What does Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist teach the reader about the significance of struggle in the quest for true love through the hero's journey?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The ultimate irony in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, of course, is that the treasury Santiago, the author’s youthful protagonist, seeks in the distant deserts of Egypt, and for which he struggles mightily to survive, was his for the taking all-along under the sycamore tree growing inside the abandoned church where he slept, and where he experienced the dream that precipitated his journey. Santiago is desperately poor, and lives a meager day-to-day existence tending to his sheep.  He is content to sell the wool of those sheep to merchants, and thinks little of establishing himself in the Andalusia region of Spain, where lives the merchant who not only has purchased wool from Santiago in the past, but whose daughter is a source of great romantic interest on the part of the young shepherd.  Coelho makes clear, however, that Santiago’s ambitions are modest, as in the following passage from early in his novel:

“He owned a jacket, a book that he could trade for another, and a flock of sheep. But, most important, he was able every day to live out his dream. If he were to tire of the Andalusian fields, he could sell his sheep and go to sea. By the time he had had enough of the sea, he would already have known other cities, other women, and other chances to be happy. I couldn't have found God in the seminary, he thought, as he looked at the sunrise.”

Santiago’s dreams, as noted, precipitates his journey to North Africa. In those dreams – he experiences the same dream twice – a boy comes to him and tells him that a hidden treasure awaits at the site of the Egyptian pyramids.  Unfortunately, the shepherd awakens before learning the exact location of the treasure, prompting him to seek out the advice of an old lady known to be practiced in the art of interpreting dreams.  Interestingly, before he thinks of the old woman, he comments to himself on the relationship of dreams to life itself: “It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting, he thought . . .”

The old woman is entirely mercenary, demanding a cut of the shepherd’s treasure should he succeed in making the journey to Egypt and locating the hidden treasure, but her suggestion of working on a contingency basis serves the boy well, as he can keep the little money he has for his trip rather than pay now for the counsel.  Santiago, of course, sets off on his journey, encountering challenges along the way, including from warring tribes in the vast Saharan desert.  With the alchemist, Santiago makes it to Egypt, although the wise old man leaves his young disciple alone for the final stage of his journey to the pyramids. 

Santiago’s journey is not, of course, a journey for wealth, although that happens; rather, it is a spiritual journey, as he discovers what in life is truly important.  He has struggled mightily along the way to Egypt only to find that the treasure he sought lied beneath the ground under the very tree from which his journey began.  Through the wisdom of the alchemist, Santiago has found a form of wealth far more meaningful than the chest of gold coins he will uncover once back at that old church in Andalusia.  As Coelho has his protagonist contemplate the journey he has taken, he reflects upon the gifts he has been given, none of which involve material wealth:

“He thought of the many roads he had traveled, and of the strange way God had chosen to show him his treasure. If he hadn't believed in the significance of recurrent dreams, he would not have met the Gypsy woman, the king, the thief, or… ‘Well, it's a long list. But the path was written in the omens, and there was no way I could go wrong’" he said to himself.”

Arriving back at the church, Santiago commences digging, elated at the irony in having traveled so far only to have the hidden treasure be right where he started.:

"You old sorcerer," the boy shouted up to the sky. "You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn't you have saved me from that?" "No," he heard a voice on the wind say. "If I had told you, you wouldn't have seen the Pyramids. They're beautiful, aren't they?"

This shepherd who had once been content to live an aimless existence among his sheep while wooing the merchant’s daughter has discovered the joys of experiencing life far from the only world he has known.  He now understands the importance of struggle and of broadening his horizons.  And, he has learned about role of God in a life properly lived.  He had struggled against the wind – a prophetic development – to dig into the sands in search of the treasure that he will learn soon enough was never in this location after all.  Prior to going their separate ways, the alchemist relates a Biblical story to Santiago that instills in the latter a deeper regard for the mysterious ways of the Lord, a story that ends with the following quote from Matthew: "My Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only speak a word and my servant will be healed."  The alchemist, as have the others who Santiago encountered along the way, has contributed to the shepherd’s spiritual healing when all Santiago had initially sought was material wealth.