouragers with names like Piety and Prudence. When he passes through the Valley of Humiliation he battles with a winged demon-monster called Apollyon (spiritual destruction) whom he defeats. He meets and befriends a fellow Pilgrim called Faithful, and the two of them pass through Vanity Fair (the secular world) where they are arrested and tried and Faithful is executed. Christian, though, escapes (we're not told how) and falls in with another companion, Hopeful. These two resist the monetary temptations of a character called Demas, who tries to entice them from the true path so that they can visit “a little Hill called Lucre, and in that Hill a Silver Mine” ; but after avoiding that one temptation they fall prey to another. They stray from the true path and end up in the gaol cells of Doubting Castle, prisoners of the monstrous Giant Despair. This Giant beats them Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and his wife urges him to kill them both; but on Sunday Christian suddenly remembers he has a key in his breast “called Promise” that “opens any lock in Doubting Castle”. As they escape the Giant comes after them, but he is subject to strange epileptic seizures and has one before he can recover his former prisoners.
Free again, the two pilgrims make their way to the Delectable Mountains, where shepherds restore and entertain them. From the peak of these mountains they get a clear sight of the Celestial City, their destination, but also various other dangers still before them. They press on, but are caught in one of the devil's snares, an actual net (they are released by a passing “Shining one”, or angel, who whips them for good measure to teach them a lesson) and then they meet a man called Atheist who is walking the wrong way, and who assures them “there is no such place” as the Celestial City. Finally, passing Pope, Pagan and Ignorance, they get to their destination, and swim through the river of death to take their place in Zion.
The first thing to say about this is that some of its oddnesses resolve themselves when we understand that this is not the account of a life as such, but very specifically an account of a spiritual journey. The man called Christian in this spiritual realm is presumably called something quite different in our material realm: John, say. Paul, George, Adam who knows. It looks odd that Christian simply abandons his wife and four children to go on his pilgrimage, never to return (scripturally, of course, Christ enjoins his faithful to abandon their earthly duties and follow him, to “let the dead bury their dead” as he puts it). But we have to presume that this abandonment only happens, as it were, in the spiritual realm; that in the material realm he continues living with his family and materially-supporting them as was his duty. The point is, Bunyan's story is not focused on that material life. It is allegorising the spiritual separation that must grow between a husband who has been born again and a wife who hasn't, even if they're still living in the same house.
Indeed, we must assume that this peripatetic narrative describes the actual life of a man called John (or whatever) who himself has most likely never travelled anywhere—who stays all his life in the same town or village where he was born, as almost everybody did in the seventeenth-century. Indeed it's really quite important that the “actual” person Bunyan is writing about doesn't travel, even though his allegorical avatar, Christian, does. That's because one of the things Bunyan is striving for is a clear separation between his story and the (as he saw it) wicked old Catholic rituals of literal pilgrimages. To distinguish between his book and all those dodgy medieval Catholic allegorical romances. As Alec Ryrie argues in his book Protestants: the Radicals who Made the Modern World (2017), Protestants like Bunyan had a complicated relationship to the idea of pilgrimage: on the one hand a Catholic and suspect notion, on the other one that expressed their sense of faith as a journey—‘Protestantism was and is a religion of progress, of restless, relentless advance towards holiness, not of stagnation’ [132-33] is how Ryrie puts it. Bunyan is not saying Christians have actually to schlep to Canterbury, or Rheims, or Jerusalem, the way a Muslim actually must travel to Mecca. He is saying that Christians must undergo spiritual pilgrimages, journeys of faith.
Some oddnesses remain, mind you. Once through the wicket gate, and especially when Christian has passed the Cross and been relieved of his oppressive burden, the spacious country over which he then passes is presumably a Christian land. And indeed, the people he then meets, though many of them are wicked, are all notionally Christians, a fact about which some of them even boast. Bunyan's point is that the outward profession of Christianity is not enough, and nor is the sincere adoption of tenets of faith if those tenets are wrongheaded or heretical. So it is that he meets people called things like Simple, Sloth, Presumption and (more pointedly) Formalist and Hypocrisy, not to mention ‘my Lord Turn-about, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-speech, Mr Smooth-man, Mr Facing-bothways, Mr Any-thing; and the parson of our Parish, Mr Two-tongues’. The 1558 Act of Uniformity was still in force, and people were fined twelvepence for non-attendance of Church on any given Sunday, and liable to be imprisoned if they persisted, it's not surprising that everyone in Bunyan's England put on the outward show of Christianity. Bunyan's point is how rarely outward show reflects inward reality.
Nonetheless it's a puzzle that, late on in his pilgrimage, Christian encounters a character called Atheist (“I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a journey, and you are like to have nothing but your travel for your pains ... There is no such [heavenly] place as you dream of in all this world” ). We are entitled to wonder: what is an atheist doing this side of the wicket gate? There are only two ways into the main territory of Bunyan's story: through the strait gate (which doesn't guarantee salvation, since you still need to stay true to the path on the far side) or clambering illicitly over the wall, which is how Ignorance, Formalist and Hypocrisy get in (and which guarantees damnation at the end of the journey: indeed the very last thing that happens in The Pilgrim's Progress, after Christian has gone to heaven, is Ignorance being bound hand and foot and dragged away to Hell, despite having made it all the way to Zion, because he didn't come into the path the proper way). It's hard to see an actual Atheist coming in through either route. Wouldn't it make more sense to have Christian meet Atheist before he comes through the Wicket Gate?
You might object that this is to apply a hobgoblin-of-little-minds version of consistency to Bunyan's allegorical progress, but in fact Bunyan took great pains to render his worldbuilding consistent. Quite a large portion of the second part of the Pilgrim's Progress (which tells of Christian's wife Christiana belatedly waking up to her need for salvation and treading the same path as her now dead husband) is given over to revisiting moments in the first part to explain them at greater length, or rationalise their place in the allegory.
So for example: in Part 1 Christian fights the demon Apollyon in the “Valley of Humiliation”, and the fight does indeed humiliate him, in the sense of throwing him in the dirt, wounded and weakened, for his enemy to crow over. But at some point between writing the first part in 1678 and the second in 1684 Bunyan recalled that the root of the word humilation is humble, a state a good Christian ought gladly to embrace rather than a miserable condition imposed upon him by his enemies (Christian himself later tells Ignorance that to “agree with the judgment of the Word of God” a pilgrim needs to “thinketh of his ways ... sensibly, and with heart-humiliation”). So in the Second Part we are told that the Valley of Humiliation is actually “the best and most fruitful piece of ground in all those parts”, that it has “a very fruitful soil, and doth bring forth by handfuls”: “I have known many laboring men that have got good estates in this Valley of Humiliation; for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. [James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5.]”.
Alright. But what, then, was Apollyon doing todding around this fine place, and why was it here that he nearly hacked Christian to death with his diabolic sword? Ah, well (Christiana is told) the “valley is large” and Christian's battle happened at a remote and lesser part of it: “in a narrow passage, just beyond Forgetful Green. And indeed that place is the most dangerous place in all these parts. For if at any time Pilgrims meet with any brunt, it is when they forget what favours they have received, and how unworthy they are of them” . This is what science fiction fans call a ret-con, and like many such it isn't terribly convincing; but it does at least show that Bunyan cares whether his allegory is internally consistent or not.
Still: the closer you look at it, the odder Bunyan's allegory gets. The underlying logic of the exercise is that figures and places in Bunyan's story represent spiritual embodiments or externalisation of key qualities in our “real” world. But some of the things in Bunyan's allegorical land are actual things from our land. For example, when Christiana visits the House Beautiful she is shown various allegorical things, and even actually given a golden anchor representing the steadfastness and hopefulness of her faith. But she is also shown the actual artefacts by which Abraham so nearly sacrificed his son Isaac—not an allegorical representative of those things, but the actual things themselves, “the altar, the wood, the fire, and the knife, for they remain to be seen to this very day” . Say what? Some of the characters in this novel have names like Envy, Superstition, Mr Dare-not-ly and Mr Worldly-Wiseman, but some of them have names like James, Matthew, Gaius and Mnason, and some have names (such as Mercy or indeed Christian) that are both nominative and denotative. At one point Great-Heart greets a fellow on the road that he recognises:
Greath. Well, now we are so happily met, pray let me crave your Name, and the name of the Place you came from.I wish that my nature may agree to what I am called. Edinburgh is four degrees of latitude north of London, so perhaps Bunyan is styling Honest as a Scot (of his hometown he says “we lie more off from the sun, and so are more cold and senseless”), and if so he's probably doing it as a coded reference to the Scots Covenanters, nonconformists and former allies with the English Parliamentarian army in which Bunyan had served, and implacable opponents of the established Church of Scotland and its bishops. But what's interesting to me is how his character, Honest, is so honest that he cannot simply nod-past the notion that these actors only exist on an abstracted or allegorical level.
Hon. My Name I cannot, but I came from the Town of Stupidity: it lieth about four Degrees beyond the city of Destruction.
Greath. Oh, Are you that countryman? Then I deem I have half a guess of you: your name is Old Honesty, is it not? So the old gentleman blushed, and said, Not Honesty in the Abstract, but Honest is my name; and I wish that my nature may agree to what I am called. 
Or consider Little-faith, who is robbed on his pilgrimage by “three sturdy rogues, and their names were Faint-heart, Mistrust, and Guilt, three brothers” . The allegory here is that an insufficiency of faith leaves a Christian prey to these debilitating qualities; and indeed Guilt strikes Little-faith on the head with a huge club “and with that blow felled him flat to the ground, where he lay bleeding as one that would bleed to death”. But though the thieves take his money, they don't take his “jewels”, which allegorically represent his remaining possibility of salvation. So “those he kept still”, but he “was much afflicted for his loss, for the thieves got most of his spending-money”. So, Bunyan's imaginary world includes some valuables that function as currency and exchange within the in-text economic logic of this land, and also includes valuables that function as allegorical representations of purely spiritual truths, outwith the logic of fiduciary exchange. In other words, it's not that Bunyansland is a place inside which everything stands for something else, it's that it is both real and allegorical at the same time. Sometimes wealth allegorically represents purely spiritual riches, and sometimes, as with Demas's silver mine, or the energetic moneymaking of Vanity Fair, it represents only itself. Metaphor and semiotic identity tangle with one another.
I'm not saying this is a flaw. On the contrary, I think it is at the heart of what gives Bunyan's text its richness and multi-dimensionality, rather than leaving it as merely a one-dimensional exercise religious polemic. So the novel works because the directness of Bunyan's gorgeously idiomatic and expressive prose evokes a world of lived experience, and prevents the whole from sliding into theological abstractions; but it also works because on the level of worldbuilding it is able to hold its actual and its spiritual worlds in a close and productive tension. One small example, from Christian's encounter with Apollyon.
So he went on, and Apollyon met him; now the monster was hidious to behold, he was cloathed with scales like a Fish, (and they are his pride) he had Wings like a Dragon, and out of his belly came Fire and Smoak, and his mouth was as the mouth of a Lion. I love the way that parenthetical “and they are his pride” functions on both levels of the novel at once. On the one hand it means “these monstrous and conspicuous scales allegorically represent his sinful pride” and on the other “he was proud of his shiny fish-scales”:—that he preens himself over them as he goes about, which says something about his character as well as his appearance. There are a great many moments in the work that generate real heft and power out of the folding an allegorical spiritual numinousness out of the precisely observed and vividly evoked quiddities of actual life.
At the other end are the counter-intuitive topographies of Bunyan's allegory on its largest scale. Consider Vanity Fair. On the one hand, according to the cartography of Christian's journey this place is one city among many, alongside such places as the City of Destruction, the Town of Carnal-Policy (“a very great Town” we are told ), the Town of Stupidity and so on. But in another sense, Vanity Fair is not a town in the world, but rather the world itself inside which all towns are contained: as old as the world (Bunyan specifies 5000 years) and containing within it every material thing, “all such Merchandize sold, As Houses, Lands, Trades, Places, Honours, Preferments, Titles, Countries, Kingdoms, Lusts, Pleasures, and Delights of all sorts, as Whores, Bawds, Wives, Husbands, Children, Masters, Servants, Lives, Blood, Bodies, Souls, Silver, Gold, Pearls, precious Stones, and what not” . Within Vanity Fair are all the world's countries. something Bunyan parenthetically indicates in case we miss his allegorical point:
So here likewise, you have the proper Places, Rows, Streets, (viz. Countreys and Kingdoms), where the Wares of this Fair are soonest to be found. Here is the Brittain Row, the French Row, the Italian Row, the Spanish Row, the German Row, where several sorts of Vanities are to be sold. But, as in other fairs, some one Commodity is as the chief of all the fair, so the Ware of Rome and her Merchandize is greatly promoted in this fair; only our English nation, with some others, have taken a dislike thereat. We can ask the question (unanswered in Bunyan's narrative) “how does Christian escape from the prison at Vanity Fair?” (after all, the townsfolk put his friend Faithful to death and declare their intention to do the same to him). But in another sense, he can't escape Vanity Fair, since Vanity Fair is everywhere: “as I said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town where this lusty fair is kept; and he that will go to the city, and yet not go through this town, must needs go out of the world.” Materially speaking he is still there, as are we all; and the only escape possible is spiritual. That a small section of Bunyan's imaginary topography can, in one sense, contain the whole landscape of which it is a part only appears paradoxical; because, in a spiritual sense, the whole vast material cosmos is an insignificant portion of the spiritual infinitude of the divine.
One of the things I don't think Bunyan gets enough credit for is the depth and nuance of his characterisation. Christian, it seems to me, is a very impressively rounded creation: not an Everyman, or blank allegorical signifier onto which the reader can project themselves, but a distinct individual. This comes into particularly sharp focus when you read Part 2, and not only note that the frequently uncertain, stumbling and doubtful Christian is now remembered as “a lion-like man” , a peerless warrior and straight-arrow—and so are invited to reflect upon the difference between this report and the rather more flawed character we had actually encountered in Part 1—but you also see how very different Christiana is to her husband. Though her husband's epigone in terms of spiritual awakening, she is by far the more sensible and grounded human being: practical, determined and immune to the more voltaile and psychologically melodramatic moods that govern Christian. Her distinguishing feature is that she has visions, where Christian's distinguishing feature (and, really, this is so central to Bunyan's characterisation in Pilgrim's Progress that I'm amazed more critics don't discuss it) is his depression. I'll say it again: Pilgrim's Progress is a portrait of depression more compelling, nuanced, and powerful than Styron's Darkness Visible.
In all sorts of situations Christian reverts to his signature move: he despairs. The book starts with him depressed at home (“when the morning was come, they would know how he did; he told them worse and worse”) and before he even gets to the wicket gate, Christian falls into the allegorical swamp of despond (“he wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt ... but could not get out, because of the burden that was upon his back”). As at the beginning, so at the end: at the culmination of his pilgrimage, with his eternal celestial reward directly in front of him, what does Christian do? He despairs.
They then addressed themselves to the Water; and entring, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good Friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters, the Billows go over my head, all his Waves go over me! Selah.This final act in Christian's life recalls us to the main events of his pilgrimage, and two major ones in particular: falling into the Slough of Despond, becoming imprisoned by Giant Despair. In both cases he manages to drag another into despair/despond with him, as is often the way with this malign pathology. At most of his setbacks, despair nips at Christian's metaphorical heels: when fighting with Apollyon Bunyan says “Christian began to despair of life”. Variants of the phrase “the Pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their minds” appear and reappear during Christian's journey, though there's nothing like them in Christiana's.
Then said the other, Be of good chear, my Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah my friend, the sorrows of death hath compassed me about; I shall not see the Land that flows with Milk and Honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him; also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his Pilgrimage ... Twas also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of Hobgoblins and Evil Spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words. Hopeful therefore here had much adoe to keep his Brothers head above water, yea sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then ere a while he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavour to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the Gate, and men standing by to receive us: but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been Hopeful ever since I knew you. 
When he is through the Wicket Gate the Interpreter shows Christian a man in a cage (“he sat with his eyes looking down to the ground, his hands folded together, and he sighed as if he would break his heart”) and encourages him to interrogate the fellow:
Then said Christian to the man, What art thou? The Man answered, I am what I was not once.This is a targeted warning for Christian (“then said the Interpreter to Christian, Let this man's misery be remembred by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee”). Of course Bunyan has theological reasons for seeing despair as a terrible sin, and we can believe he had personal experience when it came to clinical depression; but it's the psychological acuity of this that is so impressive. Take the episode of Christian in Giant Despair's castle. Christian leads his companion, Hopeful, from the proper road because the side-path looks more attractive, but soon enough they're lost and in the ground of Doubting Castle. It strikes me as the sort of insight a depressed person can offer about depression. You might think depression is hard to endure, and so it is; but falling into depression is lamentably easy to do, and getting out of it extremely diffcult. Facilis descensus dejecto.
Chr. What wast thou once?
Man. The Man said, I was once a fair and flourishing Professor, both in mine own eyes, and also in the eyes of others; I once was, as I thought, fair for the Cœlestial City, and had then even joy at the thoughts that I should get thither.
Chr. Well, but what art thou now?
Man. I am now a Man of Despair, and am shut up in it, as in this Iron Cage. I cannot get out. Oh, now I cannot! ...
Chr. Then said Christian, Is there no hope, but you must be kept in the Iron Cage of Despair?
Man. No, none at all. 
Now: I appreciate it might look eccentric to praise Bunyan for his characterisation. It's not the usual ground on which the novel is discussed. Certainly, this novel (if we want to call it a novel) is pre-Bildungsroman, and as such has a much more static and inertial conception of “character” than is true of most fiction nowadays (as Franco Moretti argues: Goethe more-or-less invented the Bildungsroman out of whole cloth with Wilhelm Meister in 1795-6; it didn't exist before as a form, and only starts to disseminate with novels like Emma and David Copperfield—although its pretty ubiquitous now as a way of thinking about character).
In Part 2, Christiana’s companion Mercy is propositioned by a bad fellow called Mr Brisk, “a man of some breeding, and that pretended to Religion” who “offered love her”. He is quickly discouraged by her piety, which he finds unable to wear down, and goes off complaining that “mercy was a pretty lass but troubled with ill conditions” . Talking afterward with her friends Mercy says that plenty of men have wooed her, but “they were such as did not like my Conditions”—her religious convictions, that is. But what if she never finds a husband?
Well if no body will have me, I will dye a Maid, or my Conditions shall be to me as a Husband. For I cannot change my Nature. We’re invited to applaud her fortitude I suppose, although we might also wonder whether a world in nobody can change their nature isn't a rather unpropitious sort of place in which to stage a conversion narrative, of all things. What hope Mr Worldly Wiseman becoming less worldly-wise, Mr Mony-love loving money a little less or Timorous managing, like the Cowardly Lion, finally to locate his courage if their natures are so fixed?
To be clear: I’m not suggesting this is unrealistic qua characterisation. On the contrary, the older I get, the more I find myself thinking how rarely it is that people fundamentally change who they are. And I can, I think, see the theological, or life-under-the-aegis-of-Faith logic of what Bunyan is doing: the world of PP is a world that reveals the spiritual substance of its characters, not their material accidents. Souls stripped bare are less mutable than ‘personalities’ or ‘subjectivities’ because, so far as Bunyan is concerned, the soul is created by God, infinite and whole. Such a thing can hardly admit of radical change or it would be subject to the same logic of decay as non-spiritual things. Or to be more precise there is one axis of change—from unsaved to saved, or from saved to unsaved—something that, in the idiom of the novel, is marked by the fact that characters literally change their name, as from “Graceless” to “Christian”. Something similar could, in theory, happen to these other characters too: Timorous could in theory deed-poll his name and therefore his nature to Brave (say) and go off on a pilgrimage of his own.
Yet, in practice, somehow, he doesn’t. And to think of character in terms of ‘immortal souls’ is, inevitably, to touch on the sorts of questions theologians have argued over for, literally, millennia. If our ‘character’ is an edifice built on our natures, or souls—and those souls are created by God—then why are some people wicked? Surely God didn’t create wicked souls. The catechism suggests that God made us good but that some of us choose to do evil—indeed, it says that Adam’s original sin disposes all of us to choose evil, such that we have to make an elective choice to do good instead (in fact, Bunyan's position is that we are all simply too weak to make this choice unless we first accept the grace of Christ into our hearts to help us). But to read PP as an exercise in novelistic characterisation, as I am doing here, puts this famous explanation in question. I suppose people do indeed have the choice to steal or not to steal, to lie or not to lie and so on. But in what sense has Bunyan’s “Mr Feeble-mind”  chosen his mental feebleness? Can Timorous really be said to have exercised his free will and chosen pusillinamity? What chance does a pilgrim have if his name is “Not-right”? (He is “struck dead” with a Thunderbolt, no less, in Part 2). The character called Little-faith is invoked to illustrate the dangers of living life with too little faith, but consider his circumstance as a character in this novel. I mean to say: it’s an almost Zizekian paradox, that Little-faith be condemned to Hell for lacking the faith to address, precisely, his littleness of faith.
If we want to argue that all these peripheral characters are there to embroider the salvation narrative of Christian rather than to stand as separate characters—then I think we're underestimating the richness of Pilgrim's Progress precisely as a novel. It is, in other words, a work on the cusp of what we might call a modern characterisation, where the motion of psychological growth and development is externalised into an actual progress across an actual landscape (just as the internal process of becoming depressed is externalised into a hideous giant and a castle dungeon)—is at the same time engaging the older, static model of personality as a kind of cage for subjectivity that cannot be discarded no matter how one might. That's a pretty useful thumbnail definition of depression as such, right there, actually.
If one happens to have been gifted by God with a static nature that is faithful or hopeful then well and good, but what if one's essential nature manifests that sense of the withdrawal of Divine favour that somebody like Bunyan would call despair? “Canst thou not now repent and turn?” Christian asks the man in the cage inside the Interpreter's house, but the answer to his question is not of the sort to console a person whose birth name is Graceless: “Man. God hath denied me repentance. His Word gives me no encouragement to believe; yea, himself hath shut me up in this iron cage” .
What this does, I think, is revert back upon Bunyan's vehicle for the whole novel—I mean his allegory. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928) Benjamin seeks to distinguish tragedy in the Classical sense (as valorized by Nietzsche) from the dramatisation of sorrow or mourning (Trauer) that happens in the work of a group of minor 16th/17thC German playwrights who wrote the Trauerspiele that give the book its title (in German: Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels) This kind of grief, Benjamin says, is the predominant mood inherent to a particular, 17th-century metaphysical structure, and needs to be distinguishged from the elevated or dignified suffering of classical tragedy. According to Benjamin, it is the “comprehensive secularization of the historical” that leads to a situation in which “History merges into the setting” to become natural history [OGT, 92], whose affective correlative is a “melancholic contemplation of things which derives enigmatic satisfaction from its very recognition of their transience and emptiness” [OGT, 139]:
For all the wisdom of the melancholic is subject to the nether world ... it is secured by immersion in the life of creaturely things, and it hears nothing of the voice of revelation. Everything saturnine points down into the depths of the earth.” [OGT, 152].I've been thinking about this in relation to Bunyan's representations of despair in this book: how earthy and downward they are, a fecal swamp that sucks you down, a dungeon in the depths of an old castle and so on. How vividly that captures the quiddity of the experience.
For Benjamin this particular melancholy awareness of the distance from sad earth to transcendent heaven is unlocked by allegory as form, or more specifically the way allegory developed in the 17th-century (in other words at the time of Bunyan's intuitive deployment of the mode). He is dismissive of the later Romantic tendency to elevate the “aestheticized symbol” at the expense of degrading the concept of allegory. Origins of Tragic German Drama is in large measure an attempt to recover what Benjamin thinks of as the core theological concept of the symbol that underpins authentic allegory: “a profound but paradoxical religious unity of material and transcendental”. To read Bunyan under this aegis is not to focus on Pilgrim's Progress as “Fantasy”, the relation of a journey through a luminously transcendent (though still dangerous) land, so much as it is to insist, as Bunyan himself repeatedly does, that the text be redirected back to the real world, to compel a particular sort of hard-labour upon its reader: awareness of death and sin, mortality and despair. “This Book will make a Travailer of thee,” Bunyan declares in his dedicatory poem, “If by its counsel thou wilt ruled be” Travailer hangs nicely between traveller and labourer/worker: somebody setting out hopefully, yes; but also somebody under Adam's curse, eating their textual bread in the sweat of their face. Bunyan's novel presents itself not as a diversion but as something to be experienced, as lived-through, and to that end it recruits allegory in just the way Benjamin thinks of the mode:
In Benjamin's analysis, allegory is pre-eminently a kind of experience. A paraphrase of his exposition might begin by stating that allegory arises from an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent, as passing out of being: a sense of its transitoriness, an intimation of mortality, or a conviction, as in Dickinson, that “this world is not conclusion.” Allegory would then be the expression of this sudden intuition. But allegory is more than an outward form of expression; it is also the intuition, the inner experience itself. The form such an experience of the world takes is fragmentary and enigmatic; in it the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs ... Transforming things into signs is both what allegory does - its technique—and what it is about—its content. Nor is this transformation exclusively an intellectual one: the signs perceived strike notes at the depths of one's being, regardless of whether they point to heaven, to an irretrievable past, or to the grave. [Bainard Cowan, “Walter Benjamin's Theory of Allegory”, New German Critique 22 (1981), 110]Negotiating a world in which everything is a sign, everything has a meaning and means intensely (means in an eternal-life-or-death way) is ... exhausting. Debilitating. Depressing. On the level of didacticism, Bunyan's allegory carries a particular content; but on the level of form it is doing somehting rather more theologically complex and ambitious, Benjaminianly fusing material and transcendental elements to ironize the “relationship between appearance and essence”, and working a nuanced and potent version of characterisation as evolution, as progress, in such a way that it rubs sparks of sadness from the unyielding, careceral model of character as a static, Godly given. Bunyan's allegory is powerful sad stuff.