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Both parts of the work are built on the premise that the author has had a dream that he is now relating. In Part I, the dream is of a man named Christian who lives in the City of Destruction. Christian has a great burden on his back. Evangelist advises Christian to seek his salvation in God, telling him that if he journeys to the Celestial City, he will know a glory greater than any he has ever had. Christian resolves to make this trip, despite the fact that his family and neighbors discourage him.
Forsaking all that is dear to him, he sets out for the Wicket Gate, where the journey really begins. On the way, two neighbors named Pliable and Obstinate seek to discourage him. Christian is resolute. Then he encounters the Slough of Despond, where he nearly flounders. Moving on, he is almost persuaded to settle for the village of Morality. Mr. Worldly Wiseman nearly convinces Christian that easy Morality is just as good as hard-earned salvation. But Christian turns away. Finally, he arrives at the Wicket Gate, where he is told to follow the straight and narrow, albeit difficult path to the Celestial City.
Christian meets the Interpreter, a man who shows him many visions and explains their meanings to him. After that, he comes to a Cross and Sepulchre, where his burden is miraculously lifted. He is given papers and armor and told to continue on the path till he reaches the Celestial City.
Just beyond the Cross is Difficulty Hill. Christian meets Formalist and Hypocrisy, two men who are prone to taking shortcuts. Christian tells them salvation is not attained by short cuts. They do not listen, and eventually perish. Christian becomes weary and falls asleep, only to woken by an admonishing voice. When he wakes and goes on, he discovers he has left his rolls behind, at the place where he slept. He retrieves them and continues.
At the top of Difficulty Hill, he sees the Palace Beautiful. There he meets four beautiful women named Discretion, Prudence, Piety, and Charity. They show him many glories, both within the palace and to come. They arm him for his journey, allow him to rest, and warn him to be careful on his way.
Outside Vanity, Christian meets Hopeful, a refugee of the town. The two set out and are quickly kidnapped by the Giant Despair and held captive at the Doubting Castle. They remain imprisoned for some time, until Christian realizes he has the Key of Promise. He frees them both.
At the Delectable Mountains, they meet shepherds who warn them they are almost in sight of the Celestial City, but there are still dangerous obstacles. The shepherds tell them to be careful of the Flatterer and the Enchanted Ground. They are nearly waylaid by Flatterer, but resist the pull of the Enchanted Ground.
When they do reach the Country of Beulah, they rest and prepare to cross the Dark River and go through the gates. The River can only be crossed by faith, and Christian becomes suddenly weak- hearted. Hopeful keeps him afloat and they are admitted to glory. Almost as a side note, their one-time companion Ignorance arrives at the gates. He is a good-hearted boy who means well; but his lack of interest in theology is his downfall. He is turned away and sent to Hell. Thus ends Part I.