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The Alchemist | Study Guide

Paulo Coelho

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The Alchemist | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Santiago's choice to become a shepherd instead of a priest begin the exploration of the theme of free will versus fate in The Alchemist?

As the narrator reveals in the beginning of the story, Santiago's parents want him to become a priest and put to good use his seminary education. Santiago, however, enjoys roaming the countryside and wants to travel and learn more about the world. He also enjoys nature and the outdoors. As a shepherd, he can do much of what he loves—traveling and spending time outdoors—which life as a priest would not allow. In an early exploration of the major theme of free will versus fate, Santiago decides he will take the step of becoming a shepherd. He tells his father of his desire to travel, and his father supports his decision to roam the hills of Andalusia with his sheep.

Compare and contrast Santiago's growth and development at the beginning and the end of The Alchemist.

In the beginning of The Alchemist, Santiago takes each day as it comes, without attempting to achieve a clear objective. He spends his days roaming the hills with his flock of sheep and selling wool to merchants across Andalusia. Though a close observer of his sheep and of nature, Santiago, at this stage, lacks a sense of purpose and fulfillment. He questions some of his observations and lacks confidence. For instance, he wonders "whether the girl [in the village] has already forgotten him." He tells himself that "his purpose in life [is] to travel," but he doesn't seem to accept that idea himself. As the story unfolds, Santiago's development is given a jump start by his recurring dream, which represents a call to adventure. Here, the novel's journey motif becomes clear. Santiago embraces the quest for his Personal Legend. He becomes more deliberate in his actions, facing several trials and making a number of hard choices, such as staying in Tangier to earn money with the crystal merchant and leaving Fatima at the desert oasis. He becomes more confident in his judgment as he encounters and overcomes each obstacle along his way. Even after being attacked at the pyramids, he continues his journey, ultimately making it back to Andalusia to find his treasure.

Early in The Alchemist, what observations does Santiago make about his sheep while in Andalusia?

As a shepherd, Santiago lives primarily with his flock of sheep and interacts rarely with other people. He notices several things about his sheep while in Andalusia, which the narrator shares in Part 1 of the book. These observations include the following: His sheep are attuned to and follow his schedule. For instance, when he wakes up in the morning, his sheep wake up; when he stops to rest, his sheep rest. The sheep are so attuned to him, in fact, that Santiago questions whether it's the other way around—"that it was he who had become accustomed to their schedule." His sheep concern themselves primarily with food and water. Obtaining these things is their main objective in life and the reason why they are attached to Santiago. If someone took Santiago's place, the sheep wouldn't know the difference and would adapt easily. His sheep are followers. They cannot exercise free will about anything significant in their lives.

Why does Santiago in The Alchemist mistrust Melchizedek when he first meets him in Tarifa?

Santiago meets Melchizedek soon after leaving the house of the gypsy woman, who offers to interpret the boy's dream. Her only advice is to tell him to go to the pyramids, for which she requests one-tenth of his treasure. At this point, he is frustrated to have wasted time and energy on the gypsy woman. Melchizedek appears right as Santiago sits down to relax and read a book in Tarifa. The old king asks him about his book and attempts to strike up a conversation, but Santiago just wants to be left alone. When Melchizedek starts talking about Personal Legends and the boy's dream of a buried treasure at the pyramids, Santiago suspects the king is working with the gypsy woman to scam him out of money.

Why might Santiago, the main character of The Alchemist, be skeptical of Melchizek at first?

At first, Santiago does not trust Melchizedek, fearing he is working in partnership with the gypsy woman to scam him. The boy starts to realize, however, that much of what the old man tells him makes sense. What really helps build Santiago's trust, however, is that Melchizedek appears to know things about him that a stranger couldn't possibly know. When the old king writes the names of Santiago's family and the merchant's daughter in the sand, the boy starts to realize that the old man might actually be a king and that he should probably start listening to what he says. While Santiago relates to and sees value in the stories Melchizedek tells, he notices, too, that the man wears "a breastplate of heavy gold, covered with precious stones." Upon seeing this, Santiago realizes that "he really [is] a king!" Santiago uses his intellect and his senses to come to this decision, an example of the experiential learning that guides his quest for his Personal Legend.

In The Alchemist, Santiago is uneasy about Melchizedek's story concerning the town baker and what the old king describes as "the world's greatest lie." What does Santiago's unease suggest?

Santiago declares that the world's greatest lie does not apply to him; his life is not controlled by fate, because he has made his own decision to become a shepherd. Yet the tale of the baker who delays his dream of traveling causes Santiago some anxiety. He believes that, for the baker and many others, every day is the same because they "fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day." As he deliberates, his thoughts turn first in one direction and then in another. First he decides he should go back to being a shepherd; after all, he knows everything about shepherding. Then the wind shifts and so do the boy's thoughts; he feels stuck between his flock and his treasure. Santiago realizes he must make a choice "between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have." Readers then learn that Santiago has resolved his anxiety over Melchizedek's tales; as the boy thinks of his jealousy over the wind's freedom, he realizes that he can have the same freedom. The only thing holding him back is himself. Santiago's unease lifts as he makes a decision: he will pursue his Personal Legend.

In The Alchemist, Melchizedek talks about the "principle of favorability." How does this principle relate to Santiago's experience in preparing for his journey?

Melchizedek introduces the "principle of favorability" to Santiago during a conversation in the village of Tarifa. The principle of favorability is a form of "beginner's luck," the old king says. It "whets your appetite with a taste of success" and occurs because of the force in the universe that wants people to realize their Personal Legends. Before Santiago can leave Andalusia, he must sell most of his flock and give the remaining six sheep to Melchizedek. Santiago thinks it will be difficult to convince someone to buy his sheep. To Santiago's surprise, a friend agrees immediately to buy his flock. It is the principle of favorability at work on Santiago's behalf when the friend says he has "always dreamed of being a shepherd." Santiago now has the funds for his journey and the six sheep to give to Melchizedek.

Explain the significance of Urim and Thummim, the stones Melchizedek gives to Santiago in The Alchemist. Why should Santiago use the stones only when he cannot read the omens?

Just before Santiago leaves on his journey, Melchizedek gives him two special stones, Urim and Thummim. One stone (Urim) is black, while the other (Thummim) is white. The king tells the boy that the stones can provide guidance but should be used only when he is unable to read or interpret an omen. In such instances, Santiago can ask an objective question, and the stones will answer yes or no, with the black stone signifying the former and the white stone the latter. Santiago's goal, however, is to exercise his free will and not use the stones. Instead, he should become good at reading omens and making his own decisions. If and when he needs to use them, the stones are there to support him.

Who narrates the story of The Alchemist, and what role does the narrator play?

The third-person omniscient narrator of The Alchemist reveals not only the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, Santiago, but also those of other characters. During much of Part 1, the narrator relates events from Santiago's perspective. The point of view then shifts to the perspective of Melchizedek, the old king of Salem, just as the boy departs for Tangier. Here, the old king sits at the highest point in Tarifa, watching Santiago's small ship make its way out of the port. "The king of Salem hoped desperately that the boy would be successful," the narrator reveals, going on to relate the king's innermost thoughts about Santiago's departure and his desire for the boy to always remember his name. These shifts in the narrator's perspective give readers insight into how characters think and feel, thus advancing the plot of the story. The readers see changes in Santiago's knowledge and attitudes as his journey progresses. These changes are evidence of his transformation, or character development, as Santiago follows his quest for his Personal Legend.

In The Alchemist, how is Santiago affected by his observations of men smoking pipes, women wearing veils, and the citizens of Tangier kneeling in prayer?

When Santiago leaves the ship in Tangier and realizes he is in a country where people speak a different language and live by different customs and traditions, he feels ill and quite alone, initially branding the people around him as "infidels." Then he remembers what Melchizedek told him about omens. He makes a connection between omens and his sheep, thinking, "If God leads the sheep so well, he will also lead a man." This thought calms him and even makes the bitter tea he is drinking seem more palatable.

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