Pilgrim’s Progress is the first ever novel to have successfully preached theology through fictional characters, despite the idea being considered impossible in its time. The story revolves around a man named Christian and his spiritual journey as he seeks salvation from the torments of his life. As the story progresses, Christian faces numerous obstacles and adversaries along his journey that resemble the fallacies of the mind of an average individual and triumphs over all, driven only by piety and God’s will. The perilous journey is also made successful through the help of many advocates of his faith.
The story begins with the narrator falling into a dream, to justify the heavily spiritual ideas that are about to unfold. He dreams of a man named Christian, who bears a strong burden of spiritual anguish. In the hopes of relieving himself of this anguish, he is advised by a visitor named Evangelist to leave his home in the City of Destruction and travel to the Celestial City regarded as Mount Zion, thus initiating the pilgrimage of Christian.
The narrative then progresses into Christian’s adversities as he urges his family to accompany him, but to no avail. He ventures alone and is further discouraged as he falls into a bog called the Slough of Despond and when he is instructed by the Worldly Wiseman to lead a peaceful life without religion, but advances on his journey. He eventually finds shelter in Goodwill’s house and learns many lessons on faith.
The plot successfully characterizes the true path of Christianity when Christian comes across the characters Formalist and Hypocrisy as they were scrambling over a wall in order to get to Mount Zion instead of staying on the natural course, but soon go back as the path ahead provided no bypasses.
Continuing along his way, Christian receives a vision of Christ’s tomb and cross, and his burden lightens. He also acquires a certificate of entry into the Celestial City from one of the three celestial creatures regarded as the Shining Ones. Christian soon finds the shelter of the Palace Beautiful, where he meets the mistresses; Discretion, Piety, Prudence and Charity. They ask him about his family and the reason for his abandonment, sparking the anguish in him once more. They also feed and arm him and speak of caution in the Valley of Humiliation that is to follow.
The story then introduces direct violence as Christian meets the monstrous figure, Apollyon, and they engage in a duel that results in Christian striking Apollyon down, blessed with God’s armor.
Christian then crosses paths with both Faithful and Talkative. The two new characters work as counterparts to each other as Faithful, in one hand, is seen as a true follower of the Christian faith and Talkative, one that only boasts their virtue, but does not truly reflect upon it. Faithful confronts Talkative on this contradiction, rendering the discontinuation of Talkative’s journey. Faithful and Christian continue on to the town of Vanity. They are encountered by Evangelist on their tracks, who prophesizes that Vanity will be the end of one of their lives. Fulfilling this prophecy, Faithful is unreasonably set on trial by the townspeople and executed. A fate that he welcomes, for it brings him closer to his creator.
Then comes the introduction of Hopeful and By-ends, a wicked pilgrim who manipulates religion as a means of getting ahead in life. Christian rejects his company due to his failure of affirming poverty as an inevitable aspect of the faith. Christian and Hopeful then enter the plain of Ease, meeting a man lauded for his trickery, Demas. They pass his advances and take shelter for the night in the grounds of the Doubting Castle, when they are found and accused of trespassing by the proprietor, Giant Despair. His wife, Diffidence, advices him into declaring the harshest of punishments, tortured into contemplating suicide, but decide to stray from the sinful path. Christian then remembers the key of Promise in his possession, which unlocks any door in Despair’s domain, and they leave free of Despair’s savagery.
The next part of the tale ensues on the Delectable Mountains, sitting on the outskirts of the Celestial City. Christian and Hopeful are welcomed by a group of kind shepherds, who offer them asylum for the night. Upon sunrise, as Christian and Hopeful prepare for the Celestial City, they are warned of the one known as Flatterer and the Enchanted Ground. The two then depart from the shepherds. They encounter a man who fool them into believing he is a Shining One, but soon discover that it was Flatterer. The pilgrims are saved by the coming of a true Shining One and are set on their correct path once more.
The two pilgrims come into contact with Ignorance, who expresses that a good life is sufficient for entering the Celestial City. However, upon reaching the city, Ignorance is thrown into the byways of hell for not following the right path. They also face Atheist, who is incredulous of the existence of God and Heaven. The pilgrims heed to the shepherds’ advice and pay little attention to Atheist.
Christian and Hopeful soon find themselves in the precariously proclaimed Enchanted Grounds, where the air may trick one into falling to a deep slumber, never to awaken. The pilgrims vigilantly pass the grounds and as the Shining Ones encourage them forward, they face their final obstacle in entering the Celestial City. The bridgeless river, known as the River of Death. In the midst of crossing the river, Christian feels himself sinking and asks Hopeful to carry on without him. But with the mentioning of Jesus Christ, Christian finds a new light and emerges from the river and conclude their journey upon reaching the gates of the Celestial City.
The second part of the story, focuses on Christiana, Christian’s wife, and their sons. The new pilgrims visit the identical spots as their predecessor with the addition of newer ones. The pilgrimage is lengthier in comparison in order to accommodate for the sons’ marriages and their wives’ childbirths, including several battles. The writer also introduces the idea of a female main character, something that might not have been a common principle in that period.
The part starts with the narrator, falling into a dream once more and meeting Sagacity, who, together with the narrator, present the journey of Christiana.
Christiana, upon deciding on the pilgrimage, hires Mercy as a caretaker for her children and embark on their journey. They pass the Slough of Despond without falling in and reach the gate which will lead them to the Celestial City. They are allowed in, following some unavoidable complications. After receiving accommodation from the gatekeeper, the pilgrims proceed onwards and are confronted by two men who enunciate their wish to harm them, but fortunately, are driven away by the entrance of the Reliever. He then criticizes their decision of not requesting a conductor for their journey. Realizing their indiscretion, they carry on and find sanctuary in the abode of the Interpreter, who had once provided for Christian. The pilgrims gain many perspectives on the fallacies of man and learn many lessons on faith as they look through the moral emblems in the Interpreter’s house.
The readers are then introduced to a key character of the story, as the Interpreter assigns Great-heart as Christiana’s manservant to safeguard the pilgrims on their journey, and they depart on their way to the Palace Beautiful. They are soon confronted by the lions that Christian had previously encountered. The lion master blocks their path unreasonably, resulting in Great-heart striking him down with his sword and treading onwards and finding asylum in the Palace Beautiful for the next month.
A month later, they progress into the Valley of the Shadow of Death and are met with treachery by a giant named Maul. He and Great-heart battle and Great-heart emerges victorious, decapitating the giant Maul. They meet an old pilgrim named Old Honest, following a brief celebration of their triumph over Maul. The pilgrims discuss with Old Honest of how fear can lead to a firm path in God’s favor, if used correctly.
Moving on their steady course, the pilgrims take refuge from bandits with Gaius, who on one occasion, proposes that they find the giant Slay-good and relieve the locals of his ravaging, and they do so, rescuing Feeble-mind in the process.
Time progresses on and Christiana finds herself to be a grandmother now. Then, the pilgrims one day climb the hill of Lucre. They find a man who cares for the children of pilgrims and the grandchildren of Christiana are given away, signifying great sacrifice. Moving onwards, the pilgrims decide to slay the Giant Despair for all his misdeeds and does so, rescuing the prisoners in the process.
The pilgrims follow the footsteps of Christian, as they meet the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, who present Mercy with a gift she cherishes. The pilgrims tread fast and joins Valiant-for-truth, who helps guide them through the perilous Enchanted Ground where they meet many complications and finally emerge through and enter the Celestial City. Christiana visits all the pilgrims that had helped her along the journey and finally sees the master of the city.
The narrator ends on the note that he is unaware of the fate of Christiana’s sons and their families, but they remain alive, and bids farewell.