The Alchemist (1988) by Paulo Coelho, is a revolutionary novel about a boy realising his own predetermined fate and his journey in order to achieve it. Coelho challenges the preconceived constructs of fate, spirituality and identity, through character development and symbolism, encouraging new ways of thinking amongst the audience.
Coelho incorporates the idea of ‘Personal Legends’ to convey to readers that they have a choice whether to pursue their predetermined destiny or refuse it. The idea of ‘fate’ in literature is mostly linked with negative connotations as is the case with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes who are bound by fate, whereas Coelho introduces the idea of being rewarded by fate for having virtuous choices and lifelong commitment to their destiny.
When Melchizedek recounts the cautionary tale of the miner to Santiago in “the miner (who) was about to give it all up…the miner (who) had sacrificed everything for his Personal Legend,” Coelho uses hyperbole to exaggerate the miner’s foolishness in giving up prematurely, catalysing Santiago’s desire to pursue his own Personal Legend relentlessly and reap the benefits of doing so.
While Santiago reminiscences about his journey in the final moments of the novel, “It’s true; life really is generous to those who pursue their Personal Legend,” Coelho emphasises making righteous decisions and having a lifelong dedication to fulfilling an individual’s Personal Legend pays off since the individual is granted absolute happiness for the rest of their life. Therefore, Coelho conveys the idea of fate being intrinsically linked with positive connotations in contrast to the idea of individuals being bound by their fate, through the character development in Santiago’s journey.
Coelho employs symbols of alchemy throughout the novel to inform the reader of spirituality’s influence in the novel and real-life morals. Coelho symbolises the purification of characters through alchemy when he explains that the alchemists “discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves.” Alchemy often refers to the medieval practices of transforming base metals into gold.
However, this is recontextualized as Coelho attributes alchemy to the purification of one’s self or the “gold” in medieval alchemy. This purification is gained during one’s journey for their Personal Legend where they identify and eliminate flaws or “impurities” through knowledge from experiences which culminates in achieving one’s goal. This concept is the origin of the novel’s title as alchemy lays the infrastructure for the plot, themes and characters.
The Alchemist also states that “if what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return” which implements a metaphor of life. The Alchemist refers to the relationship between Fatima and Santiago as “pure matter” which links to alchemy, where the “pure matter” is like gold and cannot be altered further and is permanent.
In contrast to basic minerals which can be manipulated into different elements. This encourages Santiago to temporarily neglect other tasks and occupations, to concentrate on achieving his Personal Legend. In summary, Coelho insinuates that the overarching symbol of alchemy acts as a conduit for individuals to develop new perspectives on life.
The concept of identity is explored through the effect of Santiago’s desires to be individualistic in a conformist society. Coelho introduces the idea of an individual’s resignation to the way of living that is dictated by society, through the baker who “as a child…wanted to travel too. But he decided to buy his bakery and put some money aside,” in which Coelho heightens the overwhelming grip society has on individuals; restricting the passion for their ambitions.
The baker represents previous sentiments of fitting in with the stereotypes and being restricted to pursue a passion whereas Santiago defies these thoughts by becoming a shepherd. Santiago reaches a point of self-discovery when he “saw that the soul of God was his soul. And that he a boy could perform miracles” and through this, Coelho utilises symbolism in Santiago’s soul to represent the culmination of his understanding of the world and himself.
All the conflicts had brought Santiago to the pinnacle of finally finding his identity and being able to fathom his potential. Thus, Coelho disputes the idea of a traditionalistic lifestyle and encourages exploring an individual’s own soul through Santiago’s journey in which he utilises his experiences to finally understand his own identity.
The Alchemist is an inspiring and elaborate novel that utilises many different elements of literature to convey concepts of self-discovery, spirituality and destiny. Coelho reframes these ideas through the use of character development and symbolism, in order to portray new and interesting ways of thinking. Thus, by challenging outdated mindsets in society, Coelho subsequently emphasises the benefits of the progressive ways of thinking explored throughout the text.