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Context

Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist with Course Hero’s video study guide.

The Alchemist | Context

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Critical Response

Originally published in Portuguese in 1988, The Alchemist was not an immediate hit. It took off after it was translated into English. In 1993 an Australian newspaper, The Advertiser, printed a glowing review of the "limpid little fable called The Alchemist," recommending "with unshakable confidence" the short, entrancing novel.

By the late 1990s, the book was a best-seller in France—and soon after, it was translated into multiple languages and widely read by all ages worldwide. In book reviews, nearly every critic calls attention to the sparse, uncomplicated writing style of The Alchemist. "Coelho's strength lies undoubtedly in the fact of his simple, clear, and pure language," reads a 1998 review from the French publication Le nouvel observateur. The review goes on to explain, "There is nothing more difficult to do than the simple, the clear, and the pure."

According to critics, it is Coelho's straightforward language—combined with his sincere, parable-like story—that makes The Alchemist so powerful and unique. These features also make it accessible to both younger and older audiences.

Likewise, critics have noted the timelessness of the tale, which gives The Alchemist a universal appeal and leads to its relevance across cultures and ethnicities. The journey toward self-discovery and awakening, and the trials and tribulations that crop up along the way, are topics to which many people relate. In this sense, The Alchemist is a metaphor for life.

While the book has received praise for its simplicity, it has also drawn criticism. Several critics have claimed that The Alchemist is more of a self-help book than a work of literature. Other scholars have argued, too, that the novel is a retelling of another fable, "The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again through a Dream," from One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights), a centuries-old collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folktales.

A Journey to Spiritual Awakening

In religions worldwide, the act of taking a journey is part of the path to spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Muslims, for instance, go on pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca (also known as Makkah), and Hindus often travel to Varanasi, Allahabad, and other holy cities. Catholics and other Christians retrace the steps of medieval pilgrims to shrines and holy sites across Europe, while Jews make their way to Jerusalem. Each of these pilgrimages can serve as a path to a moral or spiritual awakening, much like the journey Santiago takes in The Alchemist and the one Paulo Coelho himself took to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

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