One of the most popular novels to emerge in the past twenty years, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a story about the necessary pursuit of happiness, has endeared its author to thousands of readers worldwide. The Alchemist was originally published in Portuguese in 1988. However, the novel’s translation into English and republication in 1993 made the work an “overnight” financial success. It remains on several best-seller lists every year.
The Alchemist traces the path of Santiago, a young Spanish shepherd who is compelled to follow his dream of finding hidden treasure in Egypt. To do so, he must leave the comfort zone of home, learn to trust the “Soul of the World,” and believe that there are forces in the universe that want us to be happy. In order to find happiness, however, Santiago must first discover his “Personal Legend”—that is to say, he must to discover what he is meant to do in the world. Fortunately, Santiago soon takes the first step in his acquisition of happiness: he listens to his heart and overcomes fear. As Santiago continues his sometimes-painful journey, he discovers that one cannot be dissuaded from pursuing a “Personal Legend,” even if the choices seem impossible to bear. The end result for anyone who does so, Coelho assures his readers, is physical and spiritual reward.
Set in an undefined time and taking place alternately between Spain and Egypt, The Alchemist is the story of Santiago’s quest for fortune, his Personal Legend, and the decoding of the Language of the World. The young man must endure many obstacles. First, he must overcome those who have told him since childhood that his dreams can never be realized. Santiago has to understand that those who truly love him will not begrudge him the pursuit of his dreams. Then, he must hold back fear of failure and defeat to continue his quest. Last, he has to understand that the worst thing in life is to deny one’s dreams.
Although the ultimate realization of one’s dreams is a solitary affair, Santiago is required to accept help in various guises, not all of which are immediately understood as helpful. He must agree to give up part of whatever fortune he finds. He has to believe in the interpretation of his dreams and trust in a man, an “alchemist,” who has valuable information to share, although the man is mysterious and his veracity unchecked. He must place his faith in the alchemist when all logic would dictate otherwise.
Santiago must let go in order to receive real love, find fortune, and achieve understanding. Like all of those who dare to dream, Santiago experiences setbacks. During his journey, Santiago is delayed as he works for many months in a crystal shop. When he is able to raise enough money to travel, the reality of tribal warfare threatens his life. But like an adventurer in the midst of a sandstorm, Santiago keeps his eyes on the path and his mind on his task. When he eventually realizes his dreams, they are better than he could have ever imagined.
The Alchemist can be understood as a roadmap to finding Santiago’s treasure, both physical and spiritual. Like the four corners of the earth, there are four points of contention through which the protagonist must travel in order to find his treasure: overcoming childhood’s messages of “no, you can’t,” fear of hurting those he loves, facing the reality of defeats, and dealing with the reality of successes.
Santiago’s story begins in an abandoned church, the place where the young shepherd has taken refuge for the night. As harmonious as life is with the livestock, Santiago longs for more and thinks back to how he arrived at this place in his life. He wanted to travel but met with stark resistance from his father, who warned his son that almost everyone who seeks “new things” winds up disappointed.
Undaunted, Santiago refused to surrender. If a shepherd’s life would let him travel, then that is what he would do. He gave up his studies and became a shepherd.
But the shepherd’s life is not fulfilling. He decides to visit a gypsy woman in hopes of having her interpret a recurring dream about Egyptian pyramids and buried treasure. The old gypsy promises to tell him what the dream means if he swears to give her ten percent of whatever he finds. Santiago agrees. She tells him to go to the pyramids and what he finds there “will make him a rich man.”
Disappointed with her lack of specifics, Santiago heads into the city. His musings are interrupted by a mysterious old man who offers to tell Santiago how to find the treasure if he will give him one tenth of his sheep.
(The entire section is 1381 words.)