Before the author begins the story, Bunyan offers a sort of apology, and an explanation about how the story came to him in a dream. This is very brief, and he then then wastes no time delving directly into his narrative.
Pilgrim’s Progress opens with a description of Christian, a lowly man who carries the weight of his sin on his back. Christian is determined to reach the Celestial City, where God lives, and to leave the terrible sins of the City of Destruction, where he currently lives. With the help of Evangelist, Christian is able to begin his journey to God’s City, but only by following The Path of Light. The Path of Light is very long and difficult, and Christian is often tempted to cut his travel short. He feels particularly strong temptation when the well being of his family is brought up. For instance, one of the false Christians he meets on his path, Mr. Worldly Wisely, claims that the town Morality will be a very secure and comfortable one for his family. Christian is so tempted by these promises he goes so far as to leave the path and head towards the city. Luckily, he is stopped. Though there are other close calls, this is the closest Christian ever reaches to cutting his quest short.
Though he meets many fakers and enemies on his trip, Christian also has other true Christians to accompany him. Christian is able to offer his companions actual Biblical references, whereas they offer to Christian more conceptual knowledge. The friends he makes help him particularly with his hope and faith in God’s promises to him. The two, aptly named Faithful and Hopeful, are both different from Christian in that they do not struggle with doubt of their worthiness of entering God’s kingdom, which Christian evidently has much fear surrounding. They suffer from other issues, such as lustfulness or ignorance. When Hopeful and Christian are crossing the Dark River just before the Celestial City, Hopeful is able to wade through with ease. Christian, however, ”was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a pilgrim” (part 1, page 179). In this way his Sins are weighing him down, very similarly to how they literally weighed him down in the Slough of Despond, though this time it is only there imagined weight that is pulling him down. These display his true sin, doubt. The water of the Dark River washes Christian of his worldly garment, and therefore of his worldly sins. He should be able to continue with ease, as the resistance is only there in his own mind. It is Hopeful’s voice, which maintains that he will be able to cross, that keeps him somewhat afloat, and resonates the message he is trying so hard to learn. After this, he is able to move on with much more lightness. His journey up the large and steep hill is quick and easy, because he is no longer pulled down by his own transgressions. He has finally learned.
Part two of Pilgrim’s Progress opens with a brief note informing the reader that it will mirror part one, as well as some background as to what has happened in the City Destruction to Christian’s family during his absence. Part two mainly features Christiana, Christian’s wife. She has decided after many years of consideration to follow after him on his pilgrimage. She faces many of the similar trials, and learns very similar lessons. The major difference is that she is accompanied the whole way by her friend Mercy, and often Brave Heart, whereas her husband was often alone, or else with new companions. This pilgrimage is faced less with temptatious struggles, and more with actual threats to physical well being. Many monsters are faced by Brave Heart, and the women are assaulted early on. These all lead to important lessons about trusting in God and calling upon him, rather than give undue trust to mortal instruments. The group shifts slightly, as Mercy marries Christiana’s oldest son and her youngest son is engaged to another Christian’s daughter.
Mercy is portrayed as a sort of pinnacle of a good Christian woman. She spends her free time working tirelessly to create garments for the naked, and expects no return for her labors. Even when dismissed as foolish, she offers no excuse for her actions, which are perceived as wasteful. She informs the reader that “I might have had husbands afore now, though I spake not of it to any; but they were such as did not like my conditions, though never did any of them find fault with my person” (part 2, page 49). In saying this,Mercy is known to be incredibly steadfast in her resolution towards her religion, though it may cost her another (though lesser) happiness. Her personal journey is displayed by Bunyan to be how a righteous Christian Women may best become a righteous Christian Wife.
One might claim that the layout of this novel may follow that of the Odyssey. The Odyssey is told in such a way that, if one so desired, they may take out one specific trial or event from the greater story, and portray that by itself. From one battle, the reader or listener is able gather all or most of the moral, message, or point of that particular instance. Similarly, Pilgrim’s Progress does not need to be told as a whole, as each event is so distinct from the next that one could pick and choose if he desired to only give certain lessons from it. This method is probably chosen by the author for two reasons; firstly, in the time this was written the listener or reader of any age would probably be well familiar with the Odyssey (similarly to how we are familiar with Hansel and Gretel)(chapter 8, How to Read Literature Like a Professor), and so would easily understand and be able to connect with this work. Secondly, it would portray the info most efficiently so the consumer could get the most bang for their buck, so to speak. Also, the original form of Pilgrim’s Progress was an epic poem, just as the Odyssey is written.
During the time just before this novel was written, nonconformists such as Bunyan were persecuted by the leaders of traditional religious sects for not following the old ways. Bunyan himself was imprisoned for twelve years over his alternative beliefs. When he writes of the two lions who nearly block the way to the Palace Beautiful, he is creating an allegory to represent how such leaders snapped and snarled at nonconformists. However, the laws had somewhat relaxed by the time this was written, so that one who treads carefully might be safe from their power. Even Pilgrim’s Progress is, as Foster puts it, “all political” (chapter 13, How to Read Literature Like a Professor).
In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian is shown as having to carry his sins on his back at all times. He is also very haggard, noticeably poor looking. This contributes to those around him thinking he is crazy. In all these ways, he is marked for greatness, in that there are different distinguishable characteristics between Christian and his peers. The reader is easily able to see all that he has something different to him from the common person. By being extremely lowly, he is an extremely special.