The narrator falls asleep and has a dream. He dreams of a raggedly dressed man (later revealed to be the protagonist of the rest of the story, Christian) holding a book and carrying a burden on his back. The man reads the book and weeps, crying aloud, “What shall I do?”
The narrator’s dream provides a frame for the story. The protagonist of his dream, and of the story, appears to be an ordinary Englishman of little status. The man’s greatest concern is the unidentified burden he bears.
The man (Christian) goes home and eventually vents his grief to his wife and children. He explains that he’s overwhelmed by his burden. In addition, he has learned that their city is soon to be destroyed by fire from heaven, and unless they discover some way to escape, they will all die. The man’s family thinks he has a delirious fever, so they put him to bed.
The man looks for sympathy from his family, but even his loved ones are skeptical of his fears, establishing a sharp contrast between a Christian’s concerns and those of “the world.” The city symbolizes the fate of the world at large—to be destroyed in a fiery judgment.
However, the next day, the man (Christian) is no better. He keeps warning his family about the coming destruction, but they grow increasingly resistant; they even mock, scold, and ignore him. Over the next several days, the man retreats into solitude, wandering in the fields, reading, and praying.
The troubled man fails to make headway with his loved ones. Their rejection symbolizes the attitude of the larger world to a Christian’s warnings of the coming judgment, but the man is undeterred.
One day, while reading his book, the man (Christian) cries in distress, “What shall I do to be saved?” A man named Evangelist approaches and asks what’s wrong. The man explains his fear of condemnation, due to the burden he carries. Also, he knows he must flee, but he doesn’t know where to go.
The man’s cry is a reference to the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles, when the Apostle Paul’s jailer, confronted with God’s power, cries out for salvation. The man feels what the Puritans would call conviction of sin—a consciousness of personal guilt—and he knows the whole world will soon be judged, but he doesn’t know what to do about these things.
Evangelist hands the man (Christian) a roll of parchment containing the words, “Fly from the wrath to come.” Reading this, the man asks where he should flee. Evangelist asks if he can see the Wicket-gate in the distance. When the man says no, Evangelist instructs him to follow a shining light, which will lead him to the Gate. The man starts to run. His family and neighbors call him back, but he sticks his fingers in his ears and keeps going, crying, “Eternal Life!”
Evangelist occupies the role of a preacher, or any other Christian, who tells a troubled sinner how to find relief. That relief comes from the Bible’s teaching (“fly from the wrath to come” is a reference to Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew). In this case, the man is directed to flee through the Wicket-gate—symbolizing Christ—in order to be spared condemnation and destruction. The shining light, in turn, symbolizes the Bible’s teaching, through which a person is able to know about Christ.