When Christian and Faithful are nearly through the wilderness, Evangelist catches up with them. They are glad to see him and tell him about their pilgrimage thus far. Evangelist exhorts them to keep striving and not to grow weary in their journey. Christian asks him to tell them what they will encounter in the future. Evangelist prophesies that they will soon enter the town of Vanity, whose residents will kill one or both of them. He encourages them to be brave.
Encouragement is important for pilgrims because the pilgrimage is seldom smooth for long. Evangelist goes a step further and also tells Christian and Faithful what they can expect in the next stage of their journey. Their visit to Vanity will include the ultimate obstacle—martyrdom, or dying for one’s faith.
Sure enough, soon Christian and Faithful enter a town called Vanity which is home to a huge Fair that runs throughout the year. The fair is quite ancient—almost 5,000 years old. At that time, Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, seeing many pilgrims passing through Vanity on their way to the Celestial City, decided to set up a fair selling all sorts of merchandise—lands, titles, kingdoms, jewels, and even people. Every kind of sin and crime also happens here. The wares of many different nations are promoted in the streets of the Fair.
Vanity symbolizes the world as a whole, especially its opposition to Christianity from the very beginning. The demons established the Fair on purpose to try to divert heavenly minded pilgrims. It contains everything, good and bad, that the world has to offer—anything that could possibly distract and tempt a person on the way to the Celestial City.
It is not possible to reach the Celestial City without passing through Vanity Fair, unless a person goes out of the world altogether. Even Christ passed through it, and Beelzebub offered to make him Lord of the Fair in exchange for Christ’s worship of him, but Christ resisted this temptation.
Anyone who endeavors to live a Christian life must do so within the world. The only way to avoid the world is to die. In the Gospels, Christ was tempted to embrace the world and endured. Everyone who follows him must face the same temptation.
As soon as Christian and Faithful enter the Fair, they cause a commotion. Their clothing is strange; their speech, “the language of Canaan,” sounds barbaric to the people of Vanity; and they constantly turn their eyes away and plug their ears against the sellers and merchandise, calling on Heaven for help. When Christian and Faithful say that they’re only interested in buying “the Truth,” the people of Vanity mock them.
“The language of Canaan” probably doesn’t refer to the ancient Hebrew language, but to the spiritual tone of the pilgrims’ speech. Everything about them—their appearance, conversation, and behavior—sets them apart from Vanity’s residents, underscoring the opposition between the church and the world.
Soon, the commotion grows so large that the leader of the Fair brings the two men to be examined. Christian and Faithful explain where they’ve come from and where they are going, but the people of Vanity don’t believe them—they think the pilgrims have come on purpose to stir up trouble in the Fair. So they beat the pilgrims, smear dirt on them, and put them in a cage, to be a spectacle for everyone.
The pilgrims, whose very strangeness marks them as different from the people of Vanity, are blamed for the sensation they’ve stirred up in the town. Their treatment is likely meant to evoke the suffering Christ and the apostles faced in the New Testament.
While in the cage, Christian and Faithful remain patient and kind, despite the insults hurled at them. Soon, the better people of Vanity begin to blame the crueler ones for mistreating the prisoners, and soon the townspeople begin fighting. The pilgrims are brought before the authorities again and charged for causing this uproar, too. They’re led through the town in chains as an example to everyone. But they continue to behave meekly toward all, winning some to their cause and further enraging others, who decide that they should be put to death.
Christian’s and Faithful’s patience under pressure contrasts with the angry, scornful attitude of the world (non-Christians). Their situation provokes violent conflict within the town. The division in Vanity hints that the world at large struggles with a guilty conscience about the things it indulges in and about its treatment of pilgrims. In any case, the pilgrims inspire some to follow their example.
While awaiting trial, Christian and Faithful recall Evangelist’s words and comfort one another. They agree that whichever of them dies will have the happier fate. At trial, the judge, Lord Hategood, accuses them of disturbing trade, stirring up division in the town, and circulating dangerous opinions. In his defense, Faithful says that he has only opposed those things which oppose God, especially Vanity’s King, Beelzebub. Witnesses named Envy, Superstition, and Pickthank testify against Faithful. Envy testifies that he heard Faithful claiming that Christianity and the customs of Vanity are irreconcilable. Superstition says that Faithful claimed their religion is illegitimate, and Pickthank accuses him of denouncing Beelzebub and his nobles.
For the pilgrims, death isn’t the end, and death for Christ’s sake is considered an honor, which helps them put their sufferings into perspective. The judge’s and witnesses’ names indicate their opposition to everything the pilgrims represent. “Pickthank,” for instance, is an archaic word for a flatterer, someone who tries to curry favor with others. Faithful bases his defense on his faithfulness to God and opposition to all things which oppose God, not denouncing the people of Vanity directly. His accusers see it differently.
Faithful is permitted to speak in his own defense. In response to Envy, he states that anything which can be shown to be against the Bible is opposed to Christianity. To Superstition, he responds that only a divinely revealed faith is legitimate. Finally, to Pickthank, he asserts that Vanity’s Prince Beelzebub deserves to be in Hell. In conclusion, he entrusts himself to God’s mercy. Lord Hategood instructs the jury, and they come back with a unanimous guilty verdict, condemning Faithful to the cruelest death possible.
Faithful’s self-defense is grounded on his belief in the Bible as the authoritative basis for his life. Vanity’s practices, beliefs, and King (the demon Beelzebub) are not authorized by the Bible or by God, so Faithful must resist them. The jury sees Faithful’s opposition as a threat to themselves and their way of life—again suggesting that they persecute him out of a suppressed guilty conscience.
After this, Faithful is scourged, stoned, and burned at the stake. After he dies, he is taken into a chariot and immediately transported to Heaven. Christian is put back in prison and later miraculously escapes, singing a song about Faithful’s triumph.
Faithful’s cruel death is no doubt intended to remind Bunyan’s audience of the suffering that Christ and the apostles endured. He is immediately comforted and rewarded for his sufferings, a reminder that a pilgrim should regard the world’s opposition as small compared to the promised reward.