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The Alchemist | Study Guide

Paulo Coelho

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The Alchemist | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


After Santiago arrives at Tangier in The Alchemist, he visits a bar. What omens appear to him there? Why might he have made good use of Urim and Thummim there?

Both the Spanish-speaking young man and the angry bar owner are omens. Santiago recognizes the young man to be an omen, but he does not realize the bar owner is one also. Santiago operates out of anxiety and fear largely because he does not speak Arabic, thus mistaking the meaning of both these omens. If he had used Urim and Thummim, he would have learned that the Spanish-speaking man was not an ally but a thief. In retrospect, Santiago realizes that the bar owner was, in fact, an omen—one who "was trying to tell him not to trust that man." He vows to watch more closely for signs and omens as he continues his journey.

After the Spanish-speaking man steals Santiago's money in The Alchemist, the shepherd reflects on his situation. What advice does Santiago come up with that helps him continue his journey?

As Santiago thinks about his situation—alone with no money in a foreign land—he determines that it is up to him to choose his path forward. He must decide to regard himself as either the thief's victim or as "an adventurer, looking for treasure." With his confidence regained, he gazes around the dark and empty marketplace. Although it is still deserted, the plaza is no longer a strange location—it's simply a new one, and exploring new places is one of his goals. Once again, exercising his free will moves Santiago a step closer to enlightenment.

In The Alchemist, why might the author have chosen crystal as the product sold by the merchant?

Crystal is breakable, valuable, beautiful, and clear when it is clean. In these ways, it is like life itself. When Santiago cleans the crystal glasses in the window of the shop, two customers come in and buy the crystal because they can now truly see its beauty. Similarly, people who see life clearly can appreciate its beauty and value. The merchant, who is fearful, doesn't want to build a display case for the crystal—he thinks that "people will pass by and bump into it, and pieces will be broken." The display case is like his dream of Mecca, which he refuses to realize because then he'll have "no reason to go on living." He does, however, give Santiago permission to build the display, and the narrator comments, "Not everyone can see his dreams come true in the same way." In other words, some people, such as Santiago, will advance further than others in pursuit of their Personal Legend.

How does Santiago change throughout his time working with the crystal merchant in The Alchemist?

After his first month on the job with the crystal merchant, Santiago realizes the work "isn't exactly the kind of job that would make him happy." The merchant spends his time "telling the boy to be careful with the pieces and not to break anything." Although uninspired by the job, Santiago decides to stay until he can save enough money to buy sheep and return to his life as a shepherd. If he cannot journey on to Egypt and the quest for his Personal Legend, at least he can still travel around Andalusia. Over time, however, Santiago grows enthusiastic and invested in the job. He realizes his work leads to increased business, and he comes up with innovative ways to increase sales even more, such as selling tea to thirsty customers who climb the hill. His ability to succeed at business in a foreign country boosts his confidence, and although he has enough money to buy dozens of sheep, he decides not to return to his life as a shepherd. Instead, he uses what he learns to move forward in pursuit of his Personal Legend.

In The Alchemist, what does the crystal merchant learn from Santiago during their time working together in Tangier?

The crystal merchant is stuck in a rut. Unmotivated to do anything different from what he has done for years, the merchant lacks initiative, and his crystal shop suffers the consequences. But the shop isn't the only thing suffering. The merchant suffers, too, going through the motions and letting fate, instead of free will, rule his life. Santiago's arrival, however, awakens the crystal merchant from the fog he's been living in for many years. From Santiago, the merchant comes to realize that small changes and innovations in his business can increase sales. He also benefits from the positive atmosphere that Santiago and the new customers bring to the shop. Likewise, the merchant grows more aware of the choices he's made in life and his decision not to pursue his dream of traveling to Mecca. Turning his back on his dream has caused him suffering, the merchant tells the boy, but his newfound awareness of this fact has also brought him some kind of peace. Now alert to his strengths and flaws, the merchant is content to stay and run his newly thriving business.

In The Alchemist, how does the crystal merchant's attitude toward dreams differ from that of Santiago?

The crystal merchant tells Santiago: "You're different from me, because you want to realize your dreams." He confides that he just wants to visit Mecca in his dreams. This reveals his satisfaction with just having a dream, versus actually living and fulfilling the dream, which Santiago attempts to do. Herein lies the difference between the two characters' attitude toward dreams. The merchant goes on to explain that his lack of interest in pursuing his dream stems from his fear "that it would all be a disappointment." For this reason, he prefers to keep dreaming the dream, instead of following the dream in real life.

In The Alchemist, how does the crystal merchant know Santiago will pursue his dream of looking for treasure at the pyramids, and why is this significant?

Before Santiago has a chance to tell him, the crystal merchant knows the boy will not use the money he's earned to buy sheep. He tells him so right before Santiago leaves, saying, "You know that I'm not going to go to Mecca. Just as you know that you're not going to buy your sheep." How does the merchant know? He grows close to Santiago over the 11 months they work together and comes to realize the boy's strength and ambition and the fact that he will not be happy with an ordinary life. That is why the merchant responds with the Arabic word maktub when Santiago asks him how he knows about his plan to pursue his Personal Legend. Maktub means "it is written," and the merchant uses it here to make the point that Santiago is meant to follow his dreams. In this case, Santiago's free will and his fate coincide.

In Part 2 of The Alchemist, readers meet the Englishman, a wealthy, educated individual who is traveling to Al-Fayoum. Consider the character of the Englishman and what he might represent.

The Englishman serves as an example of an individual dedicated to learning, particularly from books. Having devoted his life to finding the language of the universe, he has studied religions and alchemy. He has much to learn about alchemy and wants to study with the master alchemist at Al-Fayoum. He tells himself he needs to stay focused and show up well prepared when he meets the master alchemist, who is rumored to be 200 years old. The Englishman also serves as an archetype—an ally to Santiago. However, when they meet, his priority lies with his book, not with meeting new people or striking up conversations. In fact, he comes across as self-absorbed and unfriendly to Santiago, who closes the book he has been reading because he doesn't "want to do anything that might make him look like the Englishman."

In Part 2 of The Alchemist, the Englishman and Santiago await the departure of their caravan. Why does the Englishman take an interest in Santiago after first snubbing him?

It is the Englishman's avid interest in alchemy that draws him to Santiago. When Santiago pulls the two stones, Urim and Thummim, from his pocket, the Englishman recognizes them. He says that people schooled in alchemy know of these stones. The ones that Santiago has are not unique. He shows Santiago an identical pair. He is interested, however, that Santiago received his as a gift from a king. The two start to realize they have some things in common; both know about omens and are searching for a treasure. The Englishman and Santiago then become traveling companions and friends as they venture out across the desert.

In The Alchemist, the Englishman mentions shepherds as the "first to recognize a king that the rest of the world refused to acknowledge." To what does he allude and why?

The Englishman alludes to Bible verses regarding the birth of Jesus and the shepherds who visited the stable where the Christ child was born (Luke 2: 8–20). Once the shepherds had seen the Christ child, the Bible says that they "returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them." The Englishman uses this reference to reassure Santiago. He is affirming his belief in Santiago's statement that Melchizedek, a king, conversed with him and presented him with the stones Urim and Thummim. The Englishman goes on to say that he learned about Urim and Thummim in that same book of the Bible.

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