Pilgrim's Progress was written in two parts. Each part is a long continuous narrative, without divisions. Consequently, the narrative will be dealt with in sections based on major scenes and incidents.
Bunyan begins Pilgrim's Progress this way: "As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den [jail], and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a dream."
In his dream the author sees a poor, ragged man standing off by himself in the fields, a heavy burden on his back, a Bible in his hand. As he opens the Book to read from time to time, he weeps and trembles and cries out: "What shall I do? What shall I do to be saved?" He is convinced that the City of Destruction where he lives is about to be "burned with fire from Heaven" for its manifold sins and corruptions. He tells his family and friends of this, and of the need to flee immediately. But they put down his distress to some "frenzy distemper [that] had got into his head." They put him to bed in the hope "that sleep might settle his brains," but that does no good. As the ragged man goes on talking about the immediate need of finding some way of escape from the doomed city, those around him begin to grow hardened about all his apocalyptic notions. In the hope of driving away his "distemper by harsh and surly carriages toward him," they chide him, deride him, and quite neglect him. He pities them and prays for them, but to no effect.
The poor, ragged, distraught man is soon given a name; appropriately, it is Christian. One day when he is walking along, reading the Bible, and crying out in spiritual torment, he is met by Evangelist, who asks Christian what is the matter, what is troubling him. Christian explains that he wishes to flee the City of Destruction to live forever in the Celestial City, but how is he going to do that, not knowing the way. Pointing across a very broad field, Evangelist asks: "Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?" (Matt. 7:13). No, says Christian. "Do you see yonder shining Light? (Ps. 119:105, 2 Pet. 1:19). Christian thinks he does. Very well, Evangelist concludes, he should follow the Light to the Wicket Gate, where he should knock and he would there be told what to do.
At this, Christian begins to run. As he is near his house, he is seen by his wife and children, who run after him, calling out to him to return and not leave them destitute. Christian does not look back, puts his fingers in his ears to keep from hearing the pitiful wails of his family, and runs on crying: "Life! Life! Eternal Life!"
To fetch Christian back, by force if necessary, neighbors send out two men, Obstinate and Pliant. They cannot persuade Christian to return. Obstinate gives up the attempt and goes back, dismissing Christian as a "brain-sick fellow." But Pliant becomes interested in what Christian has to say and decides to join him in his pilgrimage, particularly after Christian has unfolded his vision of the wonders they will enjoy at the end of their pilgrimage. "There is an endless kingdom to be inhabited, and everlasting Life to be given us. There are crowns of glory to be given us, and garments that will make us shine like the sun in the firmament . . . There shall be no more crying, nor sorrow . . . There we shall be with Seraphims and Cherubims, creatures that will dazzle your eyes to look at them."
As they walk along together, Christian and Pliant are so busy talking about immortality and other things that they do not notice where they are going and suddenly fall into a bog, the Slough of Despond, where they wallow for a time. Weighted down by the burden on his back, Christian begins to sink in the mire. Pliant calls out:
"Ah, neighbor Christian, where are you now?"
"Truly. I do not know."
"Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of?" asks Pliant angrily. "If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect 'twixt this and our journey's end."
After a struggle, Pliant pulls himself out of the swamp and, all covered with slime and mud, returns home, where his neighbors laugh at him as a fool for having become involved in such a silly venture. Christian, determined to go on, finally manages to flounder across the Slough of Despond, having received unexpected assistance from a man named Help, who suddenly appears and almost as suddenly disappears.
Proceeding, Christian soon meets with a "gentleman" named Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who offers some advice. Instead of traveling in such a burdened manner, with so many sighs and groans, Christian should give up his pilgrimage, which would certainly end only in pain, hunger, perils, "nakedness, swords, lions, dragons, darkness and, in a word, death." Rather, he should be a sensible fellow and go to the neighboring village of Morality, which Mr. Wiseman points out to him, saying that the people there are honest, law-abiding, and God-fearing; a good house can be had at a low rent; provisions of all kinds are plentiful and cheap. Besides, there is in the village a "very judicious man," Mr. Legality, who has relieved many a man of his burdens and thus cured a great number of those "crazed in their wits with their burdens."
If Christian were to send for his wife and children, the family could settle down in the village and live happily "with honest neighbors, in credit and good fashion." Christian is tempted, at least to the point of deciding to have a closer look at the village and perhaps have a talk with Mr. Legality. The way to the village leads by a steep high hill which overhangs the wayside. Christian stops, fearing that the overhang might fall on his head.
While he is standing there, not knowing what to do, he sees a figure coming toward him. It is Evangelist, and Christian begins "to blush for shame." With a "severe and dreadful countenance," Evangelist upbraids Christian for listening to Mr. Worldly Wiseman and swerving from the Holy Way. The village of Morality is a good enough place, but it is not the Celestial City. If Christian is seriously interested in saving his soul, he had better make all speed to get on the path leading to the Wicket Gate pointed out to him before by Evangelist. After a lengthy religious discourse on the "very great sin" Christian has committed, Evangelist assures him: "All manner of sin and blasphemies shall be forgiven unto men. Be not faithless, but believing" (Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:28).
Worried about whether he will be admitted, Christian starts running toward the Wicket Gate. He talks to no one along the way, going "like one that was all the while treading on forbidden ground, and could by no means think himself safe till again he was got into the way which he left to follow Mr. Worldly Wiseman's counsel."
After the brief introduction telling the reader that what is about to be related was seen in a dream, Bunyan plunges directly into his story. Things begin happening immediately, without any of the literary preparations so often used by authors in approaching their subject. With a few swift strokes, Bunyan sharply etches the opening scene: the poor, ragged man standing off by himself, reading his Bible, and crying out with spiritual anguish; the taunts he receives as being one seized by some frenzied distemper. In describing the poor man's miseries, Bunyan had only to recall what he had written in Grace Abounding about the torments and taunts he had once suffered. The figure Evangelist also came out of his experience. He represents "good Mr. Gifford," the Baptist minister at Bedford, who took young Bunyan in hand and showed him the way out of his doubts and maddening anxieties.
The fact that the Pilgrim, in running away, abandons his wife and children, stopping up his ears so that he will not hear their pleas to come back, is an important point, and Bunyan comes back to it again and again. A man seeking salvation must be prepared to abandon everything in his quest for eternal bliss. He should allow no bond of affection or interest to hold him. In writing this passage, Bunyan must have had thoughts about an incident in his life that forced him to make a painful choice. Before he was first jailed for "unlawful" preaching, several sympathetic judges offered him an accommodation. He would not be prosecuted on the charges against him if he would promise to stop preaching, go home, and stay quiet. Bunyan would not promise, saying he could not do that "in good conscience," with the result that he was imprisoned for twelve years, leaving his wife and four children to live largely on charity.
As Bunyan saw it, the Slough of Despond is a rather complicated symbol. When Christian is pulled out of the swamp by Help, evidently a heavenly angel, he asks why the path from the City of Destruction to the Wicket Gate should lead through such a miry trap. Help explains that the King (God) does not like it, but has been unable to do anything about it Numberless times he has ordered his "laborers" to build a causeway across it Countless cart-loads of dirt have been hauled there and dumped, only to sink out of sight in the mud.
The Slough cannot be mended, Help explains, for here collects all the "scum and filth" of sin that is continually flowing, all the doubts, fears, and "discouraging apprehensions" of penitents seeking the Wicket Gate. Help adds that there are good substantial steps leading across the Slough, placed there by the lawgiver. But men usually do not see these steps or, if they do, "through the dizziness of their heads" they trip or slip off the stepping stones and plunge into the muck. The Slough of Despond is a trial that Pilgrims will always have to face as a test of faith, courage, and will.
The episode involving Mr. Worldly Wiseman and the village of Morality did not appear in the first edition of the book. Bunyan inserted it in the second to make a point that he had omitted. Mr. Worldly Wise-man, "of the town of Carnal Policy, a very great town," represents those who have made terms with the world in a good way. There is nothing mean or self-seeking about Mr. Wiseman. He is generous and always ready to help others get rid of their burdens, as he is in advising Christian to go to the village of Morality and there consult with Mr. Legality. The people in Morality are pleasant folk, God-fearing, and law-abiding, and lead a quiet, comfortable life.
Christian commits "a very great sin" in turning toward the village and away from the path chalked out for him by Evangelist, who now appears to upbraid Christian severely. The village of Morality is good enough in its way, but it is not the Celestial City. In spite of his constant church attendance and other pious observances, Mr. Worldly Wiseman is not a real Christian because he follows "only the doctrine of this world," and does not look at the world beyond. Mr. Legality is a cheat, a hypocrite, without power to relieve Christian of his burden of sin. Only God can do that. The people in the comfortable village of Morality are doomed to destruction because they are too self-satisfied and do not wrestle with their souls to assure their salvation and eternal life in the Celestial City. A conventionally religious life does not lead to those heavenly heights.