The Alchemist Analysis

  • Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is an example of magical realism, a genre of literature that weaves fantastical elements into otherwise realist stories. The novel is grounded in the real world (specifically, in the landscapes of Spain, Tangier, and Egypt), but the events that take place are magical in nature and can be likened to miracles.
  • Santiago's journey to find his Personal Legend follows the traditional structure of a quest. Santiago is the hero who must overcome various obstacles (violence, confusion, despair) in order to achieve his dreams. Embedded in this journey is a desire for spiritual fulfillment, making Santiago's quest one of self-discovery and enlightenment.
  • Coelho alludes to the Bible in the character Melchizedek, the King of Salem, who appears in the Old Testament. Melchizedek gives Santiago two stones, Urim and Thummim, to consult if he ever has trouble deciphering the omens. The appearance of the Biblical figure gives the narrative added spiritual weight, further expanding on the theme of religion.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Critical Evaluation

Written in less than one month in 1987, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was inspired by the short tale “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream” from the classic Arabic short-story cycle The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, also known as The Thousand and One Nights (fifteenth century). This tale has been adapted by many authors because of the powerful message it delivers about discovering that one’s treasure does not need to be pursued; it can be found at home.

For The Alchemist, Coelho adapts four principles from the tale: the personal quest, the awareness of omens, the soul of the world, and the idea of listening to one’s heart as a guide. The novel also mentions The Thousand and One Nights when Santiago and the Englishman see many wells, colored tents, and date trees upon approaching the oasis. The Englishman acknowledges that the view looks like a scene from the classic story.

In this semiautobiographical work, Coelho’s own experiences are mimicked in Santiago’s journey to find his Personal Legend. At the age of sixteen, Santiago leaves the monastery against his father’s wishes, in favor of seeking his true dream of traveling. Like Santiago, Coelho had left his Jesuit schooling and Roman Catholicism in favor of his own journey. When his parents realized that writing was his dream, they sent him to a psychiatric hospital, where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy.

Coelho followed this period of hospitalization with stints as a hippie, a songwriter, and a dabbler in black magic. He also spent time in jail, where he was tortured by the Brazilian government for participating in subversive activities. At this point in his life, Coelho took a pilgrimage on the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the revelations that followed brought him back to the Catholic religion and fostered an interest in simplicity. He surmised that people find their spirituality through self-fulfillment rather than through stifled individual freedom. Coelho made a full circle in his journey.

Similarly, Santiago finds his treasure in the physical place where he began his journey: the dilapidated church in Andalusia, Spain. It is no coincidence that both Coelho and Santiago have epic journeys that begin in Spain and that the main character’s name, Santiago, mimics the pilgrim’s trail that Coelho traveled. When Coelho began this novel, the only aspect he was certain of was that Santiago, like himself, would end in the place he started.

Coelho’s rebellion ultimately helped him to identify his path in life and to develop the survival skills necessary to overcome conflict. Santiago also develops these strengths along his own journey. On three separate occasions, all of his money is stolen. The first time he weeps from despair, then he chooses to have faith. The second time, he questions the alchemist’s judgment in...

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Book Review

The book-length fable is a difficult form to master, for it must simultaneously exhibit a naive simplicity that speaks to children and be grounded in a universal wisdom that appeals to adults. The problem is that it is difficult to sustain naive simplicity over the long haul without becoming boring, and it is a real challenge to present universal wisdom in such a simple form without being ultimately obvious and thus somehow banal. Antoine de Saint Exupery’s classic fable LITTLE PRINCE manages that balancing act quite magically. THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho, one of Brazil’s best-selling authors, achieves the magic only unevenly.

The characters and the plot are classically familiar—a poor shepherd boy sets off to seek his fortune, meeting many wondrous characters along the way, only to discover—what else?— that the search for the treasure is the treasure itself and that one need search no farther than one’s own heart. Two basic themes dominate the story—the ability to recognize, and the willingness to follow, signs and omens and the courage to follow one’s dream.

In additional to old gypsy women, mysterious merchants, and noble kings, the characters the young Santiago meets along the way include an Englishman who has been searching for the one true language of the universe (which is, of course, the language of love), a beautiful maiden named Fatima, and, an alchemist who has discovered the true secret of the Philosopher’s Stone. Familiar magical injunctions from various romances and religious books are threaded through the fable—lose the self to find the self, listen to your heart, become one with the Soul of the World, follow your dream—but the advice so often overwhelms the story that one’s eyes tend to glaze over with the abstractness of it all.

Suggested Essay Topics

Magical Realism
Consider mapping Coelho’s belief in magical realism. One of the basic tenets of magical realism is that the universe wants people to succeed: if a person is following his or her true path, forces will conspire to help. Melchizedek explains that “there is a force that wants you to realize your Personal Legend…[but] in order to find the treasure you will have to follow the omens.” Magical realism calls for people to take active roles in pursuing their dreams by paying attention and acting on lessons learned in life; success will not happen without effort. Trace the ways in which magical realism assists Santiago throughout his journey.

You may want to take a different view and argue against Coelho’s belief in magical realism. If you find it unbelievable, think about how the omens and other signs that Santiago believes in can be differently interpreted or understood. Is the universe really on his side? What evidence could you provide from other philosophies that would counter this argument?

Coelho is far from the first to believe in the power of numbers. Almost every religion in the world holds that certain numbers have divine properties. Research the numbers three, four, seven, two, and ten, and then show how these digits have been important in Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, or Asian faiths. How do the numbers important in The Alchemist compare to your findings? What is similar or different about those magical numbers?

You may also want to take a look at the history of mathematics and see how key numbers have unlocked mysteries of the universe.

Historical Perspectives
Depending on the length of your paper, you can explore a single one of these topics or you may wish to combine two or more.

Find out more about the mystical history of the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Think about why Santiago is drawn to this place in particular and how the history of pyramids influences his journey.

Research the realities of traveling with a caravan: the economic impact of the journey, the role of the caravan leader, the instances of tribal warfare ,and the reality of traversing the harsh Sahara desert. Who traveled by caravan and why? Does Coelho do a good job of depicting life in this manner? Where does he fall short?

Explore the reality of life in the Al-Fayoum Oasis. Study the inhabitants, how they lived and what they imported and exported. Fatima claims that many men who left the oasis failed to ever return. Find out what happened to them and whether Coelho’s claims are valid. Consider also the author’s depiction of women in the oasis. From your research, decide if they are accurately portrayed.

Depending on the length of your paper, you can explore a single one of these topics or you may wish to combine two or more.

Coelho’s novel is rich in religious history. Trace the biblical images and stories that occur throughout the work: Jesus, Melchizedek, and Joseph all contribute their teachings to Santiago’s life lessons.

Transcendentalism is also important to the spiritual themes of the novel. Some of the beliefs of transcendentalism that parallel The Alchemist are that the human soul is part of the Oversoul, or universal spirit, to which it and other souls return at death; that every individual is to be respected because everyone has a portion of that Oversoul (God); that this Oversoul or Life Force or God can be found everywhere; and that God can be found in both nature and human nature. Discover more about the history of Transcendentalist thought and how it appears in Coelho’s novel.

There are also many references to Catholicism, including the reference to Our Lady Fatima, and the Coptic monk whom the alchemist and Santiago meet on their journey. Where else can you find Catholic beliefs infused within this story of spiritual discovery?