W. Todd Martin

 The Enormous Room: Cummings’ Reinterpretation of John Bunyan’s Doubting Castle

[Spring 5 (1996): 112-119.]

Despite Cummings’ specific references to The Pilgrim‘s Progress, the impact of Bunyan’s book on The Enormous Room has not yet been explored fully by the critics. Among these is Paul Fussell, who, in The Great War and Modern Memory, asserts that "Cummings’ awareness of The Pilgrim’s Progress is verbal rather than substantive" (160). He suggests that the allusions that Cummings uses

evaporate away the meaning of ThePilgrim's Progress, de-Christianize and de-mythify it; they use it as a framework for a sentimentality quite at odds with the import of Bunyan’s work. Its terms and motifs remain as a mere ‘allusion’—ultimately to nothing—invoked as a schoolboy trick. The reason is that Cummings thinks The Pilgrim’s Progress funny and odd and assumes that his audience does too; indeed, he seems to expect praise for his cuteness in knowing about it at all (160) While conceding Fussell’s point that Cummings "de-Christianizes" Bunyan’s work—to the extent that spiritual growth becomes inward rather than heavenward—Cummings certainly does not "de-mythify" it or "evaporate away the meaning" of it. That Cummings’ spirituality is a secular one does not diminish the significance of his allusions to The Pilgrim’s Progress. Rather, in the same way that he creates "new relationships between language and experience" and that "like Adam in his garden he assumes the burden of naming his universe, in effect discovering and interpreting the world anew" (Gaull 646, 657), Cummings also reinterprets and rewrites The Pilgrim’s Progress to fit the world in which he lives. Simultaneously, the allusions to Bunyan’s work act as a touchstone for Cummings’ own spiritual journey and establish a pattern of development that culminates in greater self-awareness and compassion, a response to the sterility and dehumanization of institutionalized society. The references to The Pilgrim’s Progress add meaning and insight into the circumstances of The Enormous Room.

In writing what seems to be his own spiritual autobiography in The Enormous Room, Cummings’ choice of Bunyan’s allegorical and spiritual autobiographical work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, [1] is not surprising, especially [end page 112] given that he studied Bunyan under William A. Neilson in a class at Harvard entitled "The Nature and History of Allegory" (Kennedy 63-64). Cummings’ use of the work, though, surpasses the parodic significance that Paul Headrick attributes to it; the inversion of the Puritan legacy is coupled with empathy for the circumstances surrounding Bunyan’s plight. Both Bunyan and Cummings share the conviction that the organized religions of their respective times have failed, so the journeys on which they set out reflect their distrust of established institutions. Bunyan, for example, was imprisoned for holding religious meetings outside the church. He, opposed to the doctrines of the Church of England, believed in and encouraged personal salvation, condemning dogma. Thus, Christian—Bunyan’s allegorical and spiritual protagonist—journeys alone through Bunyan’s spiritual landscape and is confronted with what Bunyan saw as the religious misconceptions of the times, many of which stemmed from the formalization of the doctrines of the church. Characters such as Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Talkative, By-Ends, Ignorance, and Formalist challenge Christian on his journey and try to lead him from the pathway to his salvation and into destruction.

Similarly, C, the protagonist of The Enormous Room, encounters various persons, such as Mr. A, the gendarmes, and Monsieur le Directeur (Apollyon), who tempt him to compromise his ideals. More significant than these textual parallels, however, are the beliefs behind the creation of the two works. Cummings, according to Samuel Pickering, "believed that established religions corrupted people and destroyed man’s innate goodness just as did the state with which it [religion] was closely linked," and he followed his father’s belief that doctrine "erected barriers between people and led to neglect of man’s responsibility to man" (22), mirroring Bunyan’s distrust of established religion. And, though Cummings is less concerned with purely religious ideology than with the ordained beliefs and prejudices of society that inhibit a sincere understanding of one’s fellow humans, he nonetheless rejects the establishment and, because of his blatant opposition to the representatives of the system, he, like Bunyan, is imprisoned.

It is due to these affinities that Cummings sets up parallels between his pilgrim’s journey and that of Bunyan’s; each wants to reveal a "pathway" to a deeper spiritual understanding, and both pathways lead away from an institutionalized understanding of the soul. Cummings includes his own Slough of Despond, his own House of the Interpreter, his own Vanity Fair, and his own Doubting Castle—each of which is referred to explicitly in the novel. [2] The significance of each of these, however, has been reinterpreted to fit Cummings’ own understanding of salvation. Rather than escaping the desires of the world, C tries to escape from the sterility of dvilization. David E. Smith points out that, in The Enormous Room, those characters who represent the establishment appear to be the cleanest and most civilized, but [end page 113] usually turn out to be those with whom Cummings finds fault. Those who are dirty, on the other hand, are positive figures; filth holds an aura that is primal, mystical, and pure. The distrust of civilization causes Cummings to translate Bunyan’s landscape from primarily Christian terms to societal terms. Such variations suggest that Cummings is concerned with the identity of the individual, not salvation in the Christian sense. Still, the journey that C makes from Section Sanitaire to the enormous room sets the tone and prepares C for what lies therein, just as the obstacles along Christian’s pathway prepare him for his entrance into Doubting Castle, which in turns leads him to fuller understanding of his election.

Throughout his work, Cummings implies that institutions that strive to maintain the order and progression of civilization work toward dehumanization. Conversely, Cummings finds compassion and nobility among the outcasts of society. For this reason, Cummings’ primary setting for his journal is the enormous room, a prison in which C becomes one of the undesirables and reaches a greater understanding of the truths of humanity. Cummings takes the dungeon or Bunyan’s Doubting Castle as the model for his enormous room and makes it his primary symbol. But the autobiographical significance of The Pilgrim’s Progress and the fact that Doubting Castle represents Bunyan’s own imprisonment indicate that Cummings extracts more than a literary allusion from the work. Bunyan describes his arrest and imprisonment in "A Relation of the Imprisonment of Mr. John Bunyan." He insists that he was falsely accused of plotting treason because he had a religious meeting in the home of a friend. Similarly, because of his relationship with Willliam Slater Brown, whose letters raised questions of loyalty from the censors and got them arrested, Cummings is accused of being a potential danger to both the French and American armies in spite of evidence to the contrary. Therefore, due to the political situations of both Bunyan and Cummings, they are imprisoned without just cause. Yet, while both have the opportunity for freedom if they will abandon their loyalties— Bunyan, his followers, and Cummings, his friend—they chose to remain in prison.

More ironic still, both Bunyan and Cummings view their imprisonment as beneficial to their spiritual growth. Cummings, for example, in The Enormous Room, has C state that ". . . in finding us unworthy of helping to carry forward the banner of progress, alias the tricolor, the inimitable and excellent French government was conferring upon B. and myself—albeit with other intent—the ultimate compliment’" (122). Placed just after Cummings describes the brutal treatment of a woman prisoner, Lena, this statement reveals the contentedness the narrator—and presumably Cummings—feels in his separation from civilization. If civilization is capable of such atrocities as those inflicted upon Lena, he is proud that he has [end page 114] been found guilty of not adding to the perpetuation of such practices. And, while in prison, C encounters individuals who lead him to a more powerful understanding of his self—Cummings’ notion of salvation. [3]

Bunyan also asserts that he is privileged because of his imprisonment. Relating the events of his imprisonment, Bunyan states: "Besides I thought, that seeing God of his mercy should choose me to go upon the forlorn hope in this country; that is, to be the first that should be opposed, for the gospel. . . . For it was mercy to suffer upon so good account. . ." ("Imprisonment" 88—89). Bunyan, like Cummings, expresses contentedness with his imprisonment because he is excluded from the world that would pull him from his beliefs. Likewise, in prison, Bunyan receives renewed strength in his faith. Henri Talon, in his biography of Bunyan, describes the despair that Bunyan felt in prison and how that despair is put aside:

let us examine Bunyan’s state of soul at the moment when he was risking his life [in prison]. A final doubt—his old, old doubt—assailed him: that of his election. .. . Bunyan had need of this risk [4] . . . It was by this act of supreme heroism that the genesis of a new life was made possible. (80) Talon maintains that the doubt Bunyan has in prison is not new to his character, but that the experience in prison—suffering for the gospel— anchors his beliefs.

One can easily find the connection between Bunyan’s suffering and the despair he attributes to Christian while the latter is sitting in the dungeon of Doubting Castle. Yet, just as Bunyan puts aside his doubts of salvation while in prison, Christian realizes in this dungeon that he has the key of promise, which is the promise of his state of election by God. Doubting Castle, then, could be described as the most significant scene of The Pilgrim’s Progress because it is the most grueling test of Christians’ faith, [5] and it is there that his salvation is verified. For these reasons, Doubting Castle, above all other places along Christian’s pathway, holds the greatest significance for Cummings. He takes advantage of the ideas set forth in Bunyan’s Doubting Castle. As with Christian, it is in prison where C is made fully aware of his salvation, or at least the means to his salvation as demonstrated by the individuals whom Cummings identifies as the Delectable Mountains.

According to Gary A. Boire, Cummings suggests that "our ultimate responsibility. . . is to be continually reborn. ‘We can never by born enough. We are human beings; for who birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: the mystery which happens only whenever we are faithful to ourselves’ "(330). C undergoes a rebirth into his "essential being" in The Enormous Room. In Dreams in the Mirror, Richard Kennedy establishes Cummings’ definition of the essential being within a tradition [end page 115] that includes, among others, Socrates’ "daimon," Plato’s "psyche," Shelley’s "genius," and Freud’s "id." He then explains that Cummings’ term for this state is "IS," which Kennedy finds more adequately explained in some of Cummings’ notes:

IS= the cold 3rd singular of the intense live verb,to feel.[6] Not to completely feel = thinking,the warm prindple.
incomplete thinking=Belief,the box in which god and all other nouns are kept. (217)
The Delectable Mountains represent this state. Various obstacles must be overcome, however, including prejudices and preconceptions, or as Cummings puts it, one must be faithful to oneself before attaining the self-actualization represented by the Delectable Mountains. C’s spiritual journey, then, leads him to a more personal understanding of himself; he puts aside what society teaches and accepts persons who are considered outcasts, finding in their nature true wisdom and understanding. By "Unthinking"—a term Cummings uses in The Enormous Room to identify putting aside prejudices—one gains a "minute bit of purely personal Feeling" that leads to compassion toward humanity.

To demonstrate more clearly the need to strip away prejudices, Cummings includes in his narrative a character whom he raises to a status near that of the Delectable Mountains. The Machine-Fixer is not a Delectable Mountain, but Cummings treats the character with respect and develops him more fully than any other character who is not a Delectable Mountain. At one point, Cummings describes the Machine Fixer as a "highly moral person," though this is neither a positive nor a negative evaluation (101). The Machine-Fixer is equated with Cummings’ term, ‘thinker," described previously as "not to completely feel." One aspect that keeps the Machine-Fixer from becoming an "IS" is that he has certain prejudices, especially about women. He divides women into two groups" "les femmes honnêtes" and "les putains." Le femmes honnêtes he held highly, but les putains he looked upon with disdain—until Lena. One of the prostitutes held at La Ferté, Lena withstands a punishment that Cummings describes as barbaric and that leads him to understand "fully and irrevocably and for perhaps the first time the meaning of civilization" (122). After seeing this "putain" suffer her punishment with dignity and nobility, the Machine-Fixer is able to break out of his prejudices. C recalls,

And the Machine-Fixer,whose opinion of this blond putain grew and increased and soared with every day of her martyrdom till the Machine-Fixer’s former classification of les femmes exploded and disappeared entirely . . . [He] told me that Lena on being finally [end page 116] released walked upstairs herself,holding hard to the banister without a look for anyone, "having eyes as big as tea-cups." He added,with tears in his own eyes [sic] "M’sieu’Jean,a woman." (122—123) The Machine-Fixer is able to see nobility in a person he had initially labeled wicked. In doing so, he demonstrates more fully how Cummings would have his readers view the world. He moves the reader toward the goal, but the Delectable Mountains are those to whom one must finally turn for the embodiment of Cummings’ "IS."

Many of Cummings’ fellow inmates become his close friends, but among these Cummings maintains a particular respect for the four he calls Delectable Mountains: they gain the right to be called the Delectable Mountains through their noble actions and admirable characteristics. As the four shepherds who reside in the Delectable Mountains in Bunyan’s work, Cummings’ Delectable Mountains guide the pilgrim, C, towards his goal of obtaining salvation. They provide C with a figurative map, much like the "note of the way" the shepherds give to Christian and Hopeful (Bunyan 173). Among the Delectable Mountains are The Wanderer, a beautiful and exotic Gypsy who demonstrates the strength and anguish of true love for his family; The Zulu, a silent and mysterious man whom Cummings describes as the embodiment of an ‘IS" because he offers friendship to the friendless "Orange Cap" and shares his cheese and chocolate—precious commodities in the enormous room—with those whom he favors; Surplice, whose smell is offensive, but whose personality is most pure because he is unobtrusive and most clearly demonstrates the characteristics of Christ by suffering for the amusement of the other inhabitants; and Jean Le Nègre, the sexually promiscuous but truly sincere individual who embodies the innocence of childhood. Through these individuals, C learns that people are not always what they seem. The Delectable Mountains are the outcasts of society, yet they demonstrate humaneness, a quality that results from their spiritual state. Their influence allows Cummings to be resurrected from the grave-like enormous room to venture safely back into the wasteland of civilization, but on toward the "Celestial City" that is his understanding of his self: C states, ". . . I turned into Edward E. Cummings, I turned into what was dead and is now alive. . ." (238). He regains his identity.

Cummings finds much significance in Bunyan’s Doubting Castle and his Delectable Mountains as they pertain to his own situation at La Ferté-Macé. Doubting Castle is not merely an image that Cummings finds useful for his purposes; it reflects the similarities between Bunyan’s and Cummings’ imprisonments and is the place in which Christian’s salvation is secured, just as C finds greater understanding of himself in the enormous room. Such [end page 117] similarities suggest that both Christian’s and C’s journeys are spiritually parallel, though the spiritual goals are not the same: Cummings’ work represents an iconoclastic Christianity that re-emphasizes the Christ-like qualities of compassion and love given merely lip-service by establishment Christianity. Cummings’ use of the well-known allegory also demonstrates his attention to the details of his craft, creating a work that does not merely make allusions that "evaporate away the meaning" of a chief spiritual work, but that reinterprets it for a new age. Perhaps realizing the similarities of his circumstances to those surrounding Bunyan and his work, Cummings dedded to write his own Pilgrim’s Progress. In spite of the spiritual differences, Cummings’ use of Bunyan validates his endeavor; he creates his own spiritual work that cries out for greater human understanding.

—Baylor University, Austin, Texas


[1] That The Pilgrim’s Progress is an account of Bunyan’s personal spiritual journey is suggested by Roger Sharrock: ‘Out of [his prison experience] grew his [Bunyan’s] spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and later The Pilgrim’s Progress which renders the personal spiritual experience of the earlier book into the objective form of a universal myth" (10).

[2] Cummings acknowledges his use of Bunyan’s landscape after the literal journey that has brought C to La Ferté-Macé: "In the preceding pages I have described my Pilgrim’s Progress from the Slough of Despond, commonly known at Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un . . . through the mysteries of Noyon Grez and Paris to the Porte deTriage de La Ferté-Macé, Orne" (The Enormous Room 82).

[3] Cummings’ notion of salvation is culminated in his definition of’IS" that is discussed later.

[4] Emphasis added.

[5] Throughout Grace Abounding Bunyan expresses the intensity of the despair he experiences due to his doubts about his election; these descriptions that dominate the work suggest that this doubt was his primary nemesis.

[6] Emphasis added. [end page 118]

Works Cited

Boire, Gary A. "‘An Inconceivable Vastness’: Rereading E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room." English Studies In Canada 4.3 (1978): 330-340.

Bunyan, John. "A Relation of the Imprisonment of Mr. John Bunyan." Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666, 80). NewYork: Penguin Books, 1987. 87-110.

—. ThePilgrim's Progress (1678, 84). NewYork: Penguin Books, 1987.

Cummings, E. E. The Enormous Room (1922). NewYork: Liveright Publishing Co., 1978.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gaull, Marilyn. "Language and Identity: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room." American Quarterly 19 (1967): 645-662.

Headrick, Paul. "The Enormous Room and the Uses of Parody." Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society New Series 2 (Oct. 1993): 48-56.

Linehan, Thomas. "Style and Individuality in E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room." Style 13.1 (1979): 45-59.

Pickering, Samuel. "E. E. Cummings’ Pilgrim’s Progress." Christianity and Literature 28.1(1978): 17-31.

Sharrock, Roger. Introduction. The Pilgrim’s Progress. By John Bunyan. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. 7-27.

Smith, David E. "The Enormous Room, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the ‘Demonic Trinity.’" John Bunyan in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. 103-119.

Talon, Henri. John Bunyan: The Man and his Works London: Rockliff Publishing Corp. Ltd., 1951.

Walsh, Jeffrey. "The Painful Process of Unthinking: E. E. Cummings’ Social Vision in The Enormous Room." The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Holger Klein. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1976. 32-42.

[end page 119]

Back to:
SPRING Contents # 5

SPRING Contents Index

SPRING home page

Enormous Room page

Enormous Room page (Penguin edition)