The Alchemist is a novel that abounds with conflict and is, in fact, built on a premise of inescapable life conflict. In the Forward to the 2015 25-year anniversary edition, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho writes that soon after the original publication of the book, with sales so slow that one bookseller sold only two copies in six months, the publisher canceled the book and Coelho's contract: "They wiped their hands of the project and let me take the book with me." Afterward, "he started knocking on the doors"--plural, many doors--"of other publishers" until one publisher finally opened and gave The Alchemist another chance. Coelho also writes in the Forward that "when you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you" but--as he reveals in the Forward and in the shepherd boy's story--not without great and sometimes grave conflict: In The Alchemist, Coelho describes this contradictory dualism that helps and hurts as a single "force": "It's a force that appears to be negative .. [but] shows you how to realize ... your mission on earth."
Because an underlying existential premise is inescapable life conflict, selecting scenes in The Alchemist showing conflict is fairly easy (existential: relating to human existence). What is more difficult is identifying the type and meaning of the conflict; it is also more difficult to define how each conflict correlates to the existential premises, or the themes, of the novel. Two interesting scenes with conflict, one early in the book and one about midway, are (1) when the boy is in the midst of conflicts between the bar owner and the young man and later (2) when, in the desert oasis, the boy receives the omen from the desert and must tell the omen to the tribal chieftains. These two scenes provide studies in both internal and external conflict and offer a chance to explore the meaning and importance of "the universal language," finding "the alchemist," and the "Personal Legend."
1. Tangier, where the bar owner and the young man have a conflict, with the boy at the center of it.
The first external conflict occurs when Santiago finds that the two men are arguing because he showed his money. We are not told precisely, but we may suppose that the boy felt threatened by the quarrel taking place between the barman, standing behind him looking over his shoulder, and the young man seated beside him, since, when the young Spanish-speaking man lies and says "He wants us to leave," the boy feels "relieved." This is external conflict for Santiago because he is trapped in a threatening and potentially dangerous situation that he doesn't even understand and isn't even prepared for--because it is entirely unexpected--to either battle against or to escape from.
Santiago's second internal conflict comes when he realizes that he has been completely, although momentarily, distracted by the beautiful sword on display in the marketplace and that, in that moment of time, the young man has fled with all Santiago's money. This incident engenders internal conflict in Santiago because while he wants to turn his head to look and confirm that the young man is gone, he cannot bring himself to do so. The internal conflict is that even though he intuitively senses the truth, he hasn't got the courage or strength of mind to make himself physically turn and look and know the truth:
he had been distracted for a few moments, looking at the sword. His heart squeezed, as if his chest had suddenly compressed it. He was afraid to look around, because he knew what he would find. He continued to look at the beautiful sword a bit longer, until he summoned the courage to turn around.
He was so ashamed [of how his life had changed so suddenly and drastically] that he wanted to cry. He had never even wept in front of his own sheep. But the marketplace was empty, and he was far from home, so he wept. He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams.
Another scene of conflict occurs in the desert oasis when the boy receives the omen from the desert hawks warning that invaders would come the next day to attack the oasis. Santiago has arrived with the caravan at the desert oasis where a thriving community awaits and surprises him: "the oasis ... was much larger than many towns ... [with] three hundred wells...." There, Santiago helps the Englishman; meets Fatima, through whose eyes he recognizes the "Language of the World," which is the "universal language"; learns that she accepts him as her "tribesman" and will allow him to be as free as the desert wind while she waits for him; senses the flight of hawks above him, then reads the meaning of their flight because he has been given sight into the "Soul of the World"; and is sent by the camel driver to the chieftains to tell them his vision, "if they have to know about something, ... someone will tell them ... this time, the person is you." Santiago is admitted to the congregation of chieftains, delivers his message, and--after the fear of waiting out a heated discussion in an Arabic dialect unknown to him--his message (although one predicting violation of the Tradition of oasis refuge) is accepted by the chieftains. Afterward, while making his way to his tent, he meets the alchemist who arrives on a white horse in a violently thunderous storm of wind and dust.
His first conflict after the hawk vision is an internal one; it is with himself that he has a conflict. He wants to reject the vision and go back to his meditations on Fatima, love and the Language of the World, but the lessons taught by the old man--Melchizedek, the King of Salem--and the promptings of his own heart prevent him from doing so. He resolves this internal conflict, one between his thoughts and his intuitive promptings, by confiding in the camel driver, whom he later calls a teacher who doesn't know that he is a teacher. It is this conversation with the camel driver that opens up the boy's second internal conflict.
This external conflict is resolved when, in the midst of heated debate between the chiefs, the leader, "seated at the center of the semicircle" and "dressed in white and gold," "almost imperceptibly" smiled. Since the boy has learned much about the Language of the World, especially when seen in Fatima's eyes, he knew that the debating was over and that the issue was settled in favor of believing the omen: "the boy felt better ... he could feel the vibrations of peace throughout the tent." Not only would he be allowed to safely return to his own tent, the chiefs would prepare for the unprecedented attack on the oasis (of course the elder in white and gold presented him with a new external conflict for the next day when, if the hawk omen proved false, the boy would be executed).
Suddenly, he heard a thundering sound, and he was thrown to the ground by a wind such as he had never known. The area was swirling in dust so intense that it hid the moon....
The rider's first challenging words are as menacing as his curved sword as he cries out: "Who dares to read the meaning of the flight of the hawks?" Santiago shows his courage and his belief in himself when he responds that it is he who dared to read the flight of the hawks and that his doing so will save the lives of oasis dwellers: "Many lives will be saved, because I was able to see through to the Soul of the World." This external, man against man, conflict is not resolved until after the point of the curved sword draws blood from the boy's forehead and after he responds to further challenges by saying that "I read only what the birds wanted to tell me. ... Allah taught me to read the language of the birds." When satisfied with the boy's answers, the conflict is finally resolved when the rider withdraws his sword, gives the boy a warning, "Be careful of your prognostications," and says that he had to test the boy's courage, "Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of he World."
One scene that involves conflict in The Alchemist is toward the beginning of the story when the protagonist, Santiago, discusses with his father his desire to travel. His father thinks it would be best for him to stay put. Santiago wants to travel. Santiago is conflicted, internally, with what decision to make. Once he makes the decision to move on, his father is supportive.
Another conflict occurs when Santiago first travels to Africa. There, he's confronted by a stranger who seems helpful at first. Santiago learns the "hard way," that this stranger really has larceny on his mind. Through both conflicts, Santiago uses the experiences to grow and further his quest in search of his personal legend.