Why is the novel entitled The Alchemist? Of what significance is the title?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title is significant because everyone has it in them to change their lives, to pursue their dreams and achieve their goals. In that sense, each and every one of us, according to the governing idea behind the story, is an alchemist. We may not think ourselves to be as wise and as all-knowing as the title character but in the adventures of Santiago, the humble shepherd-boy, we can see traces of ourselves.

All too often we lack the confidence to follow our dreams and turn them into reality. Yet Coelho wants us to see how wrong this attitude this is. All of us can be alchemists in that we have the ability to take the base metal that life has given us and turn it into gold. That's not to say that the process of changing our lives will be easy. It isn't for Santiago, and it won't be for us either. But if we at least see ourselves as having the potential to make such dramatic changes to our lives, however long it takes to bring them about, we will begin to develop the same kind of mindset as the Alchemist of the story. And then, we will not just be in a position to help ourselves, but others too.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the novel's preface, Coelho writes:

I discovered that the symbolic language ... was the only way to reach "the soul of the world" or what Jung called "the collective unconsciousness." I discovered the personal legend and the signs of God, truths which my rational mind had refused to accept because of their simplicity.

Alchemy, or transforming base or basic elements into gold, becomes the symbol of transformation in the novel. An alchemist endeavors to turn low worth metals into valuable metals, like gold or silver. The novel is called The Alchemist because Santiago learns how to turn the base or basic elements of his nature into something precious. He discovers his personal legend and is able to follow the signs of God.

Like him, we can all become alchemists and turn our lives into precious gifts. As Coelho also states in his preface, anybody can achieve their personal legend.

Santiago learns to trust in himself and his dreams, as well as to seek guidance from wise others. This, more than outward wealth or security or clinging to traditions, models what what makes life worth living.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At first, this does seem an odd title for the book as the character of the alchemist is relatively minor. In fact, he does not even appear in the narrative until rather close to the end of the story. Alchemy is the ancient idea that metals can be transmuted into other metals. For instance, there has been an age-old quest of turning lead into gold as we see the alchemist do in the novel.

Rather than refer to the character, it is more likely that the title refers to Santiago, the book's protagonist. He transforms his life through a form of personal alchemy. At the beginning of the story, he is a shepherd who has yet to realize his personal legend. By the novel's end, Santiago has radically transformed his life and connected to the soul of the world.

I think it is likely that Paulo Coelho chose this title to refer to the alchemist that is in all of us. Everyone we meet in the story, from the crystal merchant to the Englishman, has the power of alchemy: the power to realize their personal legend. However, it is the story's hero, Santiago, who transforms his life, just like an alchemist can turn lead into gold.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Alchemy has become synonymous with transformation.  Historically, an alchemist was someone that could transform ordinary lead into gold. Just to be clear, that is not possible.  Both gold and lead are two different and distinct pure elements. No chemical reaction will change one into the other. Regardless, alchemy gives the perception that something of almost no value can be changed into something of great value and importance.  

That is exactly what Santiago went through. He began the story as a lowly sheep herder. He did have a great desire to travel the world and see great things, but he didn't aspire to be much more than what he was.  

But ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man's sins.

However, by the end of the story, he is a very different man.  He is strong and confident in his abilities, and he makes decisions of his own. Not only that, but he has gained the ability to commune with the "Soul of the World." Lastly, he also, at one point, physically transforms himself. That sounds a lot like alchemy to me.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An alchemist is supposedly able to transform lead (or any other ordinary metal) into gold.  While there is a character in the novel that is an alchemist, I think Paulo Coelho is referring to how the boy Santiago is able to transform his ordinary life into "gold".  The boy goes from being an ordinary sheep herder to one who lives out his Personal Legend.  The prize was actually not the treasure he found at the end, but the real treasure he found within his heart that made his life extraordinary.  By living his Personal Legend, Santiago is like the alchemist who changes the ordinary into gold.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team