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The Alchemist | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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Compare and contrast the Englishman's style of learning in The Alchemist with that of Santiago. How are they similar and different?

The Englishman travels with several suitcases full of books containing dense graphs and descriptions relating to alchemy. He believes these books contain essential knowledge and buries his head in them as he crosses the desert. Santiago, on the other hand, tries to read a book every now and then but prefers immersing himself in his environment. Unlike the Englishman, Santiago finds the desert landscape too breathtaking and exciting to ignore. He spends much of their traveling time soaking up his surroundings and also watching, listening to, and interacting with the many animals and colorful people along on the trip. Santiago, then, prefers "learning by doing," one of the skills that helps him seek his Personal Legend. In contrast, the Englishman opts to learn from books or the advice of experts, not from the simple act of observation.

In Part 2 of The Alchemist, the caravan reaches the oasis of Al-Fayoum, where the group will remain for several days. What does the oasis signify?

Santiago and everyone else in the caravan reach the oasis in an exhausted state, after traveling day and night to escape the warring tribes in the desert. The narrator tells readers, "Yesterday, the camel's groan signaled danger, and now ... date palms could herald a miracle." To the weary caravan, Al-Fayoum signifies a safe haven, with comfort, water, fresh food, and a chance to interact and trade with new people. To Santiago, after he meets Fatima, the oasis also signifies friendship and love and—possibly—home. Once he meets the alchemist, the oasis takes on added meaning as a place to glean additional clues in the pursuit of his Personal Legend.

In The Alchemist, how does the Englishman react when he first sees the oasis of Al-Fayoum? Explain the significance.

When the Englishman first glimpses the oasis of Al-Fayoum from afar, he says, "It looks like A Thousand and One Nights." Here, the Englishman compares what he sees with the famous collection of stories from the Islamic Golden Age (c. 750–1258). In doing so, he reveals how much he interprets the world through what he learns from books. This differs from Santiago's reaction to his first view of the oasis, which is based more on what he sees in front of him.

Santiago and the Englishman inquire about the alchemist in Al-Fayoum. Why are some people reluctant or unwilling to talk about him, and how does this challenge develop the novel?

When Santiago and the Englishman inquire about the alchemist, they learn that not everyone knows him, and many of those who do are unwilling to acknowledge or talk about him. At the well, for instance, Santiago asks a man if he knows anyone in the oasis who can cure all illnesses, and the man responds by saying that only Allah (God) cures illnesses. "You're looking for witch doctors," the man adds, going on to recite verses from the Islamic holy book, the Koran. This unwillingness develops the novel in two ways. It shows that the alchemist is a mysterious figure, one to be feared. It also gives Santiago another opportunity to "learn by doing." Alchemy is a symbol for the path to enlightenment in the novel, and his quest to find the alchemist is a part of that path.

Does Fatima distract Santiago from his dream in The Alchemist? Why or why not?

Fatima both distracts Santiago from his dream and empowers him to pursue it. When Santiago first meets Fatima at the well, he realizes immediately that he is in love. He considers giving up his Personal Legend and dream to stay with her. "He had been a shepherd, and [he] could be a shepherd again," the narrator remarks. Though Fatima distracts Santiago from his dream when they first meet, she later empowers him to follow it. During the time they spend together, Santiago learns more about the culture of the desert tribes as Fatima reassures him that women of the desert are accustomed to seeing their men go off. "I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes," Fatima tells him. She says that, if necessary, she will accept his transformation into "a part of the clouds, and the animals, and the water of the desert." By telling Santiago this, she sets him free to pursue his dreams and lets him know that she will be okay, whatever the consequences.

During the oasis episode in The Alchemist, does the Englishman grow and evolve? Why or why not?

While traveling in the caravan, the Englishman keeps his head buried in books and shows little sign of learning from observing and interacting with the world around him. At the oasis of Al-Fayoum, however, he talks and interacts some with locals and conducts hands-on experiments. For example, Santiago finds the Englishman with a strange hand-built furnace, attempting to "separate out the sulfur," or complete the first phase of his quest to achieve the Master Work in alchemy (the creation of Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life). "His eyes seemed brighter than they had when he was reading his books," the narrator tells the reader, indicating that the Englishman is consumed with and passionate about the work before him. In this scene, the Englishman shows signs of learning from the past, too. He admits that a fear of failure held him back before and says, "I'm happy at least that I didn't wait twenty years." Here, he does indeed come across as cheerful and more self-aware, both of which are qualities that can bring him closer to his Personal Legend.

Omens appear often in The Alchemist. What role do they play in the novel?

In the novel, omens are portrayed as signs from which characters can gain insight into future situations or events. Observing and correctly interpreting omens takes a high level of awareness and understanding. For instance, Santiago misses the omen of the angry bar owner, which serves as a warning that his "friend" is actually a thief. As the story progresses, Santiago gets better at spotting and heeding omens. Near Al-Fayoum, he recognizes the omen of the hawk attack and shares his vision of impending warfare with the tribal chieftains—a move that saves the oasis from devastation. Upon reaching the pyramids, Santiago notices another omen: a scarab beetle on the sand. He interprets the omen as a sign of his treasure and starts digging. Although Santiago doesn't find his treasure there, he does discover the real location of the gold and jewels. Omens help Santiago overcome obstacles and continue seeking his Personal Legend. Omens are not always signs of trouble, however. They can also signify good things to come. Meeting Fatima, for instance, is a sign that Santiago is on the right path, and to the crystal merchant, Santiago's arrival is a sign of better times ahead.

In what ways does the alchemist test Santiago when they first meet?

The alchemist, dressed in black and on horseback, draws a sword and points it at the boy's forehead while asking him a series of questions about his vision of an attack on Al-Fayoum. The questions include: "Why did you read the flight of the birds?" "Who are you to change what Allah has willed?" "What is a stranger doing in a strange land?" After Santiago responds, the alchemist explains that the questions were a way to test the boy's courage, which is "the quality most essential to understanding the Language of the World." Likewise, the questions enable the alchemist to assess Santiago's awareness, purpose, and knowledge so he can then figure out if the boy is the one the wind told him to watch for and help.

What does Santiago find surprising about the alchemist's tent in the oasis of Al-Fayoum?

While Santiago expects to see tools used in alchemy, such as ovens, pipes, flasks, flames, and so on, the tent has none of this equipment. It looks ordinary, both inside and out, with piles of books, a stove, and other ordinary belongings. The only things noticeable are some carpets with mysterious designs. One other thing that surprises Santiago is the presence of wine, which the alchemist shares over dinner. Although Santiago drinks wine in Andalusia (a Catholic region), wine and other forms of alcohol are forbidden by Islam, the chief religion of Al-Fayoum.

What do Melchizedek and the alchemist have in common?

Melchizedek and the alchemist have a number of things in common. For one, they both play the role of helper or mentor to Santiago. Instead of telling Santiago exactly what to do, they guide him toward truth and understanding and empower him to find answers within. The two characters also have similar philosophical approaches to life. In Al-Fayoum the alchemist and Santiago share a meal while the alchemist repeats advice Santiago received earlier from Melchizedek. He tells Santiago that if someone "really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream." This reveals that both Melchizedek and the alchemist believe in the Soul of the World, or the idea that all living and nonliving things come from and share the same soul—and work together for the greater good of the universe.

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