Having passed a pillar of salt in the shape of a woman, upon which is written "Remember Lot's wife," Christian and Hopeful come to a very pleasant river, "which David the King called 'the river of God,' but John called 'the river of the water of life'" (Ps. 65:9; Rev. 22, 1-3; Ezek. 47). It is lined with fruit trees and beautiful meadows bright with lilies and other flowers. Drinking the Water of Life, the weary Pilgrims are greatly refreshed and remain here for several days, picking fruit and sleeping in the meadows.
Moving on, they find that the Holy Way runs along the river bank for a time, but then it veers off onto rough round which is very hard on their sore feet. They are "much discouraged" until they come to another meadow, "and a stile to go over into it, and that meadow is called By-path Meadow." Suggesting that the going might be easier in the meadow, Christian climbs over the stile to have a look. Finding a path there going their way, he persuades Hopeful that they should take it.
Making good time in By-path Meadow, which is "very easy for their feet," they catch up with another pilgrim, by the name of Vain-confidence.
Assuring them that he knows the way, their new acquaintance starts out ahead and tells them to follow him. As it is now night and very dark, they soon lose sight of him and continue on until they hear a loud cry and a heavy thud. Creeping forward, they find that Vain-confidence has been killed by falling into a deep pit dug "by the prince of those grounds to catch vainglorious fools withal."
Christian and Hopeful turn back, scarcely knowing where they are, meeting great difficulties. It is not only dark, but now it begins to rain, with terrible lightning and thunder. The water rises till they are "like to have been drowned nine or ten times." Despairing of finding the stile that night, they lie down in the meadow to sleep.
In the morning they are surprised and seized by the owner of the meadow, Giant Despair. Charging them with trespassing, he drags them to his stronghold, Doubting Castle, and throws them into a "nasty and stinking" dungeon. Here they lie for four days "without one bit of bread, or drop of drink, or light, or any to ask how they did." Giant Despair finally appears and beats them with a crab tree cudgel until they can scarcely roll over on the floor.
When he talks with his wife Diffidence about what to do with the prisoners, she suggests that he might save himself some exertion if he did not kill the prisoners himself but counseled them to take their own lives. He does this, telling them that, since they are going to die anyhow and have their bodies thrown on the heap of human bones and skulls behind the castle, they might prefer to do away with themselves, "either with knife, halter, or poison." When his counsel is rejected, he rushes at the Pilgrims to kill them then and there. But he is subject to fits, it appears, and he is seized with one now, temporarily losing the use of his hands, so he withdraws, leaving Christian and Hopeful to ponder their dilemma.
Christian is uncertain about what to do. For his part, Hopeful rules out suicide; "for one to kill himself is to kill body and soul at once," a more heinous sin than murder of another. Suicide would forever bar them from entering the heavenly Jerusalem. Perhaps their case is not so desperate, Hopeful suggests. Maybe the giant will die, or forget to lock the dungeon doors, or be permanently disabled by one of his fits.
Toward evening, the giant appears in the dungeon again and, finding that the prisoners have not taken his advice, rages against them so furiously and threatens them with such dire punishment that Christian swoons. When the latter comes to, he again contemplates suicide. Hopeful urges a little more patience, pointing out that Christian had driven off Apollyon, passed safely through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and managed to escape from Vanity Fair. "Well, on Saturday about midnight," they begin to pray and continue until almost daybreak. Suddenly, Christian cries out:
"What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting Castle."
"That's good news," says Hopeful. "Good brother, pluck it out of thy bosom and try."
They try it on the dungeon door, which opens with ease, as do other doors in the castle. Outside, they try it on a big iron gate, which finally opens, though the lock "went damnable hard." As they push the big gate open, its rusty hinges creak so loudly that Giant Despair is awakened. Jumping up, he is dressing to pursue the prisoners when he suffers another fit and has to go back to bed.
Running with desperate speed, Christian and Hopeful finally find the stile by which they entered By-path Meadow, climb over it, and are once again on the King's highway. Before going on, they decide to erect a pillar, on the side of which they engrave a warning: "Over this stile is the way to Doubting Castle, which is kept by Giant Despair, who despiseth the King of the Celestial Country, and seeks to destroy his holy Pilgrims."
On first coming to the pillar of salt in the form of a woman, neither Christian nor Hopeful can make anything of it. Then Hopeful sees some writing on the forehead of the woman, written "in an unusual hand." As he is no scholar, he calls Christian, who is "learned . . . and after a little laying of letters together," makes out the inscription, "Remember Lot's wife." The pillar of salt, they now perceive, is that into which Lot's wife was turned "for her looking back with a covetous heart when she was going from Sodom for safety" (Gen. 19:26).
This "sudden and amazing sight," they agree, "came opportunely to us after the invitation which Demas gave us to come over to view the Hill Lucre. And had we gone over, . . . we had been made ourselves like this woman, a spectacle for those that shall come after to behold . . . This ministereth occasion to us to thank God, to fear before him and always to remember Lot's wife." Like so many of the day, Bunyan may have believed that the pillar was still to be seen, as reported several centuries earlier in the fantastical Travels of Sir John Mandeville, who wrote: "at the right side of the Dead Sea the wife of Lot still stands in likeness of a salt stone."
The incidents in the By-path Meadow and Doubting Castle episode are among the more vivid and dramatic in the book, and are used to symbolize many things and to point a number of moral lessons, some of which are obvious. For one thing, the path to Heaven is straight and narrow and, no matter how rough the going, must be followed. There is no easy bypass, as Christian and Hopeful discover in seeking to favor their sore tired feet — a "carnal" self-indulgence that leads them almost to death not once but several times.
In By-path Meadow, they meet Vain-confidence (at the moment, there is more than a bit of vain confidence in them), and they decide to follow him as he leads the way in the dark. Except that they were less "vainglorious" than he, they might have taken the lead and in the dark stumbled into the deep pit that took his life.
As they turn back, hoping to find the stile by which they entered By-path Meadow, they are assaulted by the elements as if divinely ordered to teach them a lesson. With lightning flashing and thunder rolling "in a very dreadful manner," the rain comes down in torrents, rapidly creating flood waters in which they are almost drowned "nine or ten times." Despairing of finding their way on such a stormy night, they lie down to sleep in the meadow, only to be seized in the morning by Giant Despair and thrown into the dungeon at Doubting Castle, where they are starved and mercilessly beaten.
The imprisonment in Doubting Castle symbolizes a period of extreme spiritual distress on the part of the two Pilgrims. They are locked up by their own fears and doubts. Can they keep the Faith as it should be kept? Are they among those predestined for salvation? Giant Despair represents the despair in their own hearts, and the giant's hold is broken as soon as Christian remembers that he is carrying a key that will, he is persuaded, "open any lock in Doubting Castle," as proves to be the case. The key is "called Promise," a belief in the assurance that a true Christian will be forgiven his trespasses and errors, if minor, and not be rejected at the Celestial Gate.
It is strange and rather amusing that such an overpowering creature as Giant Despair should suffer from fits which come on "sometimes in sunshine weather" and leave him temporarily without use of his hands. There is a bit of symbolism here. Black despair loses its grip when brought out into the sunshine, into the light. Providentially for Christian and Hopeful, the author puts Giant Despair into fits at just the right time, when he is about to bash in the skulls of the two Pilgrims with his crab tree cudgel, and when he falls back into bed when getting up to pursue the escaping prisoners.
What with Christian's miraculous escapes from death at the hands of Apollyon, in the hellish Valley of the Shadow of Death, in Vanity Fair, and then in Doubting Castle, the story line begins to call to mind the script of some old-time movie serial, like "The Perils of Pauline," in which the heroine is tied across a railroad track and the locomotive of a huge train comes thundering down on her, within a few feet of her, when an unseen hand reaches out and saves her for another hairbreadth rescue in next week's serial.