The Alchemist Summary
The Alchemist is a novel by Paulo Coelho in which Spanish shepherd Santiago dreams of a long-buried treasure in Egypt. He sets out on a quest to obtain the treasure.
- After experiencing a prophetic dream, Santiago travels to Africa in the hopes of finding treasure buried beneath the pyramids.
- Santiago meets an alchemist, who agrees to take Santiago to the treasure.
- Santiago reaches the pyramids, but there is no treasure to be found.
- A group of war refugees attack Santiago, and one of them mockingly mentions a dream he had about a treasure buried beneath a Spanish church. Santiago returns home and unearths the treasure.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 219
One of the most popular novels to emerge in the past twenty years, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a story about the necessary pursuit of happiness, has endeared its author to thousands of readers worldwide. The Alchemist was originally published in Portuguese in 1988. However, the novel’s translation into English and republication in 1993 made the work an “overnight” financial success. It remains on several best-seller lists every year.
The Alchemist traces the path of Santiago, a young Spanish shepherd who is compelled to follow his dream of finding hidden treasure in Egypt. To do so, he must leave the comfort zone of home, learn to trust the “Soul of the World,” and believe that there are forces in the universe that want us to be happy. In order to find happiness, however, Santiago must first discover his “Personal Legend”—that is to say, he must to discover what he is meant to do in the world. Fortunately, Santiago soon takes the first step in his acquisition of happiness: he listens to his heart and overcomes fear. As Santiago continues his sometimes-painful journey, he discovers that one cannot be dissuaded from pursuing a “Personal Legend,” even if the choices seem impossible to bear. The end result for anyone who does so, Coelho assures his readers, is physical and spiritual reward.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1381
Set in an undefined time and taking place alternately between Spain and Egypt, The Alchemist is the story of Santiago’s quest for fortune, his Personal Legend, and the decoding of the Language of the World. The young man must endure many obstacles. First, he must overcome those who have told him since childhood that his dreams can never be realized. Santiago has to understand that those who truly love him will not begrudge him the pursuit of his dreams. Then, he must hold back fear of failure and defeat to continue his quest. Last, he has to understand that the worst thing in life is to deny one’s dreams.
Although the ultimate realization of one’s dreams is a solitary affair, Santiago is required to accept help in various guises, not all of which are immediately understood as helpful. He must agree to give up part of whatever fortune he finds. He has to believe in the interpretation of his dreams and trust in a man, an “alchemist,” who has valuable information to share, although the man is mysterious and his veracity unchecked. He must place his faith in the alchemist when all logic would dictate otherwise.
Santiago must let go in order to receive real love, find fortune, and achieve understanding. Like all of those who dare to dream, Santiago experiences setbacks. During his journey, Santiago is delayed as he works for many months in a crystal shop. When he is able to raise enough money to travel, the reality of tribal warfare threatens his life. But like an adventurer in the midst of a sandstorm, Santiago keeps his eyes on the path and his mind on his task. When he eventually realizes his dreams, they are better than he could have ever imagined.
The Alchemist can be understood as a roadmap to finding Santiago’s treasure, both physical and spiritual. Like the four corners of the earth, there are four points of contention through which the protagonist must travel in order to find his treasure: overcoming childhood’s messages of “no, you can’t,” fear of hurting those he loves, facing the reality of defeats, and dealing with the reality of successes.
Santiago’s story begins in an abandoned church, the place where the young shepherd has taken refuge for the night. As harmonious as life is with the livestock, Santiago longs for more and thinks back to how he arrived at this place in his life. He wanted to travel but met with stark resistance from his father, who warned his son that almost everyone who seeks “new things” winds up disappointed.
Undaunted, Santiago refused to surrender. If a shepherd’s life would let him travel, then that is what he would do. He gave up his studies and became a shepherd.
But the shepherd’s life is not fulfilling. He decides to visit a gypsy woman in hopes of having her interpret a recurring dream about Egyptian pyramids and buried treasure. The old gypsy promises to tell him what the dream means if he swears to give her ten percent of whatever he finds. Santiago agrees. She tells him to go to the pyramids and what he finds there “will make him a rich man.”
Disappointed with her lack of specifics, Santiago heads into the city. His musings are interrupted by a mysterious old man who offers to tell Santiago how to find the treasure if he will give him one tenth of his sheep.
The man reveals that he is actually the King of Salem. He says cryptically that Santiago has succeeded in discovering his Personal Legend and explains that when one is on his proper path, everything in the universe conspires to help.
Santiago sells the remainder of his sheep to pursue the treasure in Egypt. His maiden venture into the wider world is a naïve one, and he is immediately robbed. He then makes his first mature decision in his pursuit of his Personal Legend: he can choose to see himself as a victim or as an adventurer. He chooses the latter.
However, Santiago is waylaid. A crystal merchant tells him many reasons why his quest might fail. Santiago is convinced for a time to work for the man, even if it is just long enough to earn money to buy some more sheep.
Santiago has been employed in the shop for nearly a month. Although he has learned much about the world, he realizes that “it wasn’t exactly the kind of job that would make him happy.” Despite the merchant’s protests, Santiago remains resolved. He does not want to end up like his boss, who once had dreams himself but abandoned them for security.
Rather than regretting his wasted time in the shop, he reflects on the fact that had he not spent time in the city he would never have learned Arabic. Santiago’s willingness to be a lifelong learner will be one of his most valued character traits.
The merchant understands that Santiago has to leave. “Maktub,” he says. “It is written.” When a person has a strong calling to pursue their Personal Legend, it is like words composed in stone.
Santiago has overcome one of his primary obstacles to personal fulfillment: the “no, you can’t” message. In doing so, he has mastered the “language of enthusiasm.” This language heralds goals accomplished in pursuit of “something believed in and desired.” He joins a caravan heading across the desert and into Egypt.
Among the travelers is an Englishman. He tells Santiago of an elusive man called an “alchemist” who can purportedly turn any metal into gold. Alchemists divide the metal into two parts: the liquid is the “Elixir of Life”; the solid is the “Philosopher’s Stone.” Transforming metal in this way will rid it of everything except its “individual properties, and what would be left was the Soul of the World...the language with which all things communicated.”
The Englishman discusses omens with Santiago. He argues that anything can have a special purpose if a person feels that it does. When one understands this principle, there can be no such thing as luck or coincidence, and hunches are merely intuition. Everything is part of a “mysterious chain that links one thing to another.” The Englishman is also searching for the “Emerald Tablet,” a small stone allegedly inscribed with a few lines that reveal the secrets of alchemy.
The caravan reaches the oasis. Here, Santiago learns patience and persistence and how to live in the present rather than the future or the past. He also faces the second obstacle—love. He meets Fatima and is instantly smitten. He has to make the hard decision to leave her to continue his pursuit of his Personal Legend.
Santiago is once again visited by dreams. Tribal warfare is about to come to the oasis. He tells his visions to a mysterious stranger who soon reveals himself to be the alchemist, who says Santiago’s dreams are prophetic. Santiago is filled with fear. He is afraid of suffering even more than of death. But he relies on his strongest qualities: courage and enthusiasm.
Santiago and the alchemist are arrested. The alchemist tells their captors that Santiago is able to turn himself into the wind, and the men are incredulous. Santiago himself is stunned. He does not know how such a thing is possible, but failure means death. He harnesses all of his will, summons the sun and the wind, and makes a deal with them to help. The feat is accomplished. The men let Santiago and the alchemist go. The two part ways.
Finally, Santiago reaches the pyramids, but he is attacked. He tells the aggressors about his dream of finding treasure. One of the boys tells Santiago that he too had had a dream about treasure. The boy’s dream is about a church in Spain and buried treasure there. But unlike Santiago, he refused to follow his own Personal Legend. Santiago interprets the dream for himself. The treasure had been at his hometown church all along.
Santiago returns to Spain, unearths the treasure, and says, “I’m coming, Fatima.” His dreams have come true and are far better than he had ever hoped.
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