Study Guide

The Pilgrim's Progress Summary

By John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress Summary

The story of John Bunyan's "pilgrim" takes place in the narrator's dream from a jail cell, and begins in the City of Destruction (not the easiest place to sell real estate). From here, convinced that the city is going to live up to its name and (surprise!) be destroyed for its sinfulness, our pilgrim, Christian, decides to flee at the very helpful suggestion of a guy named Evangelist.

Now remember, this book is not only an allegory but a dream, so (just like in your own crazy dreams) people like this Evangelist guy can just sort of "appear." In a corn field. And just happen to give perfect advice. No one said this was going to be realistic, right?

Christian continues on the road indicated by Evangelist toward the "little Wicket Gate" where his real journey toward the Celestial City will begin (you might even be looking for the munchkins and ruby slippers—sorry, different story). Now come his first obstacles. Obstinate and Pliable try to convince him to not go on. The Slough of Despond nearly drowns him with the heavy burden (representing his sins) that he carries on his back, and Mr. Worldly-Wiseman (wonder what he does for a living?) convinces him to take a supposedly easier route to heaven instead, which only leads him astray.

Despite all this, Christian does make it to the wicket gate, where Good-Will helps him through and directs him to the House of the Interpreter. Christian's time with the Interpreter, taking in and analyzing metaphors for Christian teachings, mirrors the allegorical mode of the story as a whole. From here, Christian comes to the place of the cross where he realizes Christ's sacrifice for his sins, and the burden on his back is released.

Christian is given a "scroll," or copy of scripture, to carry with him, a certificate that he must give over at the Celestial City. He is newly clothed by the Shining Ones or angels that approach him after the burden rolls away. His next encounter is with Formalist and Hypocrisy, whom he meets at the foot of the Hill of Difficulty. The other two take the easier ways around the hill and are destroyed. Christian, of course, stays on the prescribed narrow path up the hill, where he comes to an arbor, a shady, vine-covered shelter.

Unfortunately, he falls asleep under the arbor and loses his scroll. So, he also loses time when he has to retrace his steps to find it. This is Christian's first big lesson in staying awake and attentive until specifically allowed to rest by his guides. At the top of the hill, Christian comes to the Palace Beautiful, passes through the raging lions, and is admitted by the ladies of the Palace. Something tells us the Palace Beautiful also has some pretty good cooks, because there's a lot of re-fueling here between the Bible lessons.

And it turns out this rest will be much-needed. Having made it through the Valley of Humiliation, Christian runs into Apollyon, a manifestation (a.k.a. a physical, real-life representation) of Satan, who tries to tempt him away from Christ. The two have full-out combat, which Christian finally wins, proclaiming his allegiance to Christ and, subsequently, thanking God for the victory. But troubles come in threes, and the hardest trial comes next in the journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Christian walks in darkness, hounded by demons, on the edge of a chasm, past the door to Hell, and only makes it out through his faith in God's continual presence with him.

Out of the Valley, Christian meets Faithful, a fellow pilgrim and former neighbor from the City of Destruction. The two strike up a friendship, exchange stories of the journey, and finally are met by Evangelist, who warns them that soon one of them must die for his faith. Christian and Faithful come to Vanity Fair—which is an actual fair, but (oops) founded by Satan, and with all the most luxurious and sinful things to buy.

Here the pilgrims are ridiculed for their backwardness and lack of interest in material things (basically, for being party-poopers). The two are put on trial by Lord Hategood (who is suspiciously similar to the judge at Bunyan's own trial). Faithful defends his conduct and faith against the court. They don't buy it, however, and he is burnt at the stake, though a chariot takes him to heaven immediately after.

A dude named Hopeful is converted to Christianity after watching Faithful die for his faith (also known as "martyrdom"). He and Christian set off from Vanity Fair together. The two encounter By-ends and his cronies, who argue that it's possible to live both for God and money. Oh no, Christian and Faithful tell these guys, are you kidding? A huge argument ensues, which the Pilgrims, of course, win, even though they meet their own temptation when they pass the silver mine, Lucre. Here they are urged by Demas to come and take a look. Christian keeps them away, but By-ends & Co. fall prey and are destroyed. The pilgrims take some R&R at the River of God.

When they leave the River, the road becomes rocky and difficult to walk, so Christian persuades Hopeful to walk in the meadow next to the road instead. Bad idea! This is By-Path Meadow where they soon get lost, trapped in a storm, nearly drowned in a flood, and finally captured by the Giant Despair who takes them to Doubting Castle.

Here, the giant and his wife Diffidence torture the pilgrims; Christian despairs of his mistake, making him an easy target for the Giant's proposition of suicide. Hopeful, true to his name, talks Christian out of this, enabling him to find the key, Promise (he just happened to forget it was in his pocket—oops!). The two escape Despair and find their way back to the road.

Christian and Hopeful finally make it to the Delectable Mountains, where they are greeted by shepherds and shown a variety of wonders. Back on the road on the final stretch toward the Celestial City (visible from the Mountains) they meet with Ignorance. Unsure whether to help him or not, the two engage in conversation with the man, but soon discover that he is happy to be ignorant and has no wish to learn a better way.

Next, they encounter Atheist, which leads Christian and Hopeful (having left Atheist on his own) to discuss how they each came to have Christ revealed to their souls. Ignorance comes back and the pilgrims try to demonstrate the falseness of his faith and hopelessness of simply following his own ideas. Ignorance grows frustrated and leaves them. Christian and Hopeful thus begin to discuss how it is that some people are able to stay on the road and others are not.

At last, the Pilgrims come to the border of the Celestial City. Surrounded by singing, the streets paved with gems, the beauty is almost too much for the pilgrims who actually feel "sick" for love of God. As their last trial, Christian and Hopeful must cross a river to get to the great inner gate of the city. Each must cross it on his own, without any help. Christian, thinking of all his failings on the way there, begins to find the water too deep. Hopeful (as ever, so true to his name!) reminds Christian than Christ's love takes away all these faults. Reminded and revived, they both make it across and are met by angels, who escort them to the gate.

At the gate, they are received by the prophets and "transfigured" as they pass through into the city. The final image of the story, however, is of Ignorance. The narrator claims to have seen him actually cross the same river on a ferry called Vain-hope. When Ignorance makes it to the gate, however, he doesn't have a certificate to hand over (the one the pilgrims were given when Christ was revealed to their souls).

Because of this, Ignorance is bound and taken to Hell. Consequently, the narrator reminds us before waking, "there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction" (P907). Just in case you were starting to get too comfortable …