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Themes

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

The Alchemist | Themes

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In The Alchemist, Coelho explores a number of themes that together bind the story into a cohesive whole. The author uses figurative language (metaphors, personification, similes), allusion, archetypes, flashbacks, foreshadowing, imagery, symbolism, and plot structure to convey meaning to the reader. Coelho introduces most of the themes in Part 1 of the book and then carries them through to the end. As the novel progresses, themes are explored more extensively, which leads to a deeper, more nuanced understanding.

Free Will versus Fate

Comparisons between free will and fate come up time and again in The Alchemist, with a number of characters living lives that suggest the operation of both free will and fate. Santiago, the protagonist, demonstrates free will from the beginning to the end of the story. For instance, even though his father wants him to become a priest, he chooses—of his own free will—to pursue the life of a shepherd so he can wander the countryside and see some of the world. Fate is also at work in Santiago's life. Although the theft of his money in Tangier forces him to look for work (fate), taking a job with the crystal merchant is his choice (free will). Likewise, while working for the crystal merchant, he earns enough money to return home and buy a whole flock of sheep, and yet he chooses to stay on in Tangier. He later makes another conscious decision to cross the desert in pursuit of his Personal Legend, despite his enormous success at the merchant's crystal shop. Fate influences his life again at the oasis of Al-Fayoum, where he meets Fatima and instantly falls in love.

The crystal merchant also is led by fate in some instances and exercises free will in others. He shows up for work every day, making no attempt to reverse a 30-year business slump. When Santiago arrives, business starts to improve—because the merchant chooses to let Santiago make changes. The merchant, it seems, would follow the same routine day after day, were it not for Santiago entering the picture and shaking things up. The merchant acknowledges his lack of initiative with regard to both his shop and his decision not to go to Mecca, even though it's his dream. He says that he does not pursue his Personal Legend because of fate, using the word maktub, or "it is written." However, when Santiago prepares to leave, the merchant admits that he has come to regret his complacency: "Now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I'm going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don't want to do so." The merchant realizes that his unwillingness to take charge will limit his life and lead to suffering.

Were fate the only force at work in Santiago's life, Coelho's story would unfold much differently. Although some of his experiences are foreshadowed, showing that fate is at work in his life, Santiago exercises free will to journey across the dangerous desert in pursuit of his Personal Legend. Without free will, he never would have left home.

Oneness

Coelho integrates the theme of oneness across his story, exploring the idea that all living and nonliving things come from and share the same soul. This spiritual unity is especially noticeable in Part 2's last desert scene, where the protagonist, Santiago, collaborates with elements of nature to instigate change. For instance, while walking in the dunes of the desert oasis of Al-Fayoum, Santiago sees a hawk swoop down and attack another hawk. He interprets this as an omen, after which he envisions armed troops attacking the traditionally neutral territory of the oasis. In this scenario, the desert, hawk, and Santiago—all from the same source and part of the same soul—work together to enable the oasis to prepare and protect itself from the impending attack.

In another desert scene, the wind attempts to persuade Santiago that they are separate entities. Santiago sets the record straight in a way that embraces oneness, saying that inside him he has "the winds, the deserts, the oceans, the stars, and everything created in the universe." He declares that they were all created by "the same hand, and we have the same soul." It is this realization that leads Santiago to understand that his heart and soul are part of a bigger heart and soul—that of the Soul of the World.

Personal Legend

A major theme in Coelho's novel is that of the Personal Legend, or the mission that all living (and nonliving) things have on earth. A basic portion of a living being's Personal Legend is to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Santiago's quest begins with his search to uncover the meaning of his recurrent dream. This endeavor leads him first to the gypsy woman, who encourages him to go to the pyramids. He then encounters and learns from the wise old man, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who provides Santiago's introduction to the concept of a Personal Legend and prevents him from turning his back on his dream. Eventually, Santiago meets the crystal merchant, the Englishman, Fatima, and finally, the alchemist—all of whom impart valuable lessons.

Of all the characters, the alchemist is perhaps the most enlightened. He speaks the truth at every turn, without letting pride get in the way. His solemn words gently guide Santiago to his own spiritual enlightenment and to the understanding that fulfilling a Personal Legend is only the beginning.

One tool that Santiago uses in seeking his Personal Legend is experiential learning, or learning by doing. As both a shepherd boy and a young man on the journey to fulfill his dreams, Santiago learns that he prefers to watch, listen, and interact with people and animals instead of burying his head in a book, like the Englishman. Likewise, in the desert with the alchemist, he learns simply by immersing himself in nature.

Santiago learns that there exists a universal language spoken by all of creation, consisting of omens that all can read. His ability to use the universal language gives him an advantage over the Englishman in the eyes of the alchemist. As the alchemist explains when he first meets Santiago, the Englishman is only beginning to learn from the desert—he still has work to do. The implication here is that Santiago surpasses the Englishman in his ability to understand the universal language and pursue his Personal Legend.

Santiago pursues and achieves his Personal Legend through the motif, or recurring concept, of the hero's journey. The steps of his journey lead him from Andalusia and the ruined church to the pyramids and back again. As he picks up new ideas and sheds old concepts, his character develops with each step along the way.

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