The Alchemist is a novel that abounds with conflict and is, in fact, built on a premise of inescapable life conflict. In the Forward to the 2015 25-year anniversary edition, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho writes that soon after the original publication of the book, with sales so slow that one bookseller sold only two copies in six months, the publisher canceled the book and Coelho's contract: "They wiped their hands of the project and let me take the book with me." Afterward, "he started knocking on the doors"--plural, many doors--"of other publishers" until one publisher finally opened and gave The Alchemist another chance. Coelho also writes in the Forward that "when you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you" but--as he reveals in the Forward and in the shepherd boy's story--not without great and sometimes grave conflict: In The Alchemist, Coelho describes this contradictory dualism that helps and hurts as a single "force": "It's a force that appears to be negative .. [but] shows you how to realize ... your mission on earth."
Scenes of Conflict
Because an underlying existential premise is inescapable life conflict, selecting scenes in The Alchemist showing conflict is fairly easy (existential: relating to human existence). What is more difficult is identifying the type and meaning of the conflict; it is also more difficult to define how each conflict correlates to the existential premises, or the themes, of the novel. Two interesting scenes with conflict, one early in the book and one about midway, are (1) when the boy is in the midst of conflicts between the bar owner and the young man and later (2) when, in the desert oasis, the boy receives the omen from the desert and must tell the omen to the tribal chieftains. These two scenes provide studies in both internal and external conflict and offer a chance to explore the meaning and importance of "the universal language," finding "the alchemist," and the "Personal Legend."
1. Tangier, where the bar owner and the young man have a conflict, with the boy at the center of it.
Santiago, the shepherd boy (who, at 18 years of age, is more young man than boy), is in a bar with the young man whom he has met, who speaks Spanish, and whom he hopes to have as a guide and friend, and they are discussing the boy's money to ascertain if he has "enough" to get him to the pyramids: "[Y]ou need money. I need to whether you have enough." Santiago displays his money, and the bar owner and the young man get into an argument in Arabic, a language Santiago doesn't know. The young man tells the boy that they must leave, and, when the boy tries to pay his bill, the bar owner grabs him and speaks to him in an "angry stream of words." The young man pulls Santiago away and drags him outside where he lies to Santiago, telling him the bar owner wanted his money: "'[Tangier] is a port, and every port has its thieves.'"
This scene has instances in which Santiago, the boy, experiences both external conflict and internal conflict. External conflict
is conflict a character faces that comes from an external source, a source of trouble or danger etc that is not
within the inner nature of the character. An example of external conflict would be when Santiago, acting as a shepherd, had conflict with wolves that wanted to attack his sheep. Internal conflict
is conflict a character faces that comes from an internal source, a source of trouble or difficulty etc that is within
the inner nature of the character. An example of internal conflict would be when Santiago first hears about undertaking a quest for his "Personal Legend"; he doesn't know quite what to believe and has conflict within himself over how to make his decision about whether to stay quietly in the life of a shepherd or to go far away on a quest for travel and treasure. There are six instances of conflict in this scene, three of external conflict and three of internal conflict.
The first external conflict
occurs when Santiago finds that the two men are arguing because he showed his money. We are not told precisely, but we may suppose that the boy felt threatened by the quarrel taking place between the barman, standing behind him looking over his shoulder, and the young man seated beside him, since, when the young Spanish-speaking man lies and says "He wants us to leave," the boy feels "relieved." This is external conflict for Santiago because he is trapped in a threatening and potentially dangerous situation that he doesn't even understand and isn't even prepared for--because it is entirely unexpected--to either battle against or to escape from.
The second external conflict
occurs immediately thereafter. Santiago gets up to pay his bill for the teas he and the young man drink (Santiago dislikes the teas and longs for wine). The bar owner, who speaks Arabic and not Spanish, grabs Santiago and speaks angrily in a "stream of words." Now we know the boy feels threatened because he "wanted to retaliate," being a strong lad and clearly alarmed at the behavior of the bar owner who had made him uneasy from the start: "The boy noticed that the owner of the bar stood nearby, listening attentively .... He felt uneasy at the man's presence...." This is external conflict for Santiago because, not knowing the bar owner's Arabic language (and not yet knowing the universal language), he feels that he is being mistreated and is perhaps in imminent danger.
The third external conflict
comes when the young man gets Santiago out into the street and lies to him a second time, saying that there are many thieves in the port city of Tangier and that the barman was himself a thief who wanted Santiago's money: "He wanted your money .... every port has its thieves." This is external conflict for Santiago because, even though he does not yet know that he is being lied to, the young man is disguising and manipulating events, setting himself as the adversary, in order to take advantage of events and find the opportunity to steal Santiago's money himself.
The young man's adversarial intentions lead to Santiago's first internal conflict
in this scene. Trusting the young man more and more--not knowing he is being lied to--he feels that the young man has taken him out of a "dangerous situation." Consequently, the boy takes out his money again and counts it to show the young man that he has enough to pay to be guided to the pyramids. As Santiago counts, the young man takes the money from him declaring he has to "buy two camels." This generates an internal conflict in Santiago because, while he is conscious of the impropriety of the young man taking his money from him--"the boy never took his eyes off his new friend ... he had all his money"--he feels inhibited from taking it back or asking for it back, deciding that "that would be unfriendly" since he knew "nothing of the customs of the strange land...." The internal conflict is that Santiago knows it is right to take his money back but feels he is not free to do so.
Santiago's second internal conflict
comes when he realizes that he has been completely, although momentarily, distracted by the beautiful sword on display in the marketplace and that, in that moment of time, the young man has fled with all Santiago's money. This incident engenders internal conflict in Santiago because while he wants to turn his head to look and confirm that the young man is gone, he cannot bring himself to do so. The internal conflict is that even though he intuitively senses the truth, he hasn't got the courage or strength of mind to make himself physically turn and look and know the truth:
he had been distracted for a few moments, looking at the sword. His heart squeezed, as if his chest had suddenly compressed it. He was afraid to look around, because he knew what he would find. He continued to look at the beautiful sword a bit longer, until he summoned the courage to turn around.
The third internal conflict of the scene occurs afterward when the marketplace has emptied following evening prayers and he is alone in an empty marketplace, in a strange city, in a strange land, with the knowledge that he has been betrayed. This creates an internal conflict for Santiago because his religious faith leads him to trust and believe in a merciful, caring God, but his recent experience leads him to feel that his God is neither merciful nor caring; Santiago feels that both the young man and his God have betrayed him. The internal conflict is that while he wants to have faith, he also wants to cast blame at the feet of God for letting him come on his dream-quest only to reward his quest with betrayal:
He was so ashamed [of how his life had changed so suddenly and drastically] that he wanted to cry. He had never even wept in front of his own sheep. But the marketplace was empty, and he was far from home, so he wept. He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams.
2. Desert oasis, where the boy receives the omen from the desert hawks and must tell it to the chieftains.
Another scene of conflict occurs in the desert oasis when the boy receives the omen from the desert hawks warning that invaders would come the next day to attack the oasis. Santiago has arrived with the caravan at the desert oasis where a thriving community awaits and surprises him: "the oasis ... was much larger than many towns ... [with] three hundred wells...." There, Santiago helps the Englishman; meets Fatima, through whose eyes he recognizes the "Language of the World," which is the "universal language"; learns that she accepts him as her "tribesman" and will allow him to be as free as the desert wind while she waits for him; senses the flight of hawks above him, then reads the meaning of their flight because he has been given sight into the "Soul of the World"; and is sent by the camel driver to the chieftains to tell them his vision, "if they have to know about something, ... someone will tell them ... this time, the person is you." Santiago is admitted to the congregation of chieftains, delivers his message, and--after the fear of waiting out a heated discussion in an Arabic dialect unknown to him--his message (although one predicting violation of the Tradition of oasis refuge) is accepted by the chieftains. Afterward, while making his way to his tent, he meets the alchemist who arrives on a white horse in a violently thunderous storm of wind and dust.
In between the time that he sees the hawks present an attacking action, "one of the hawks made a flashing dive ... attacking the other," and the time that the alchemist leaves him, the boy faces a number of conflicts; two are internal conflicts, but the other three are external conflicts.
His first conflict after the hawk vision is an internal one
; it is with himself that he has a conflict. He wants to reject the vision and go back to his meditations on Fatima, love and the Language of the World, but the lessons taught by the old man--Melchizedek, the King of Salem--and the promptings of his own heart prevent him from doing so. He resolves this internal conflict, one between his thoughts and his intuitive promptings, by confiding in the camel driver, whom he later calls a teacher who doesn't know that he is a teacher. It is this conversation with the camel driver that opens up the boy's second internal conflict
The camel driver, who listened carefully to the boy, knew that the "Soul of the World" is revealed to some people who can look and see meaning in the things of the world around them, things like birds and desert sands. These people were called "seers" in the desert, and the camel driver, having consulted many of them, knew something of their beliefs. Because of this, he understood that God had opened to the boy "part of the future." Because of the things the camel driver understood, he told the boy to go to the chieftains and tell them about what he saw in the hawks' flight, "about the armies that are approaching"; he said that the chieftains were used to hearing omens and acting on them. This instruction stirs up internal conflict
in Santiago: "They'll laugh at me ... [and] they probably already know." This internal conflict is a complex one because it is between his pride ("They'll laugh"), his fear of the chiefs, his humility ("they probably already know") and his desire to follow the omens as he was taught to do by the old man of Salem. This internal conflict is resolved when Santiago believes the camel driver's response and decides to "go to see the chiefs": "this time, the person is you" who is to tell the chieftains what they need to know,
Santiago goes to the chieftains. He waits long into the night, then is ushered in before a semicircle of eight chieftains who are skeptical and unreceptive, questioning Santiago and challenging his information about the hawk vision and about the invasion of warriors, who would invade in violation of the sacred Tradition of neutral refuge in oases. The antagonistic chieftains create Santiago's external conflict
. They want to deny his right to have a vision, his authority in presenting an omen and his statement that tribesmen of the desert would break the sanctity of the refuge Tradition, which forbids weapons at any oasis. During this time, Santiago becomes frightened and tries to leave but is stopped.
This external conflict is resolved when, in the midst of heated debate between the chiefs, the leader, "seated at the center of the semicircle" and "dressed in white and gold," "almost imperceptibly" smiled. Since the boy has learned much about the Language of the World, especially when seen in Fatima's eyes, he knew that the debating was over and that the issue was settled in favor of believing the omen: "the boy felt better ... he could feel the vibrations of peace throughout the tent." Not only would he be allowed to safely return to his own tent, the chiefs would prepare for the unprecedented attack on the oasis (of course the elder in white and gold presented him with a new external conflict for the next day when, if the hawk omen proved false, the boy would be executed).
The next external conflict
whirls up to Santiago in a mighty wind while he walks from the chieftains' tent to his own tent: the alchemist confronts him in the thundering of a wind so fierce it throws Santiago to the ground:
Suddenly, he heard a thundering sound, and he was thrown to the ground by a wind such as he had never known. The area was swirling in dust so intense that it hid the moon....
This dramatic entrance of the alchemist on horseback certainly presents external conflict. Santiago is thrown into conflict with external elements of nature that throw him to the ground and frighten him. This conflict is resolved when the whirl dies down and he sees in front of him a white horse with a rider dressed in black, carrying a falcon astride his shoulder: Santiago recognizes the horse and rider as the cause of the unnatural dust storm. Yet this introduction of horse and rider ushers in another external conflict, that of conflict of one man against another, especially evident when the black-clad rider draws an "enormous, curved sword from a scabbard mounted on his saddle."
The rider's first challenging words are as menacing as his curved sword as he cries out: "Who dares to read the meaning of the flight of the hawks?" Santiago shows his courage and his belief in himself when he responds that it is he who dared to read the flight of the hawks and that his doing so will save the lives of oasis dwellers: "Many lives will be saved, because I was able to see through to the Soul of the World." This external, man against man,
conflict is not resolved until after the point of the curved sword draws blood from the boy's forehead and after he responds to further challenges by saying that "I read only what the birds wanted to tell me. ... Allah taught me to read the language of the birds." When satisfied with the boy's answers, the conflict is finally resolved when the rider withdraws his sword, gives the boy a warning, "Be careful of your prognostications," and says that he had to test the boy's courage, "Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of he World."
Conflict Significance to Theme
These conflicts are significant to the development of Santiago's character and the development of the plot action, but they are equally significant to the development of themes in this didactic novel that combines magical realism and fantasy. The internal and external conflicts Santiago undergoes in these two scenes described above teach him, and readers, about the universal language, also called the Language of the World; the Soul of the World; finding the alchemist, who helps in fulfilling Personal Legends; and the Personal Legend that motivates each life. For instance, Santiago didn't yet know the Language of the World, spoken at times by eyes and smiles, so he was unable to identify the bar owner as a friend and the thieving young man as a thief, although, after his trek through the desert with the camel driver, he recognized the Language of the World in Fatima's eyes when they met (because of the Englishman's zealousness) at the oasis well.
As another instance of how these conflicts are significant to important thematic ideas, when Santiago became entranced with and distracted by the beautiful sword in the marketplace, he wasn't aware of the Soul of the World and didn't read omens, but later in the oasis, when the black-clad rider's sword was pressed to his forehead, his knowledge of the Soul of the World gave him the courage to face the rider and to declare that it was he who had read the flight of the hawks and delivered the omen to the chieftains. His courage, in turn, qualified him to be guided across the desert by the alchemist, the rider of the white horse. As a final instance of how conflict brings out theme, while the pursuit of his Personal Legend at first leads the boy to weep in an empty marketplace, blaming God for his own ignorance of the universal language and of omens, his continued pursuit of his Personal Legend leads him to find life in the seemingly lifeless desert because--since the alchemist taught that "Life attracts life"--he allowed the life that was his horse to seek out the life in the barrenness of the desert. Because of this, a significant theme was developed when the alchemist resolved some of Santiago's internal conflict by teaching him that the pursuit of a Personal Legend requires "true love . . . the love that speaks the Language of the World."