The author and his reader: Christian literature as conversation
John Bunyan and Geoffrey Chaucer
by Heather-Ann Wickers
That is that which I seek for, even to be rid of this heavy burden; but get it off my self I cannot: nor is there a man in our Country that can take it off my shoulders; therefore am I going this way, as I told you, that I may be rid of my burden . . .
. . . So I saw in my Dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his burden loosed from off his Shoulders, and fell from off his back [Bunyan]
The genre of Christian literature, although it has lost favor in recent years with the advent of increased secularism, was a dominant force in English literature from before the Middle Ages through to the nineteenth Century. Two major works of Christian literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, display a number of strikingly similar characteristics, in addition to a number of prominent differences, despite the fact that they were composed centuries apart. Both depict a figurative Christian pilgrimage, and in each case the destination is the same - Heaven or Heavenly Jerusalem. Chaucer's work is reflective of the Roman Catholic influence in his native England during his lifetime, while Bunyan's book is influenced by conflicting sects of Protestantism. Additionally, the method of presentation is somewhat similar in that both works include a series of interrelated tales or events that appear as if they may have been intended to be shared orally. Also in each work the author appears as a narrator directly involved in the action of the storyline. Furthermore, each author makes extensive use of imagery, religious and otherwise. Because each author was writing for a specified audience, (The Pilgrim's Progress was a mass-market best-seller during Bunyan's lifetime; Chaucer's work was enjoyed by a select few during his era, and was only mass produced in the fifteenth Century after the invention of the printing press) the methods for reaching their respective audiences were quite different. It is evident, however, that each work is a true product of the time period in which it was composed, and both seek to address religious issues by relating in some real way to the average reader or listener.
John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress: The road to Heaven is paved with solitude
John Bunyan's work is reflective of the religious dissention that existed in late seventeenth century England. Bunyan, himself a Baptist clergyman, composed The Pilgrim's Progress while imprisoned for his refusal to cease preaching in his local Independent church. (Owens (ed) in Bunyan xviii) During Bunyan's lifetime, the Church of England was viewed by many as an institution guided by the powers of oppression and repression. Bunyan's brand of religion (Baptist) was a hybrid of English Protestantism, and the newly emerging sects of Calvinism and Puritanism. These branches of Protestantism focused on liberty of conscience or religious autonomy. Bunyan was greatly influenced by the social philosophies of John Locke; Locke perpetuated the notion of the 'natural rights' of man and is also quoted as stating that 'religious conviction should come from persuasion, not from coercion'. (Johnson 1) Bunyan expresses his feelings in regards to religious individualism in The Pilgrim's Progress; his pilgrim, Christian, is on an individual and very personalized journey toward salvation. Christian is willing to abandon his family, his home, and all familiarity in order to achieve the ultimate goal of salvation; Bunyan advocates a school of Puritanism in which the 'pilgrim' rejects society. Christian's allegiance to his own soul is significant because it reflects the growing support for religious separatism that Bunyan strongly advocated; writer Galen Johnson expresses this sentiment and notes that 'a heightened sense of the individual demarcates modern from medieval times'.
An important aspect of Christian's pilgrimage is the concept that his journey is actually an internal expedition. This further establishes Bunyan's belief that salvation is meant to be achieved on one's own. The notion of the internal nature of Christian's struggle is expressed in two distinct ways. The most obvious method through which this is expressed is through Bunyan's choice of the 'dream' framework for his book. The subtitle of the book is 'In the Similitude of a Dream'. The true narrator of the work is, at times, questionable. The narrator of record for most of the action, it would seem, is Christian, but, often, Bunyan's voice makes a guest appearance; evidently, Bunyan casts himself in the role of the 'dreamer'. This is abundantly clear in the beginning of the work, as the narrator refers to Christian through the use of the pronoun 'he', thus proving that the narrator and the primary character, at least at this point in the work, are two distinct people. In this portion of the book, the narrator describes in detail a dream in which he witnesses Christian's exploits. This is, perhaps, the most private type of pilgrimage that could possibly exist. In this example, the journey toward salvation occurs solely within the mind of the narrator.
A second means through which Bunyan expresses the solitude of Christian life is through his allegorically charged storyline. Many of the allegorical characters are named after various adjectives and other abstract entities. These are entities toward which Christian, and ideally other Christian readers, are encouraged to aspire. These characters are one dimensional and they are easily applicable to a given individual reader's life. In this regard, Bunyan further internalizes the pilgrimage; by inviting the reader into the story, Christian's journey toward salvation becomes the personal journey of the reader himself. For example, Christian's encounter with characters such as Pliable, Piety, and Hope become Bunyan's invitation to the reader to experience the entities of the same name.
An image that recurs throughout The Pilgrim's Progress is the burden carried by Christian on his journey. This burden is depicted in both the narration and the illustrations as an actual physical burden which Christian is forced to carry upon his back. Christian speaks of the burden and states,
The burden to which Bunyan alludes is the indescribable weight of Original Sin which Christian is forced to endure. The only way in which Christian is able to shed his burden is through salvation by way of Jesus Christ. Bunyan expresses this idea when the narrator states,
Bunyan, again, relates this directly to the reader; the burden that Christian carries is the burden that all of Bunyan's contemporary readers would have identified with. This is merely another instance in which the personal pilgrimage of Christian becomes that of the reader.
Bunyan's use of allegory in The Pilgrim's Progress is clearly evident. As previously noted, Bunyan chooses names for the various characters which Christian encounters on his journey that are laden with obvious allusions to Christian virtues and vices. The reader does not have to toil in order to decipher Bunyan's allegorical meaning; the character named Evangelist is, obviously, an evangelist. Likewise, if a character is called Hopeful or Mr. Money-Love, it is obvious that they each embody the traits suggested by their respective names. Oftentimes, Bunyan juxtaposes characters whose names appear to be polar opposites. For example, he couples Obstinate with Pliable. In doing so he further establishes the meaning of the names of his characters; the reader might view Obstinate's pigheadedness in light of Pliable's softness. As a result, the true nature of each character's core is truly confirmed.
Bunyan's integration of Christian imagery is unambiguous; there is no mistaking Christian's journey toward the Wicket-gate for a leisurely vacation, or for that matter with an arduous journey of a non-religious nature. In addition to his clear allegorical technique, Bunyan writes in a prose style that is reflective of the common language of the people in his day. Theological scholar George W. Lathman writes that 'Bunyan wrote the language as he heard it.' These techniques combine to form a work of literature that is easy to digest and appealing to the average reader; this is amply reflected in the fact that Bunyan's book has enjoyed best-seller status for centuries. Thus, not only did Bunyan fashion for himself a fine reputation in the literary realm, but he was also successful in 'preaching' his Christian beliefs to the mass public.
Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: Communal penance against all odds
As The Pilgrim's Progress is a reflection of the religious dissention taking place in England during Bunyan's lifetime, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer illustrates the influence of the Roman Catholic Church during the medieval period; the work signifies Chaucer's response to this influence. In The Canterbury Tales, the religious influence of the Roman Catholic Church dictates that the emphasis in regards to achieving salvation is not on the individual soul, but on the communal soul. This sense of the communal soul is best expressed by examining the people who have assembled for the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket. The group consists of both men and women; there is a wide spectrum of occupations and social classes represented in the party, from the humble Parson to the despicable Pardoner; in fact, Chaucer often juxtaposes two characters who are seemingly polar opposites, such as the noble Knight and the dishonest Miller, and places the tales that they tell side by side. In the hierarchy of the pilgrimage, each member of the party is equal in that everyone is required to tell a unique tale. This is exemplified in the words of the host,
That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
In this viage shal telle tales tweye
To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so. (General Prologue 791-793)
Thus, Chaucer suggests that the value of the group - and perhaps of society or 'Christendom' as a whole - is more important in the course of salvation than any one individual soul.
Chaucer's collection of tales, told by a multitude of pilgrims, suggests that the road to salvation is not, as in Bunyan's work, an internal journey. Chaucer's path to deliverance involves the interaction with and influence of other Christian individuals. Each of Chaucer's pilgrims reveals a string of personal flaws throughout the telling of his or her respective tale. Chaucer makes himself a character in the story and he, too, is portrayed as an imperfect being in many ways. Although Bunyan, in his work, invites the reader to 'play the part' of Christian, Chaucer differs because he does not suggest that the reader should assume his role as narrator, or the role of any of the pilgrims in the work. Rather, Chaucer creates a motley group of people, each with his own shortcomings and problems, in an attempt to allow the reader to identify with the characters. It is as if Chaucer acknowledges that all the characters are imperfect and he invites the equally imperfect readers to join his party. In this regard, Chaucer reflects the Catholic notion that it is not sufficient to save one's own soul, but all Christians should strive to lead others toward salvation. This notion of 'helping' others toward salvation is perhaps most abundantly clear in the tale told by the Parson. In his article entitled 'Chaucer and Religion,' Brother Anthony of Taize writes that the Parson tells a tale that is 'utterly concentrated on provoking a change in the hearers' lives.' In sharing their stories, the pilgrims advance toward their true destination of Heavenly Jerusalem, and Chaucer beckons his readers to join their communal quest for salvation.
The image of the 'burden' is also amply present in The Canterbury Tales. In the General Prologue, Chaucer [the narrator] catalogues for the reading/listening audience each item worn or carried by the members of the pilgrimage. These items differ from the 'burden' of Original Sin which Bunyan's Christian is forced to carry, but in a way they do mirror this notion; many of the pilgrims, in a sense, 'wear their sin on their sleeve'. For instance, the Wife of Bath is described as follows: 'Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed'. (456) The fact that she wears red stockings suggests that she is unchaste and lascivious. Likewise, the Franklin carries a silk purse on his journey, which implies his desire for wealth and fine things. In both cases, the character's 'baggage' is his or her 'sin'. Each of the pilgrims reveals, either through their outward appearance or in the telling of their tale, the burden of sin that he or she must forsake before gaining entrance into Heavenly Jerusalem. Chaucer, again, invites the reader to identify with the members of the misfit pilgrimage; every individual, both in the story and in the reading audience, has his own unique cross to bear.
If John Bunyan's Christian allegorical references are obvious to the average reader, then Geoffrey Chaucer's use of imagery and allusion, both Christian and otherwise, is an intricate code that the reader must decipher and research. Bunyan's source is obvious; his allusions are almost completely restricted to the Bible. Chaucer's work refers not only to various Christian iconologies, but also to a myriad of additional sources ranging from Greek classics to French fabliaux to the work of his contemporaries such as Petrarch and Boccaccio. For example, in 'The Knight's Tale', scholars believe that Chaucer may have been influenced by Boccaccio's Teseida and Boethian philosophy in addition to his obvious reference to the Greek myth of Theseus and Hippolyta. (Benson 6) In the tale told by the Prioress, Chaucer makes extensive references to Christian imagery, but he intertwines these easily recognized descriptions with the controversial issue of anti-Semitism. It is questionable as to whether the reading audience would have been exposed to all of Chaucer's sources; one must also bear in mind that Chaucer, writing at a time when works were only able to be distributed in manuscript form, was probably not intending his work to be read by the average peasant. His complex analogies suggest that his audience consisted primarily of the erudite. It is interesting, then, to note that he included all social classes of people in his work. Perhaps Chaucer, believing that all people are capable of salvation, intended his work as a social commentary and he hoped to entice his educated audience to accept his humble but radical ideology through the guise of high literature.
A superficial reading of the works of Bunyan and Chaucer would seem to reveal a number of similarities and, indeed, at first glance one might even speculate that The Pilgrim's Progress was influenced by The Canterbury Tales. A close reading of each work, however, suggests that the authors were probably using their respective literary works in order to express their views, either purely religious or somewhat politically minded. This author doubts that it is coincidental that both works appear as if they were meant to be spoken orally; she also questions the fact that both works feature special guest appearances by the respective authors. Perhaps these suggest that each author was making an attempt to speak directly to the reader as an individual. In this regard, both works serve as a personal conversation between author and reader.
The beliefs which each author attempts to impart to his reader differ greatly in The Pilgrim's Progress and The Canterbury Tales. Bunyan, true to his profession as a Baptist preacher, endeavors to simplify and clarify scriptural accounts concerning the challenges of leading a Christian life. His book is very much like a preacher's sermon; Bunyan approaches various Biblical texts and he simplifies the meaning so that their message, which may have been difficult for the common folk to decipher, is easier to understand.
Chaucer, in contrast, often questions or criticizes the Church and other powerful social and political institutions. Because such criticism was a dangerous business in Medieval England, Chaucer neatly hides his cutting commentary beneath allusions; if one was unfamiliar with Chaucer's allusions, then one could never possibly truly understand Chaucer's meaning. Whereas Bunyan would like everyone to understand his message - that Christianity is the answer - Chaucer's more subtle suggestions - that readers should question authority figures and established institutions - are guarded like a secret handshake, understood only by those who recognize his code.
Benson, David C, ed. The Riverside Chaucer. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress. Owens, W.R. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.
Johnson, Galen. 'The Conflicted Puritan Inheritance of John Bunyan's Political Writings'. Baptist History and Heritage. Spring, 2003.
Lathman, George W. 'The Pilgrim's Progress: A Review'. Wholesome Words. 2005.
Taize, Brother Anthony. 'Chaucer and Religion'. Luminarium: www.luminarium.org/ 2005.
© Heather-Ann Wickers
State University of New York at Stony Brook, August 2005