Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist can be considered a bildungsroman for his protagonist, Santiago. A bildungsroman is a novel in which a relatively innocent young person achieves spiritual, emotional, and psychological maturity.
In the beginning of the story, Santiago is a shepherd. The parallels to a young biblical Joseph and to Christ are evident. Christ calls “each sheep by name” and tenderly cares for their needs. However, like Joseph, Santiago strongly believes he is called for bigger and better things. He has chosen this life rather than the path his father would have preferred for him (that of a priest), but Santiago has reached a point where he is no longer satisfied with what the sheep can teach him. He aims for more, though unsure of what, and this desire propels him to discover his Personal Legend.
Like for all people who decide to follow their dreams, however, the choice is not easy. He must leave his life of familiarity and security to pursue the unknown: “I am between my flock and my treasure,” Santiago realizes. He opts for the hope of a more fulfilling life. His rejection of the norm is the first step on his journey to maturity and to true happiness.
Obstacles will be frequent on his journey from Spain to the Egyptian pyramids, where he is told in a vision that his treasure lies. In the introduction to the novel, Coelho outlines four major stumbling blocks that often dissuade people from achieving their dreams. The first obstacle is people who tell others from “childhood onward” that dreams are impossible to achieve. Santiago’s father claims that no one who pursues dreams is ever satisfied. Later, Santiago is urged by the crystal merchant to stay working for him in his shop. The man scoffs, “I don’t know anyone around here who would want to cross the desert just to see the Pyramids. They’re just a pile of stone. You could build one in your backyard.” Later, when the journey is successful and the treasure his, Santiago understands the words of Melchizedek, who cautioned him against believing “the world’s greatest lie”: that people have no control over what happens to them. Santiago chooses to control his own fate by rejecting first the priesthood, then shepherding, then a comfortable but uneventful life in the crystal merchant’s shop as he furthers his spiritual and intellectual growth.
Overcoming obstacles like the skepticism of those close to him is only one set of difficulties with which Santiago must grapple. However, dealing with these relatively minor roadblocks gives him a sense of confidence to face more challenging barriers. Throughout it all, from understanding the nature of love to the real threat of death, Santiago meets every challenge with courage and enthusiasm, his two greatest strengths.
Without courage and enthusiasm, Santiago could never have achieved the seemingly impossible task the alchemist sets for him: becoming the wind. The choice is either to perform as expected or to be killed. In order to become the wind, he has to intimately understand that “all things are one” and thus be able to speak the Language of the World. This unbelievable task is reminiscent of Jesus’s words from the Book of Matthew: “He said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”
Communing with the Soul of the World is Santiago’s last test of his spiritual growth. Although he will have to cross the Sahara twice in order to claim his treasure and reclaim his love, Fatima, the path is assured, for he has mastered all of the lessons he needed to learn. His rewards are greater than he could have ever dreamed.
Santiago’s father downplays the achievements of people who have chosen a nontraditional path and tells Santiago that those who look for more than their lot in life are usually dissatisfied. He wants his son, who has had more education than anyone in the family, to make them both proud and financially secure by becoming a priest.
To his credit, however, Santiago’s father does not stand in his son’s way when Santiago refuses to give up his dream. He even gives the boy “three ancient Spanish coins” he had found in a field. The coins themselves represent his blindness to the treasure that is around him, for these coins point the way to the treasure buried in the very church where his son rests at night with his flock.
The merchant’s daughter is Santiago’s first infatuation. He had met her on a previous trip to town to sell his sheep’s wool. He longs for the next time he can return and see her again. But when the two reconnect, she is patronizing of his ability to read and does not understand at all why someone who is educated would willingly chose the life of a shepherd. She does not meet the requirements of a true love, one that would support the dreams of their beloved.
The gypsy woman adds an element of the unknown to Santiago’s quest and also helps Santiago identify his own prejudices. Although he seeks her help, he is fearful of the stories he has heard about the criminal lifestyles many gypsies lead.
Santiago is comforted somewhat by a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in her home. The inclusion of her multiple ways of looking at the world are indicative of Coelho’s “all things are one”...
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