At a Glance

  • Paulo Coelho explores universal themes of fate, love, and following one's dreams in The Alchemist. Like Coelho himself, Santiago is driven by the desire to achieve his dreams and to find his place in the world. Along the way, he meets his soulmate Fatima, finds a long-buried treasure, and learns how to be one with nature.
  • At heart, The Alchemist is the story of one boy's quest for spiritual fulfillment. In following his dreams, Santiago travels across nations, learning the Language of the World and becoming one with God. Near the end of the novel, he discovers that he can perform small miracles, such as summoning a sandstorm.
  • Alchemy, or the process of transfiguring metal into gold, is a form of transformation, and transformation is one of the central themes of The Alchemist. This is most evident in Santiago's journey, which traces his evolution from a young, naive shepherd boy to a wise alchemist capable of reading omens and communing with the Soul of the World. 

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Themes

Magical Realism
Magical realism, or magic realism, is a narrative technique that blends reality with the fantastic. Both the ordinary and the extraordinary are presented as a matter of fact, and there is usually a strong hint of social criticism that runs throughout the narrative. This is certainly what Coelho does in The Alchemist. Santiago, an ordinary shepherd, embarks on a journey to realize his Personal Legend. While the first few pages are grounded in reality, the move to the fantastic soon occurs. The young shepherd meets an extraordinary man who claims to be the King of Salem. Melchizedek is his real name; he is a character from the Bible. In The Alchemist, he helps those who are at the point of discovering and following their Personal Legends.

One of the basic tenets of magical realism is that the universe wants one to succeed: if one is following one’s “true path,” then 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 an active role in pursuing their dreams by paying attention and acting on lessons learned in life; success without effort will not happen.

Omens are an important element of magical realism for Coelho and other authors who adhere to this technique. Santiago will be shown many signs along the way that he will have to properly interpret in order to move forward. Some of these omens are a butterfly that represents both change and freedom, the hawks that portend danger in the oasis, and the scarab beetle Santiago finds at the pyramids that tells him where to dig.

Santiago’s journey is rife with magical realism; the ordinary and extraordinary are constantly blended. Melchizedek gives the boy two deceptively simple-looking stones that have magical divining powers. They are called “Urim and Thummim.” These stones are a fortune telling device that in a tight spot will help Santiago by giving him a clear yes-or-no answer to his queries. The stones are used only once, however, because knowing too much about the future can be a hindrance: life is full of obstacles, and it does not help to know the suffering one will have to endure along the way. It is enough to know that there is no such thing as luck or coincidence. All things happen for a reason, and all are a part of the “mysterious chain.”

Implicit in magical realism is a criticism of society. In Santiago’s life, he has to overcome many naysayers, such as his father and the crystal merchant, who tell him his dream is impossible. These characters are older people who have, for one reason or another, let fear kill their own dreams. Coelho is critical not just of those who have failed in their own lives but even more so of those who try to foist their bitterness off on others who actively pursue their dreams.

The most explicit examples of magical realism can be found in the final sections of Part II, in...

(The entire section is 2,319 words.)