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Symbols

Learn about symbols in Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist with Course Hero’s video study guide.

The Alchemist | Symbols

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Symbols, a kind of literary device, may be complex, containing multiple layers of meaning that aren't always obvious at first sight. In The Alchemist, Coelho weaves together a number of symbols to push along the plot, develop characters, and connect various parts of the story. His symbols can take the form of an object, an action, or even a language or profession. In each case, the symbol has multiple meanings. A sheep, for example, signifies more than simply a woolly mammal.

Alchemy

Alchemy is considered both a philosophical discipline and a protoscience that contributed to the development of modern chemistry. A protoscience is a set of theories not sufficiently tested per the scientific method, or, as in the case of alchemy, developed prior to the establishment of the scientific method. Introduced to Europe by Arab practitioners in the 8th century, the practice of alchemy involves the purification of metals. Early alchemists sought to use this process to create what's known as the Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life, substances believed to turn base metals into gold and prolong a person's life. In Coelho's novel, alchemy takes on a multilayered meaning, symbolizing the path to truth and enlightenment—and Santiago's long and arduous journey to realize his Personal Legend.

"Gold," the alchemist tells Santiago after declaring they are nearly at the pyramids, "is the metal that evolved the furthest." Evolve is exactly what Santiago does as he leaves home and treks across the desert—he evolves as a human being, becoming more aware with each step of the journey. In this sense, the process of creating gold is like Santiago's quest to find his Personal Legend.

Alchemy, like Santiago's journey, is also a process of discovery. He learns from the alchemist, who relates that alchemy involves accessing "the Soul of the World, and discovering the treasure that has been reserved for you." This description also applies to Santiago's journey—in the desert with the alchemist, he accesses the Soul of the World. Later, he uncovers his treasure. The elements of Santiago's treasure, both the gold and his Personal Legend, are equally precious.

Universal Language

Coelho uses the idea of universal language in The Alchemist as a symbol that significantly impacts the theme of the Personal Legend. Universal language refers to the language understood by all of creation, both living and nonliving. It's the language everyone understands and experiences—including sentiments like love, fear, and anger, and, as the Englishman tells Santiago while waiting for the caravan to depart, concepts such as luck and coincidence.

When Santiago meets Fatima, he knows at once that he's experiencing something universal. The narrator notes that Santiago feels her smile is an omen he has spent his life waiting for. He realizes that she is the only woman "in his life, and that, with no need for words, she recognize[s] the same thing."

Given that people far and wide experience and understand the universal language, it is essentially a language that can be communicated without words and consists largely of signs and omens—such as a scent on the wind or hawks battling in the air. In The Alchemist, the universal language helps build the theme of oneness that runs through the story—the idea that all living and nonliving things are connected and come from the same source.

Sheep

In The Alchemist, Santiago's sheep symbolize individuals who do not seek their Personal Legends. The best example of this is in the beginning of the book, when Santiago notices that his sheep "never have to make any decisions" and concern themselves only with food and water. By not making decisions, sheep assume the role of followers who go along with what comes their way, feeling no motivation to do much more. They're like the average person who shows up at a job every day just to take home a paycheck. This person doesn't know what else to do—and doesn't try to figure it out—and so settles for an unfulfilling existence. In this sense, the activities of the sheep are the opposite of what Santiago does with his life and more closely resemble the actions of the crystal merchant (especially before Santiago enters his life).

In Santiago's relationship with his sheep, he observes and is disconcerted by their passivity and lack of decision-making. This epiphany affects his decision to pursue his Personal Legend and to continue despite adversities along the way.

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