Here are two ways to compare, contrast, and otherwise pair Things Fall Apart and The Alchemist.
Faith Traditions and Communities of Faith
Ideas (and conflicts) relating to specific systems of belief characterize each of these novels.
For both protagonists, the way that the world works around them is often defined and determined by a worldview best understood as culturally endemic and faith-based.
In each book, there are too many references to issues of faith to mention them all. When investigating similarities between the two novels, we can focus some of our analysis on the ways in which faith is represented as a powerful element of the lives of the protagonists.
How is Okonkwo affected by his relationship to his religious beliefs and those of his community in Things Fall Apart? How is Santiago affected by his religious beliefs and by those of the people he encounters? To what extent are the lives of these characters determined by their relationship(s) to faith-based ideas of what to believe, how to act, etc.?
An equally important element to note is that both of these novels treat the supernatural properties of the faiths they discuss as being real. The "reality" of the worlds represented is substantively shaped by the faith traditions depicted therein.
We can parse this in several ways and wonder if the authors were suggesting that (1) social reality is determined by the thinking of a society or community or (2) that an individual’s truest relationship to reality is defined by his or her deepest beliefs.
There are more ways to interpret this aspect of each novel, and it is in this rich area that we might find a good place to contrast Things Fall Apart against The Alchemist.
There is a greater interest in social perceptions (as well as a certain cultural relativism) in the politically driven Things Fall Apart than in the more philosophically oriented The Alchemist.
For both, the reality that the protagonist occupies is defined by an outlook that includes the supernatural. This is important to the characters and to the plot in different ways in these novels.
Departure and Return
Both Okonkwo and Santiago follow a pattern of departure and return. This is the general pattern described by Joseph Campbell’s famous notion of "the hero’s journey.”
However, for Okonkwo, the journey is turned on its head. Things actually do fall apart. The sociocultural insights that typically accompany the hero on his return home are worthless when Okonkwo’s native culture is strategically undermined by colonists.
Santiago, for his part, achieves in the quest he sets out on. He is rewarded with knowledge of self and of community and able to take the place in his society that is fitting for him.
The outcomes for each protagonist are starkly different. Yet for both characters, the integrity of the community plays a large part in determining his fate.
Okonkwo has no wish to “rise above” his culture or his people. He seeks explicitly to succeed within the structures and strictures of his traditions. Santiago, conversely, only finds wisdom when he realizes that he doesn’t need to rely on others any longer. He needs only to be himself and believe in himself.
So, Things Fall Apart ends with a tragic scenario where a man has been undone due to his reliance on community. The Alchemist ends with a victorious scenario where a man has achieved wisdom and wealth by finding independence and realizing the fruits of individualism.
Here is a line from The Alchemist that makes this difference clear: “If someone isn't what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”
It’s impossible to imagine Okonkwo coming to agree with this statement, whereas this idea is the exact essence of Santiago’s final insight and wisdom.