The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory about the Christian Life, which depicts the trials and tribulations of a believer as they attempt to maintain their faith in the face of all the temptations of the world. More particularly, it is the story of Christian, an everyman figure, weighed down by the burden on his back (his sin), living in the City of Destruction, and afraid that a terrible fate awaits him if he stays. After hearing a message from the Evangelist (the Gospel), he abandons his family who thinks he has lost his wits. He desires to reach the Wicket Gate where he can escape the fate of the city of destruction and his pilgrimage to the Celestial City can begin. This part symbolizes the line from Matthew 10:36, “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The idea here is that one must abandon one’s family for one’s faith if it comes down to that. The reaction of his fellow villagers also implies that many in the world will look upon the life-style of a Christian with disdain and treat them as if they’ve lost their mind.
In order to reach the Wicket Gate and the path towards salvation, Christian must sludge through the Slough of Despond (a muck created from the sins of humanity). One of his fellow villagers, Mr. Pliable temporarily follows him, but turns back after experiencing the Slough of Despond, fearing he will drown in the muck (i.e. he will drown in sin). Before Christian reaches the gate, he almost loses his way when he seeks after Mr. Worldly Wisdom, thinking maybe Worldly Wisdom has the answers to relieve his ills, but the evangelist finds Christian and remonstrates him for this action. The message here is that worldly wisdom is a deviation from the true path of salvation and doesn’t cure anything.
Finally he gets to the Wicket Gate and receives entrance as a pilgrim, but this is only the beginning of his quest. Inside, he must climb the Hill of Difficulty, fight a mortal combat with Apollyon (presented as the monstrous king of the material world who dislikes that he has lost his servant, Christian), traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death where hobgoblins roam, travel off the approved path where he is captured by the giant Despair and beaten in Doubting Castle, watch his companion, Faithful, get sacrificed at Vanity Fair (where all the vanities of the world are for sale: kingdoms, jewels, women, etc.), ends up almost snared in the nets of a Flatterer, and then finally crosses the river of death to reach the Holy City.
A second part follows in which Christiana, Christian’s wife, and her children decided to follow in his footsteps and become pilgrims. They revisit many of the same places, but this time they are accompanied by Great Heart, who protects them from most of the dangers. There is a lot less drama and tension in this recapitulation. Likewise, many companions join Christiana, such as Feeble Mind and Mr. Ready-to-halt who walks about on crutches. This second part emphasizes that Christ’s salvation is for women, children, and the weak just as much as it is for healthy strong men.
The work does a fine job as an allegory for Christianity. It allegorizes the many difficulties that stand in the way of maintaining belief; the world itself, our vanities, want to snare us and take us off the path of faith, according to the text. The key idea in the work is that the true path to salvation is recognizing and admitting our sinful nature and asking for the grace of Christ for forgiveness, which is open to anyone who sincerely accepts it. The text holds no punches in that Bunyan is challenging other versions of Christianity that don’t believe in this way, often depicting them as ignorant and misguided. Many of the people they meet on the pilgrimage road profess Christianity, but often they are depicted as hypocrites who don’t really believe (it’s all external appearance) or believe in incorrect doctrine. Indeed, he even names an allegorical figure, Ignorance, who holds a discourse with Christian and Hopeful about his beliefs. In this discussion, it is revealed that Ignorance believes in Christ and has done his best to be a good person and serve Jesus, but doesn’t believe in humanity’s sinful nature and thus isn’t asking for forgiveness for his sins. Ignorance is a type of Christian as he claims to serve and believe in Christ, but the wrong kind apparently. In the end, when Ignorance walks up to the gates of Celestial City, the King refuses to recognize him and orders that he be bound and sent to the hell.