There are more than 20 books in the literary heritage of Paulo Coelho, and all of them are about a dream, but each of them is special … It’s not about the plot and character of the characters, but a simple philosophy of life. The novel-parable “The Alchemist” is one of the first works of the Brazilian prose writer. The work became a bestseller in 30 countries and entered the Guinness Book of Records for the number of translations.
Do you have more questions than answers after reading the book? Let me help you unravel the explicit and hidden meaning of the book “The Alchemist”, and also talk about the problems, the history of writing and more.
What is The Alchemist about?
The plot of the novel has a circular structure (the events ended where they began). It lacks lyrical digressions, chronological digressions, complex transitions of storylines, the plot of The Alchemist is often predictable.
At the beginning of the novel, the life of the protagonist, the shepherd Santiago, is typical and unremarkable. He always dreamed of traveling a lot, but his parents, wishing their son a good, comfortable life, sent him to study at the seminary. The boy failed to find God, and he decided to become a shepherd. Now he has the opportunity to become closer to the realization of his dream: together with the flock, he travels around his native Andalusia. One day, while spending the night in an old chapel, Santiago has a dream from which he learns about the treasures hidden in the pyramids, and decides to go on a long journey. On his way, he faces various trials: lack of finances, love of his life, but he does not refuse to follow His Path. Meeting with the Alchemist changes a lot in the life of a young man – he comprehends the philosophy of life, becomes wiser.
At the end of the novel, the young man is captured by deserters who, having learned the story of Santiago, decide to enrich themselves. However, after an unsuccessful attempt to find treasures, the shepherd is ridiculed. One of the deserters tells the story of a dream about treasure near an abandoned church in Andalusia and the futility of believing in such dreams. Santiago returns to his homeland and finds gold. Now he can return for his beloved Fatima and start a new life.
The Meaning of The Alchemist
Own Path (in early editions – Own Destiny), according to Coelho himself, is the “highest destiny”, and not only of a person, but of any creature and object on Earth. Even stones, herbs and metals have their Path. “Whenever we do something with joy and pleasure, it means that we are following Our Path,” explains Coelho.
In the universe of “Alchemist” the harmony of everything on Earth is possible only when all beings and objects follow Their Path. There is not a single person on the pages of the book who would not have seen his Path at least once. However, not everyone dares to follow it. Those who stray from Their Path later repent and cannot achieve full success. Examples of such a fate are the crystal merchant and Santiago’s parents.
In the 2000 preface to the Russian edition of The Alchemist, Coelho summarizes the main ideas of the book. He explains that in the way of any person who decides to follow His Paths, there are four main obstacles: the words of others that the Path is unattainable; love test; fear of failure; fear of a dream come true. Let’s take a closer look at each obstacle and see how these ideas are reflected in the plot.
The notion of the unattainable dream
According to Coelho, every person is taught from childhood that he cannot follow his dream, that he must live as it is customary, as expected. This is where The Alchemist begins: we learn that Santiago was being prepared for a different fate, that he was not supposed to become a shepherd. His parents sent him to the seminary and wanted him to become a priest, because it was a more prestigious occupation than the farming habitual for their family. But Santiago successfully overcame this obstacle, although he was not yet aware of the sign language and His Path. When he informs his father of his decision, he, although he tries to dissuade Santiago, rather quickly agrees and supports him, because his father is also familiar with the desire to follow His Paths.
Coelho says that we often hesitate to follow our dreams because we are afraid to upset loved ones. The fulfillment of a dream often means parting with family and loved ones. However, The Alchemist shows that true love is the one that allows a person to realize himself. An example of such love is the love of Santiago and Fatima. Although Santiago at first thinks that his love is incompatible with the desire to get to the treasure, the wise girl explains that he must follow His Paths, and if they are destined to meet again, then this will certainly happen.
His Path is more important than love, and the Alchemist shows this when he tells Santiago what will happen if he gives up his dream and stays with Fatima. However, when Santiago gets to the treasure, he returns to Fatima. Thus, the pursuit of a dream and love do not contradict each other, as long as it is true love.
“Love cannot prevent a person from following His Path. If this happens, it means that love was not true, not the one that speaks the Common Language.
This refers not only to the love of a man and a woman, but also, in principle, the fear of disappointing loved ones – parents, comrades. For example, Santiago recalls his years at the seminary this way:
“And having entered your life, after a while they [surrounding] want to change it. And if you do not become the way they want to see you, they are offended. After all, everyone knows exactly how to live in the world.”
Fear of failure
This fear haunts Santiago throughout most of the story. Santiago is afraid of losing his money, afraid of death before the battle in Al-Fayoum, afraid of not finding His Path. But Santiago’s mentors show that fear is born from a lack of understanding of how the world works. The wisest characters have no fear (for example, the Alchemist pulls a deadly cobra out of a hole with his bare hands, and it cannot harm him).
At the same time, failures do occur, but Santiago finds the strength to move on. Here’s how he talks about what will happen if he stops believing in himself:
“I will be vicious and distrustful and will suspect everyone just because one person deceived me. I will hate those who managed to find the treasure, because I did not succeed.
Fear of fulfilling a dream
The extreme embodiment of this fear is the crystal merchant. His whole life is dominated by this fear. He is so afraid of being disappointed that he cannot go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, which he has dreamed of throughout his life. He hesitates to improve his trading, lest he earn too much – the lack of money has become his usual excuse for the pilgrimage.
“I’m afraid that when the dream comes true, I will no longer have to live in the world”
– Crystal Merchant
The alchemist explains the essence of this test before parting with Santiago:
“Before the dream comes true, the Soul of the World decides to check whether all its lessons have been learned. And she does this so that we can receive, along with our dream, all the knowledge taught to us along the way. This is where most people lose their courage. In the language of the desert, this is called “to die of thirst when the oasis is already on the horizon.”
Also in the preface to the book, Coelho explains that, giving up a dream, a person often thinks about those who did not have the strength to follow Their Path. A person is afraid to become better than others and decides to join the majority out of false modesty.
Soul of the World
The Soul of the World is the idea of the unity of everything in animate and inanimate nature, a kind of pantheism of Coelho (that is, the idea that every thing and creature is a god). It is the Soul of the World that allows the Alchemist to turn metal into gold, and Santiago to become the best version of himself. The Soul of the World determines Its Path for each person, therefore, in order to follow Its Path, one must learn to listen to the Soul of the World. As the plot develops, Santiago begins to understand the Soul of the World better and better, the language of things, signs, animals.
“I learned from sheep, I learned from crystal. Now the desert will teach me”
The dialogue between Santiago and the Alchemist is indicative, in which the Alchemist explains to the student that one can comprehend the Soul of the World anywhere and in any way:
Santiago : And should I read the Emerald Tablet?
Alchemist : If you were in the alchemist’s laboratory right now, you could learn the best way to comprehend it. But you are in the desert, so plunge into the desert.
The alchemist means that true knowledge can be obtained through unity with the outside world, and it makes no difference whether this happens in the laboratory or in nature.
The Soul of the World speaks the Language of Signs. Along the way, Santiago first learns to recognize simple signs that concern him personally (for example, Urim and Thummim tell the young man that the blessing of Melchizedek is still with him). Gradually, Santiago masters more and more complex signs, and this skill helps him save the whole people (having correctly interpreted the flight of hawks, Santiago warns the inhabitants of the oasis about the upcoming invasion of warriors).
Dreams are a form of human communication with the Soul of the World. Santiago’s dream of treasure becomes the starting point of the plot. In relation to dreams, one can understand how wise, enlightened this or that hero is. For example, the cameleer in the caravan believes in dreams, but the leader of the gang beating Santiago does not. The vision of the attack on the oasis also comes to Santiago through a dream.
Alchemy is a metaphor for Santiago’s journey. In the process of alchemical transformations, the metal must get rid of its imperfections in order to become gold. Santiago also gets rid of imperfections: from obeying the will of his parents, from the desire to become a rich shepherd, from attachment to Fatima. By following His Path, Santiago reaches the highest level of enlightenment, just as simple metal becomes gold.
In addition, alchemy is based on the idea that everything in the world is one, one flows into another. This resonates with the idea of the Soul of the World, which constitutes the very unity in all objects and phenomena.
Sheep symbolize those people who are blind to their Path. Sheep are like a crystal merchant who is satisfied with modest material needs and does not look for more.
Although Santiago loves his sheep, he understands that they are limited and do not know anything about the world around them. It is noteworthy that Coelho compares Santiago’s parents to sheep:
“His parents dreamed that he would become a priest – the pride of a simple village family. They worked hard, and all for food, like sheep.”
The real, earthly world is opposed, firstly, to the heavenly world, and secondly, to bookish reality.
The alchemist and Santiago are primarily interested in the material world. So, it is said about Santiago: “… from childhood, the craving for knowledge of the world that overwhelmed him overcame the desire to know God.”
The world described in books (in particular, in the works of other alchemists) is perceived as inferior. Most of all, the Englishman is immersed in books: he does not part with them even in the desert. The Englishman is like the young man in the parable of the palace and the spoon with two drops of oil: he concentrates on books (the spoon) and misses out on the diversity of the world around him (the palace).
However, after talking with the Englishman, Santiago admits that books are also useful and can provide valuable knowledge. Coelho’s goal is not to show that books are not needed. Using the example of an Englishman, he demonstrates that one can miss the experience of real life behind book knowledge.
Coelho repeatedly introduces biblical stories and characters into the narrative. In my opinion, he does this in order to fit his book into a certain context: not historical, but legendary, biblical. In addition, by mentioning a number of characters from the Bible and fictional heroes, Coelho gives his book more weight: “The Alchemist” becomes not just a story-parable, but a kind of continuation of the biblical story.
“He [Melchizedek] will never see this young man [Santiago] again, just as he never saw Abraham after he gave him a tithe”
With these words, Coelho completes the episode of the meeting between Santiago and King Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a biblical figure who is described in the letter of the apostle Paul to the Hebrews in the following words:
“… the king of the world, without a father, without a mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, like the Son of God, remains a priest forever”
The episode of the meeting between Melchizedek and Abraham is also mentioned there:
“For Melchizedek, the king of Salem, the priest of the Most High God, the one who met Abraham and blessed him returning after the defeat of the Kings, to whom Abraham separated even a tithe from everything …”
The story of another biblical character, Joseph, is mentioned by the leader of the oasis in a conversation with Santiago. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery, and the father was told that he was dead. By slander, Joseph was imprisoned, but the pharaoh released him and brought him closer to him for his ability to interpret dreams. In The Alchemist, the leader of the oasis compares the gift of Santiago with the gift of Joseph, thus bringing him closer to the hero of the Bible.
The legend of the centurion in Coelho’s book is told by the Alchemist before parting with Santiago. The healing of the centurion’s servant is a biblical episode, you can find it in the Gospel of Luke. In The Alchemist, however, it is expanded and supplemented with details about the father and brother of the centurion, which were not in the biblical text.
It’s time to sum it up. The meaning of the book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho is that each person must follow his destiny, his Path. On the way to the Path there will be many obstacles, but the one who overcomes them will gain real wisdom and enlightenment. Coelho warns against blindly following someone else’s will, even if it is the will of close and dear people. Each character in the book illustrates one or another attitude towards His Path, and only those who understand their destiny and are not afraid to achieve it come to success and happiness.
Analysis of the novel “The Alchemist”
The Alchemist is a work created within the framework of postmodernism. Coelho’s text focuses on three aspects of the literature of this period:
- syncretic genre;
The work is defined as a novel-parable. This means that the author combined features of two genres in one text. From the novel, the epic narrative, the scale of the storylines, the multifaceted nature of the narrative, and the extensive range of issues are taken. At the same time, the author presents the material in the style of a parable: morality is not imposed. The reader must formulate it for himself.
The basis of postmodern literature is allusions – references to other works of literature, music, painting.
In The Alchemist, elements of the plot of other works are also found. However, Coelho does not just retell them – in each of the allusions, he focuses on the moment that was missed in the original text. A hint of this feature of the novel is contained at the beginning of the work. Coelho talks about a book that accidentally fell into the hands of the Alchemist by O. Wald. After reading the story of Narcissus, the hero concludes that this well-known legend is told in a completely new way, and therefore valuable.
The book also easily reads the motifs of Borges’ “The Story of Two Dreamers”, the Arabic fairy tales “A Thousand and One Nights” and the biblical Parable of the Prodigal Son, but at the same time, the emphasis in them is shifted to a person’s search for His Path and the ability to follow the chosen path.
The novel contains minimal descriptions of the appearance of the characters, everyday elements and nature. According to Coelho, this is an important element not only of The Alchemist, but also of his other works – the reader himself conjectures reality, becoming a “co-author”.
The ease of construction of syntactic constructions, the presence in the novel of a large number of easy to understand, sometimes typical, standard symbols created a discussion among literary critics on the subject of the “pop” nature of the work and the impossibility of classifying it, despite a clearly expressed philosophy, as elite literature.
The history of the creation of the novel “The Alchemist”
In Amsterdam, Paulo Coelho got acquainted with the activities of the Catholic order RAM. The basis of the philosophy of the order is the study of the symbols of fate and predictions. Members of the RAM perform a “ritual of the path” – they walk the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostelo, 80 km long. Coelho followed the example of the members of the order and made a similar pilgrimage. The impressions of the traveled path first formed the basis of his novel The Pilgrimage (1987), and after The Alchemist (1989).
The meaning of the title of the book
According to the traditions of modernism and, in the future, postmodernism, the title of the book contains information about understanding the idea of the work. Coelho was no exception and used symbolism for this purpose. In the literal sense, the alchemist is the followers of occult science, which is aimed at finding the philosopher’s stone and the ability to turn various metals into gold. It is unacceptable to consider this concept in the literal sense in the context of Coelho’s work (despite the presence of the character of the same name in the text). Alchemy in the novel means the path of Santiago’s spiritual growth. The shepherd did not invent the philosopher’s stone and did not comprehend the science of the transformation of metals, but, during his journey to the pyramids, he realized the full value of the destination and the importance of following His Path. We can say that he himself was purified and turned into gold.
The problems of the book “The Alchemist”
According to Coelho, every person, at least subconsciously, knows what he really wants from life, but due to various circumstances, he is not ready to follow his destiny. In the foreword to The Alchemist, the author names four reasons why a person refuses to follow His Path:
- lack of support from others;
- attachment to others;
- fear of failure;
- fear of living in the future without a dream.
The main problem highlighted in the novel is the destiny of each person. Coelho was not the first to draw attention to this important component of human life. For example, the works of G. Skovoroda have a similar philosophy, which defines the purpose as “kind of work”.
What does The Alchemist teach?
Coelho transfers the problem of human destiny to the plane of modernity. The prose writer draws attention to the fact that it is difficult for a person of any age and social status to overcome the stereotypes and opinion of society. Often, a person knows what can make him happy, but he refuses to realize his dream because of the fear of condemnation, lack of support among the environment, including loved ones, fear of losing what he has. For example, it is easier for a crystal merchant to find excuses and create visible reasons than to take a chance and follow his dream.
The story of Santiago is an occasion for every person to think: am I doing what really makes me happy? Using the example of a shepherd from Andalusia, you can learn to defend your life position, follow your talents and destiny, despite possible difficulties.
Explanation of the book’s ending
The deserters who took the young man prisoner angrily ridiculed the shepherd’s naivety. In this case, Santiago must find the strength to resist not only internal disappointment (he believed in what turned out to be untrue), but also universal condemnation. This episode teaches us to be persistent and find the strength not to break even the turning points in life.
I hope I have helped you find the meaning of The Alchemist and also make sense of its ending. If you have a different vision of the book – write your own version in the comments.