The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho opens with Santiago thinking about his sheep. What does he observe about their existence? How might the sheep symbolize the way people lead their lives?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sheep are usually thought of as mindless followers. They exist solely to produce wool and not much else. Sheep are also dependent on a shepherd to keep them together as a flock and to lead them to food and water sources. Santiago provides further insight into sheep in the following passage:

"Yes, their days were all the same, with the seemingly endless hours between sunrise and dusk . . . They were content with just food and water, and, in exchange, they generously gave of their wool, their company, and--once in a while--their meat" (7).

This description of the daily life of sheep can be linked to the way many people lead their lives. Humans get into monotonous routines as well. For example, people's lives revolve around daily, weekly, and monthly schedules that include waking up, going to work, eating, sleeping, and repeating the pattern. Santiago realizes that he and his sheep follow certain daily patterns as well. Consequently, he thinks of his parents who also work hard each day for their food and water, "just like the sheep" (8).

His thoughts about the sheep in connection to his parents are important because they prepare the boy for when he meets Melchizedek, the king of Salem. Melchizedek challenges the boy's daily and monotonous routine with the sheep by encouraging him to follow his Personal Legend. If Santiago decides to give up his boring life to seek something better for himself, then he will break the cycle of living like a sheep. Rather than become a mindless follower in life, Santiago has the opportunity to realize his full potential, which is something very few people do in life. Therefore, the contemplation of the sheep at the beginning of the novel is important to show from what point of reference the boy considers when deciding to follow his Personal Legend and give up a life of monotonous routine. Santiago's thoughts about the sheep also echo the way many people simply work in order to exist rather than to live more meaningful lives. 

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The Alchemist

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