Pilgrim's Progress

May 10, 2021

Phyllis Orrick discusses Dickens's response to The Old Curiosity Shop's 15th number. Dickens's attitude toward religion is brought up as he begins to make comments on John Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress.'




In this Dickens-to-go I want to highlight some passages from The Old Curiosity Shop's 15h number, for what they show us of Dickens's complicated attitudes toward religious belief. Surprising to me, he has Nell invoke with affection John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the monumental allegory that, short of the Bible, stood and still stands as the epochal story of evangelical Christianity. But Dickens is not content to stop there: he uses his descriptive powers to paint a metaphysical creative force in nature, but it falls short of Godliness, and he ends his flirtation with religion with a sardonic swipe at evangelicals who raise money from the desperately poor to build chapels that will tell them of the perils of Earthly existence and the promise of Heavenly rewards.

I also chose these passages because Dickens professed to be very pleased with how they were turning out:

“Number 15, which I began today, I anticipate great things from,” he writes to his dear friend John Forster in June 1840, about three weeks before it appeared in print.

“There is a description of getting gradually out of town,” he continues, “and passing through neighbourhoods of distinct and various characters, with which, if I had read it as anybody else’s writing, I think I should have been very much struck. The child and the old man are on their journey of course, and the subject is a pretty one.”

It’s interesting that Dickens would say it was a “pretty” subject, as the chapter starts with Nell’s fretting that she might lose her resolve to set out if she has to say farewell to Kit in person. And in the book he describes it as a “wild” journey, more in keeping with the misadventures of the Bunyan pilgrimage. Indeed they set out from the “Babel” of London whose smoky skies and “invading army” of brick and mortar resemble Bunyan’s City of Destruction, from which his pilgrim, The Christian, sets out.

The parallel would be clear to most of his readers as they would know of The Pilgrim’s Progress, even if they had not actually read it. And Dickens is said to have admired it for its power as a fiction. 

As Nell and her grandfather set out to escape the Destructive City, Dickens wraps them in a celestial atmosphere.

“The town,” he writes, “was glad with morning light; places that had shown ugly and distrustful all night long, now wore a smile; and sparkling sunbeams dancing on chamber windows, and twinkling through blind and curtain before sleepers’ eyes, shed light even into dreams, and chased away the shadows of the night.” 

“Birds in hot rooms, covered up close and dark, felt it was morning”

the cat forgot her duty to hunt mice and wanted only to “bask outside” 

“The light, creation’s mind, was everywhere, and all things owned its power.” There could be such a power, Dickens is saying, but it does not own the world; rather, just the opposite; all things own it.

And for the first time, he makes a literal reference to a pilgrimage. “The two pilgrims, often pressed each other’s hands, or exchanging a smile or cheerful look, pursued their way in silence.”

They travel on and eventually reach a hill, suggestive of the celestial hill, from which the traveler, turning to look back at where he has come from, can see Bunyan's City of Destruction or London and "might feel at last that he was clear of London."

“...[O]ld St. Paul’s looming through the smoke, its cross peeping above the cloud (if the day were clear), and glittering in the sun; and casting his eyes upon the Babel out of which it grew until he traced it down to the furthest outposts of the invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet…”

And here, Nell is reminded of The Pilgrim’s Progress, as she and her grandfather sit in their pretty spot.

“There had been an old copy of Pilgrim's Progress with strange plates upon a shelf at home, over which she had often pored whole evenings, wondering whether it was true in every word, and where those distant countries with the curious names might be. As she looked back upon the place they had left, one part of it came strongly on her mind.

“‘Dear grandfather,’ she said, ‘only that this place is prettier and a great deal better than the real one, if that in the book is like it, I feel as if we were both Christians [the name of Bunyan’s Pilgrim] and laid down on the grass all the cares and troubles we brought with us; never to take them up again.’”

So that is the first stop: the pious, heavenly one. Now for Dickens’s take on such thinking.

“Again this quarter passed, they came upon a straggling neighbourhood, where the main houses parceled off in rooms, and windows patched with rags and paper, told of the populous poverty that sheltered there.” Life here is “squalid,” and “faded gentility” is making a “last feeble stand with shipwrecked means.” These are “the humble followers of the camp of wealth,” living on the outskirts of London. Another meaning for camp followers is prostitutes; these people seeking their fortune are selling themselves.

Dickens paints a detailed picture of the cost of such abasement.

“Damp rotten houses, many to let, many yet building, many half-built and mouldering away—lodgings where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take—-children, scantily fed and clothed spread over every street, and sprawling in the dust—scolding mothers stamping their slipshod feet with noisy threats upon the pavement—shabby fathers, hurrying with dispirited looks to the occupation which brought them ‘daily bread’ and little more—mangling-women, washerwomen, cobblers, tailors, chandlers, driving their trades in parlors and kitchens and back rooms and garretts, and sometimes all of them under the same roof—brick-fields skirting gardens paled with staves of old casks, or timber pillaged from houses burnt down and blackened and blistered by the flames—mounds of dock-weed, needles, coarse grass and oyster shells, heaped in rank confusion”

He caps this litany of misery with a sardonic dig at the organized religion: ‘—small Dissenting chapels to teach, with no lack of illustration, the miseries of Earth, and plenty of new churches, erected with a little superfluous wealth, to show the way to Heaven.”

The impulse behind the churches built “with a little superfluous wealth,” is cynical, since those doing the building are taking money from the poor to teach them what they already know, the miseries of life on Earth, and to promise them something just as cynically presented, the way to Heaven.

In these passages, Dickens has, as usual, taken his readers on a journey.

As he put it in the opening of the final chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop, after Nell has died and her grandfather has followed her, literally, into the grave, 

“The magic reel, which, rolling on before, has led the chronicler thus far, now slackens in its pace, and stops, It lies before the goal; the pursuit is at an end.”

In his version of the pilgrimage Dickens starts his readers off with the celestial pieties of Bunyan, but diverts them from that path and leads them to the land of desperation and poverty, the human condition that he observed so closely and wrote about so well.



Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

What are your favorite passages? We hope you will make a video too! Email Courtney Mahaney for video submission guidelines.