Suicide, Abuse, and Despair: Pilgrim’s Progress Explores the Unexpected
Bunyan exposes existential nerves through his nuanced treatment of darkness.
This article was adapted from episode three of The Way to Glory.
Has anyone else noticed that The Pilgrim’s Progress can feel a bit...on the nose?
The Celestial City.
At first glance, subtle nuance doesn’t seem to be Bunyan’s strong suit. In fact, it’s easy to read his story the same way we often read the Bible—under the impression that a literal, instructive interpretation is all the pages hold for us. But, both with Scripture and with The Pilgrim’s Progress, layers of depth await our exploration, ready to reveal their riches to those patient few who will stay and ponder awhile.
We welcomed Dr. Karen Swallow Prior—esteemed author and English professor at Liberty University who specializes in British and Christian literature from the seventeenth century—to this week’s episode of The Way to Glory.
“I have a love-hate relationship with Pilgrim’s Progress,” Prior admits. “It can be difficult to teach because it's easy to only look at the surface.”
The levels of complexity, Prior argues, run deep, a fact that can be clearly seen in Christian and Hopeful’s encounter with Giant Despair.
Giant Despair...caught Christian and Hopeful asleep in his grounds. Then, with a grim and surly voice, he bade them awake; and asked them whence they were, and what they did in his grounds. They told him they were pilgrims; and that they had lost their way.
Giant Despair: "You have this night trespassed on me, by trampling in and lying on my grounds; and therefore you must go along with me."
The giant, therefore, drove them before him, and put them into his castle, into a very dark dungeon, nasty and stinking to the spirit of these two men.
So, Christian and Hopeful find themselves trapped in the dungeon of Doubting Castle—imprisoned by Giant Despair and his wife, Diffidence (diffidence here meaning distrustful). This setting also parallels the captives’ experience, as despair is responsible for carrying the pilgrims into fits of doubt.
“Today we tend to see it as the opposite,” Prior says. “As modern Christians, we would say, ‘If we doubt, that can carry us to despair.’ But Bunyan's insight is very provocative because it's actually despair that leads us to doubt. That's an intriguing part of the story, psychologically and spiritually.”
Then the Giant 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….
For why, said the Giant, should you choose to live, seeing it is attended with so much bitterness? But they desired him to let them go. With that he looked ugly upon them, and rushing to them, had doubtless made an end of them, but that he fell into one of his fits…. Then did the prisoners consult between themselves whether it was best to take his counsel [to end their lives]:
Christian: The life that we now live is miserable. I know not whether it is best to live thus, or to die out of hand. My soul chooseth strangling rather than life, and the grave is more easy for me than this dungeon. Job. 7:15. Shall we be ruled by the Giant?
Hopeful: Indeed, our present condition is dreadful, and death would be far more welcome to me than thus forever to abide
Even when read literally, Bunyan’s depictions of Despair and Doubt present pictures of utter darkness. Giant Despair, upon advisement from his wife, beats the men and encourages them to commit suicide, and through this scene Bunyan courageously and artistically exposes existential nerves, reminding us that the battle with profound despair is not bound to any century this side of eternity.
What a fool!
As the two captives discuss the merits of the giant’s offer, it’s clear that this moment of pain and sadness is an opportunity for Christian to rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ. The pilgrims pray through the night, and when morning comes Christian suddenly remembers he has a key to the dungeon.
“What a fool! 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."
Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom and began to try at the dungeon door; whose bolt (as he turned the key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease: and Christian and Hopeful both came out.
If you’re feeling like this is too easy, a Hallmark solution unavailable to us modern world-weary pilgrims, you’re not alone. Is Bunyan suggesting that dark nights of the soul, clinical depression, or grief can simply be left behind if we pray and remember the Bible’s promises?
No, he’s not.
For The Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s moments like these that “we have to be careful to not read twentieth and twenty-first century ideas onto the seventeenth-century text,” Prior says. “Despair is not the same thing as clinical depression. Today we might use those terms interchangeably, but I think here Bunyan is talking about despair that is spiritual. Despair in the classical tradition, that Bunyan would have been familiar with, is having little hope for salvation, which can make one sad and sorrowful, but it's not the same thing as clinical depression.”
Prior goes on to address a critical reading of doubt in the text. Is it ever okay to doubt? Is there a line we shouldn’t cross?
“It's not just that Christian and Hopeful encounter doubt,” Prior says. “It’s that they are locked in the dungeon of doubt. They are picked up and locked in this dungeon. That is a powerful spiritual truth for us.”
At some point, Prior says, we can lose control of our doubt.
“We can toy with it. We can ask questions. We have to be honest,” she says. “But if we get locked into doubt? We might as well be in a dungeon.”
Christian and Hopeful’s creaking footsteps cause Giant Despair to awaken. “This is a brilliant insight on Bunyan’s part,” Prior says. “How true is it that whenever we're on any kind of a journey–whether it's a trip or some sort of spiritual journey—that last leg can be the hardest?”
Those last few feet of a treadmill sprint. The concluding paragraphs of an assignment. The final task of the workday. The struggle to endure in life’s mundanity often reflects the spiritual difficulties we face in trying to remain faithful, especially when our choices seem small or insignificant, just like Christian trading his path for one that seemed just as good.
Prior notes that in her many readings of The Pilgrim’s Progress, one virtue always seems to rise to the top: diligence. “That is the thing that strikes me the most,” she says. “Not so much the drama of all of the obstacles and encounters that Christian has—although that's certainly a significant part of the story—but the undramatic, unromantic, unexciting diligence he displays in keeping on. Ultimately, it's that [diligence] that brings him to the Celestial City, not any one particular obstacle that he overcomes.”
Christian’s steadfastness is also seen in his escape. Rather than simply starting the next leg of their journey, or taking a break, Christian and Hopeful construct a warning to the travelers who may come after them.
So they consented to erect there a pillar, and to engrave upon the side thereof this sentence: "Over this stile is the way to Doubting Castle; which is kept by Giant Despair, who despises the King of the Celestial Country, and seeks to destroy his holy pilgrims." Many, therefore, that followed after, read what was written, and escaped the danger.
Bunyan had met doubt and despair just like Christian and Hopeful had—just like you and I have. He wrote the description of Doubting Castle from a cell where he had been imprisoned for his faith. For Bunyan these were characters, but they were also memories. As we sit in a neighboring cell, chained by our own darkness and abandonment, Bunyan reminds us that we too have a key. It’s not a key that solves all of our problems or makes all the bad things go away (Christian, after all, still had to avoid Giant Despair and Doubting Castle after that, not to mention the many other obstacles remaining in his journey). But it is a key that reminds us Whose we are—who we are.
Despair, active and roaming, will seek to drag us away. Doubt, tall and looming, will threaten to encircle us. But the gospel of Jesus Christ opens our hearts to the truth: because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, we have been plucked out of the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light. Our way of escape is enough— just as it was when Bunyan wrote this in 1678.