The book begins with "The Author's Apology for his Book." This portion of the book, written in verse, aims to explain the author's purpose. He wrote the book, he writes, not for the benefit of his neighbors: "I did it mine own self to gratifie" (5). He acknowledges that people had differing opinions about whether he should publish it and what he should include, but he decided to proceed and instructs those who aren't interested to refrain from reading it. He then defends the style in which he has chosen to write. He argues that God often communicated by metaphor in scripture, and thus, Bunyan, too is justified in using this style of writing (8). He argues that he writes from a place of truth, and that would come through no matter the style in which he presents his words. He continues his defense of the genre until he openly defends the language he uses: "this book is writ in such a dialect, / as may the minds of listless men affect" (11). He finishes by calling the reader to read with "heart and head together" (12).
In his dream, the author describes a man with a heavy burden upon his back, crying in agony. His wife and children think that the man overreacting and dismiss him as ill. The man is extremely agitated by what he has read in his book (the Bible), which leads him to believe that, because of his sins, he has been condemned to die. The Evangelist comes and tells the man to embark on a pilgrimage, instructing him that the Wicket Gate is the first stop on his journey to deliverance. The man takes the Evangelist's word and flees in the direction of the shining light, even though his family calls for him to stay.
We now learn that the man's name is Christian. As he runs, two of his neighbors catch up with him to find out the reason for his flight. Christian invites the men, called Obstinate and Pliable, to join him on his journey to paradise. Obstinate refuses to go along with Christian, thinking him "brainsick", but Pliable joins him. Christian regales his new companion with tales of heaven. However, the two men soon reach the Slough of Despond and get stuck in the mud. There, Pliable gets discouraged and turns back. Christian struggles to get out of the Slough, due to the burden on his back. Finally, a man named Help comes to his aid, guiding Christian up the stairs out of the slough. Here, the narrator, John Bunyan, tells Christian that murky slough is made up of all the fears and doubts that arise in a sinner's soul while he is on his way to salvation. Meanwhile, Pliable returns home and shares the tale of his journey, leading all the neighbors to laugh at Christian and his silly quest.
Next, Christian encounters Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who warns Christian not to listen to anything the Evangelist says. Instead, he tells Christian that the way to get rid of his burden is to go to a town called Morality, which is ruled by Mr. Legality. If Mr. Legality isn't home, he continues, his son Civility can surely be of help to Christian.
Christian follows Mr. Worldly Wiseman's advice at first, but soon finds his burden getting heavier and the hill (Mt. Sinai) feeling steeper. As he struggles against nature, he regrets listening to the stranger. Fearful, he stops his ascent. At that moment, the Evangelist appears. Christian is embarrassed and filled with shame as he shares the reasons for his divergent path. The Evangelist sets Christian back on his way, having corrected his understanding. The Evangelist explains that Mr. Legality is a man of the law, so he does not have the ability to relieve Christian of his burden. The Evangelist explains to Christian that Mr. Legality, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Civility were cunningly trying to divert him from his salvation. As confirmation, fire and words erupt from within Mt. Sinai. The Evangelist warns Christian against straying from his prescribed path again. Soon after, Christian arrives at the Wicket Gate, above which is written, "knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (31).
A man named Goodwill opens the gate, and the two talk about Christian's journey from the city of Destruction. Goodwill lets Christian through, and then shows him the path that he should follow on his way forward, the path that was cast by "the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, and his apostles" (31). This path will lead Christian to the house of the Interpreter. Taking in this instruction carefully, Christian sets off on the next phase of his journey.
The text opens with “The Author’s Apology For His Book,” which Bunyan chose to write in verse. Bunyan here does not mean ‘apology’ in the sense that he is sorry for something, but rather, as an thorough justification of his choices. In this preface, Bunyan unapologetically defends the style in which he has written Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan explains that he “fell” into allegory, and once his mind started on this path, his ideas multiplied “like sparks from coals do fly” (5). This simile is particularly effective because it represents the fact that Bunyan hopes his text will ultimately spark conversions amongst his readers. Moreover, he uses light as an important motif throughout the text, which is a common symbol of God, truth, scripture, and other divine ideals.
Deeper into the apology, Bunyan gives the reader a window into his editing process, explaining that many people have read the text and offered feedback. In defense of his use of metaphor and parables, Bunyan alludes to scripture, arguing that if this narrative technique is good enough for God, it is good enough for his words as well. Scripture is incredibly important to Bunyan, and the reader can feel its influence throughout the book because there is a scriptural allusion or citation on nearly every page. Beyond scriptural license for allegory, Bunyan justifies his methodology using the metaphor of the fisherman who uses every means possible to ensnare his quarry (8). Bunyan reveals the passion and commitment to tell his story, claiming that he will use every tool in his possession to share the tale.
Bunyan intends his work to be a representation of pure, divine truth. He writes, “my dark and cloudy words they do but hold / The truth, as cabinets inclose the Gold” (8)—and he augments his own authority by locating himself in a grand tradition of prophets, church fathers, preachers, and theologians. He names Paul, specifically, perhaps the most important leader in the early Christian church, and of particular importance to Luther. The point of drawing attention to this Christian lineage is not prove his own importance, but rather to underscore the gravity and nature of the truths the reader is about to digest. Bunyan insinuates that as a writer, the truth is of paramount importance to him. He demonstrates this even more forcefully by the personification of truth on page 10, where he writes about truth as an agent in the world: “But yet let Truth be free / to make her salleys upon thee, and Me” (10).
The Pilgrim’s Progress is, at its heart, a didactic text, and Bunyan embraces that. Throughout, he occasionally addresses the reader directly, as if to ensure comprehension. He wants the text to be accessible. Though the apology is in verse, Bunyan wrote the text itself is in the colloquial vernacular. He explains most of the metaphors are explicitly even as the characters engage with one another. By including the reader in the text, Bunyan takes the reader on his or her own pilgrimage, mirroring the spiritual journey of the characters. Bunyan expresses this objective in no uncertain terms, writing, “this book will make a traveler of thee” (11). John Bunyan believed that everyone needs a some assistance while wandering through “the wilderness of the world” (13), and he designed Pilgrim's Progress to be that guiding light. The allegory creates a link between the lone pilgrim and his Christian community as he strives to triumph over the evil in the world.
As the text opens, Bunyan introduces the reader to a disgruntled and deeply affected man reading a book. Though he makes sure to describe the man’s frenzy is described, Bunyan leaves any identifying characteristics purposely ambiguous, so that the reader is able to see himself in this man. This character, later known as Christian, represents humanity, burdened and blind. The book that the man is reading is the Bible, and thus the man knows he has sinned, though he feels powerless to change it. God has not abandoned humanity, even in this dark hour, evidenced by the Evangelist's arrival. The symbolism of the Evangelist's arrival is fairly blatant, or at least, it would have been to Bunyan’s readers. In Christianity, authors of the gospels are referred to as the Evangelists, a word which is derived from the Greek term for “good news.” The Evangelist comes to deliver the good news to the man, that he has been divinely marked for salvation. The Evangelist tells the Christian (in actuality, the Bible tells him) how to start on the path to salvation. This is the first of many instances in the text where Bunyan describes the wondrous grace of God at work. At the heart of Reformed theology is a theology of grace, and the power of grace is a theme that suffuses the whole text.
God has not designed the Christian's journey to be easy, and the first major obstacle that the Christian faces is his unwilling family. To be a Christian, especially a Puritan, was not popular in Restoration society, and Bunyan acknowledges the difficulty of that choice in his text. In order to follow what he knows to be true, the Christian must face the censure of the world, including his own family. He makes the heart-wrenching decision to leave them behind because they are unwilling to see the necessity of his departure. He never regrets his decision, however.
As the Christian becomes a pilgrim, Bunyan begins referring to him by his formal name, which happens to be Christian. With this general and obvious allusion, Christian becomes actually everyman. Reformed theology emphasized a personal god much more than the Catholic tradition did, and the fact that Christian’s conversion comes with a name, a unique identity, highlights the belief that God cares about his salvation individually. Throughout his pilgrimage, this individual relationship with God is illustrated, and God always delivers Christian from his distress.
The first instance where such an intervention occurs is in the Slough of Despond. Help, there but for the grace of God, emerges to show Christian the way out of the Slough. Though all of the pilgrimage is meant to symbolize an internal journey, the slough represents the is first physical struggle for Christian. Later in the text, many of the struggles Christian faces, though internal, are catalyzed by external forces in the world.
In Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who shows up not long after Christian escapes the slough, we see Bunyan’s critique of the laws created by man. Reformed theology attempted to discredit the law as path to salvation, and Bunyan is very critical of anyone who would suggest otherwise. Mr. Worldly Wiseman suggests that Christian go to Mr. Legality’s, in the town of Morality, and Christian, who is still quite vulnerable, is seduced by the idea. As Christian deviates from his path, Bunyan suggests the pernicious power of the law by increasing the weight of his burden. Rather than liberating Christian, as grace will, the law further encumbers him, making his journey up the mountain extremely difficult.
A miraculous return of the Evangelist, to be interpreted by the reader as an instruction to turn back to scripture, sets everything to right. It is important to note that Christian is never perfect, nor does God expect him to be. Faith and humility are enough because God is merciful and forgives. There is a particularly didactic moment as the Evangelist explains Christian the severity of his error, distilling the lesson into a list (29). This is the first of many lists that Bunyan uses to break from the narrative momentarily and to communicate something critical in a straightforward, non-narrative way. Though Pilgrim's Progress is one of the world's earliest novels, Bunyan never lets a concern for integrity of the plot prevent him from explaining something thoroughly.