At a Glance

  • 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.

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,499 words.)