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The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Thesis Paper Example

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Thesis Paper

Paulo Coelho’s charming fable The Alchemist is both an enchanting coming-of-age story and an exploration of humanity’s age-old search for the divine. In his journeys, the shepherd boy Santiago experiences a series of progressive revelations of the divine, which profoundly alter his awareness of himself, others, and the world. Indeed, the central theme of the story is a spiritual journey: Santiago’s struggles to ‘heed the omens’ in order to achieve his “Personal Legend” represent a process of epiphany and spiritual growth, one which enables him to see a purposive divine plan in everything.

The first key to understanding Coelho’s depiction of Santiago’s spiritual journey is the metaphor of the physical journey. Specifically, Coelho uses wanderlust, the desire to travel and see new places, as a symbol for the desire to encounter the divine. Thus, Santiago is a wandering shepherd—despite the desires of his “simple farm family” that he become a priest (6). Santiago’s reasons for rejecting the priesthood, and his own thoughts about the divine, are telling:  “…ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man’s sins” (6). Later, while watching the sunrise, Santiago thinks: “I couldn’t have found God in the seminary” (7). Thus, for Santiago, the divine is to be encountered in the world around him: in nature, and in the people he meets. Santiago’s rejection of the priesthood is not a rejection of God and spirituality: it is a rejection of spiritual stasis, as represented by the institutions of organized religion. Santiago is, plainly and simply, a spiritual seeker.

But Coelho does not confine this metaphor to a juxtaposition of organized religion and shepherd life, for it also extends to relationships. Santiago’s feelings for the merchant’s daughter tempt him to settle down: “He recognized that he was feeling something he had never experienced before: the desire to live in one place forever” (4). The significance of this episode is not slight, though it takes some time for this to become apparent: the tension is between spiritual stasis and growth. We soon learn that travel is Santiago’s purpose in life and that, “after two years of walking the Andalusian terrain, he knew all the cities of the region” (6). The understanding that travel is a metaphor for spiritual growth, and place for one’s awareness of the divine, puts this episode in proper context: if Santiago had settled down with the merchant’s daughter, he would have been unable to expand his awareness of the divine.

Fittingly enough, it is a dream that launches Santiago onto his travels. “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting,” Santiago reflects (Coelho 8). Santiago’s dream is, of course, a call from the divine—and this is explicitly stated by the Gypsy seeress who interprets it (9). In her words: “’You came so that you could learn about your dreams… And dreams are the language of God’” (9). The woman also explains that God might speak in one of two languages: “’When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But if he speaks in the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand’” (9). Here, the lesson seems to be that the divine can reveal itself in different ways: some revelations can be understood by others, while other revelations are specific to the person to whom they are imparted.  The content of the dream itself is also of interest. Santiago explains that in his dream, a child transports him to the Egyptian pyramids and tells him “’”If you come here, you will find a hidden treasure”’” (Coelho 9). The fact that a hidden treasure is Santiago’s destination may seem to run counter to the thesis: is Santiago’s quest a spiritual or a material one? Again, however, Coelho provides reasons aplenty to think that it is a spiritual quest, an ‘inner journey’ as much as an external, physical one: for one thing, the woman tells him that the dream is “’a dream in the language of the world… I can interpret it, but the interpretation is very difficult’” (10). Santiago’s response to the woman informing him that he has to figure out how to get to Egypt on his own is telling: “So the boy was disappointed; he decided that he would never again believe in dreams” (11). Santiago decides that he will never believe in dreams again, because his concerns about the material world—the logistics of getting to Egypt to realize his dream—get in the way. This is an important clue that Santiago’s treasure stands as a metaphor: as with Coelho’s use of place and travel, this physical treasure represents spiritual treasure, i.e. a greater awareness and experience of the divine.

The scene with the old man, who proves to be the biblical Melchizedek, king of Salem, is especially transformative with regard to Santiago’s spiritual growth. It is particularly telling how the old man—Melchizedek—describes the human condition: he says that Santiago’s book “’describes people’s inability to choose their own Personal Legends. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world’s greatest lie’” (Coelho 12). The world’s greatest lie, apparently, is that “’at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate’” (12). In Coelho’s deeply spiritual weltanschauung, fate stands in opposition to an active, experiential encounter with the divine: if one believes that fate, an impersonal and inexorable force, is in control, then there is no room for genuine encounters with the divine. More specifically, if one believes that one’s life is controlled by fate, there is no room for genuine agency: Coelho seems to be saying that the soul cannot grow towards the divine if it cannot choose, if it is bound to the implacable and unalterable decrees of fate.

And Coelho’s biblical imagery is not to be missed: the old man Melchizedek is the righteous king of Salem from the Bible, sent to Santiago as a spiritual guide. This is further confirmation of the central theme of the story, the spiritual journey: Coelho’s use of a biblical character, one known specifically for his righteousness, as a spiritual messenger is further attestation to the fact that Santiago’s is a journey toward the divine. Of further significance, Melchizedek writes in the sand of the plaza—a clear parallelism with the actions of Christ before the Pharisees in the Gospel of John, in the story of the woman caught in adultery (14). Although John’s Gospel gives no account of what Christ wrote in the dirt, in Coelho’s fable Santiago finds that Melchizedek has written “the names of his father and his mother and the name of the seminary he had attended… the name of the merchant’s daughter, which he hadn’t even known, and… things he had never told anyone” (14). Melchizedek has, in essence, laid bare Santiago’s life, and he has done so to help him realize the crossroads at which he stands: by his own admission, the most important reason he is speaking to Santiago is the fact that Santiago has discovered his own “Personal Legend” (14). In John’s Gospel, Christ offered forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery, rather than condemnation—and Coelho’s use of this symbol is brilliantly adroit. What Coelho seems to be saying is that just as the woman caught in adultery was at a crossroads, so too is Santiago: a crossroads between condemnation—self-inflicted, in Santiago’s case—and an experience of the divine.

The motif of the “Personal Legend” embodies this point: as Melchizedek explains, Santiago’s “Personal Legend” is simply “’what you have always wanted to accomplish’” (15). Melchizedek then reveals a concept that will serve as Santiago’s guiding star throughout the rest of the story: “’whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe’” (15). This goes to the very heart of Coelho’s own engagement with the numinous, the divine, in The Alchemist: all things are one, deeply interconnected and intertwined with each other and with the divine (15). Discovering this will prove to be the work of much of the journey. And Melchizedek spells out his own purpose as spiritual messenger and guide quite explicitly: he intervenes to stop people from giving up on their Personal Legends (Coelho 16). In his own words: “’Sometimes I appear in the form of a solution, or a good idea. At other times, at a crucial moment, I make it easier for things to happen’” (16). In Coelho’s weltanschauung, the Personal Legend represents the achievement of spiritual gnosis: Personal Legends are epiphanies, personal encounters with the Divine Plan. Unsurprisingly, then, when Santiago wins the struggle with himself and decides to sell his flock in order to go on the journey, he facilitates his friend’s desire to achieve his own Personal Legend: “’My friend bought all the other sheep immediately. He said that he had always dreamed of being a shepherd, and that it was a good omen’” (19).

Melchizedek leaves Santiago with the important lesson that he should always pay attention to the omens left by God, and gives him the Urim and Thummim to affect his reading of the same (Coelho 20). Here, again, Coelho depicts Santiago’s journey in very spiritual terms: traveling and finding his treasure is his heart’s desire, his Personal Legend, a desire that originated in the divine impulses within the universe itself. Despite Coelho’s biblical imagery and talk of God, his is a theology—better, a spirituality—with decidedly pantheistic characteristics. Reading the omens, then, is how one learns to discover the Divine Plan in one’s life. In Coelho’s deeply personal, experiential theology of self-fulfillment and empowerment, the key obstacle to reading and trusting the omens is not sin but rather doubt. After a naïve Santiago allows himself to be robbed by a thief in Morocco, he is tempted to blame God and give up his dream: “He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams” (26). However, Santiago then tries Urim and Thummim, asking “if the old man’s blessing was still with him” and finding the answer to be the affirmative (27). Sure enough, before long Santiago falls in with a humble crystal merchant in Tangier, who offers him a job (31). Again, there can be no doubt that this is the next step in Santiago’s quest to achieve his Personal Legend, for the merchant says: “’I’d like you to work in my shop. Two customers came in today while you were working, and that’s a good omen’” (31).

The crystal merchant is, in many ways, the opposite of Santiago—indeed, one might well say that he serves as a foil for Santiago. Santiago is, at his best, a deeply adventurous young man, and he is beginning to learn to heed the omens in order to further his encounters with the divine. By contrast, the merchant is deeply cautious and profoundly self-limiting: he allows his own fears to keep him in a place of spiritual stasis, as represented by his approach to business, spirituality, and life in general. When Santiago proposes building a display case for the merchant’s crystal wares, the merchant replies that “’People will pass by and bump into it, and pieces will be broken’” (Coelho 33). Santiago’s response gets to the very root of the differences between them: “’Well, when I took my sheep through the fields some of them might have died if we had come upon a snake. But that’s the way life is with sheep and with shepherds’” (33). Nothing worth having, Coelho seems to be saying, comes without risk: and this applies to encountering the divine as well. Just as success in business comes by taking certain risks, so too does success in spiritual discovery. Although the merchant is a devout Muslim and dearly wants to fulfill his obligation to make the hajj to Mecca, he has never done so for a very telling reason: “’Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive… I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living’” (35). Similarly, when Santiago wants to sell tea in crystal glasses, the merchant responds: “’If we serve tea in crystal, the shop is going to expand. And then I’ll have to change my way of life’” (37).

The important thing here is not the merchant’s greater prospects for financial success, but rather his struggle with self-imposed limitations that define every aspect of his life, and therefore hold him back from a genuine spiritual journey of discovery. Just as he fears becoming too successful in business—an odd concern for a businessman—he fears that actually fulfilling his spiritual quest by making the hajj will leave his life empty. To be sure, Santiago struggles with this temptation as well: preparing to leave, he tells the merchant that “’I have the money I need to buy my sheep. And you have the money you need to go to Mecca’” (39). Santiago is tempted to do as the merchant is doing: simply return to a place of spiritual stasis, rather than pursuing his Personal Legend and the encounter with the divine that it represents. Abandoning his spiritual journey will mean going back to Spain and “doing just what I did before… even though the sheep didn’t teach me to speak Arabic” (40). This is another crossroads moment, one that touches both Santiago and the merchant. The merchant expresses his pride in Santiago, but then says: “’[Y]ou know that I’m not going to go to Mecca. Just as you know that you’re not going to buy your sheep’” (39). The merchant is teaching Santiago the same fundamental lesson that Melchizedek taught him, only from a different angle. What the merchant represents is, of course, a negative example: what the spiritually-unfulfilled life looks like. Lest there be any doubt that this too is an omen, Coelho strongly hints that the merchant is in fact Melchizedek in disguise, as Santiago notes “…for the first time that the old merchant’s hair was very much like the hair of the old king” (41). Santiago remembers, too, that Melchizedek “said that he always appeared to help those who are trying to realize their Personal Legend” (41). Coelho is not long on subtlety here: this sign is another guide-post to help Santiago on his journey toward the divine.

Fittingly enough, once Santiago is back on track, he meets a fellow spiritual traveler: someone else who is genuinely seeking their Personal Legend. The Englishman is an interesting character in his own right, and Coelho gives many important clues that he, too, is on a spiritual journey to encounter the divine: like Santiago, the Englishman believes in omens, and “[a]ll his life and all his studies were aimed at finding the one true language of the universe” (42). Towards this end, he has “studied Esperanto, then the world’s religions, and now… alchemy” (42).). Again, this is a reiteration of Coelho’s theme that one must ‘follow the omens’. As the Englishman says, “’Everything in life is an omen… There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten’” (45). Moreover, what one might take for “luck” or “coincidence” is not so: it is all part of the divine order of things, which Santiago thinks of in terms of “the mysterious chain that links one thing to another, the same chain that had caused him to become a shepherd, that had caused his recurring dream, that had brought him to a city near Africa…” (47). In other words, Santiago’s journey—and the Englishman’s, of course—is, again, as much an inner journey as it is an external or physical one.

In many ways, the story climaxes at the oasis, where Santiago falls in love with Fatima, and she with him: “At that moment, it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him” (Coelho 60). Here, Santiago learns that love is “the most important part of the language that all the world spoke—the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart” (60). Love, then, is a central part of the encounter with the divine. In fact, Santiago’s encounter with Fatima, and his temptation to stay with her in the oasis, is in many ways the culmination of the central theme in Coelho’s narrative: if one wants to grow into the fullness of one’s spiritual potential, one must achieve one’s dreams, must do what one sets out to do. Only then can one enjoy relationships with others to the fullest, for these too are a part of the divine plan. Fatima readily understands all of this: “’If I am really a part of your dream, you’ll come back one day’” (63). Nonetheless, Santiago has to learn this lesson again: after his reading of the omens saves the oasis-dwellers from an attack and wins him gold and respect, he is tempted to abandon his Personal Legend and remain in a place of spiritual stasis. The old alchemist explains that if he stays, he will try to ignore the omens—and finally they will abandon him (78-79). Coelho reiterates his cardinal theme: Santiago must finish his quest, because he still has much to learn, a divine plan for his life to fulfill (79).

Indeed, if Santiago had stayed at the oasis, he would not have had to transform himself into the wind, a magical feat that he is forced to perform lest he be killed by the tribal militants who have taken him captive (Coelho 92). When Santiago protests that he can’t do this, the alchemist replies that “’If a person is living out his Personal Legend, he knows everything he needs to know’”, explaining that the fear of failure is the only thing that “’makes a dream impossible to achieve’” (93). Sure enough, on the third day, Santiago is able to become the wind by speaking with the desert, the wind itself, the sun, the Soul of the World, and the Soul of God, discovering a divine plan in all things: “And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles” (101). There is no doubt that this is another moment of epiphany for Santiago: it is not a mere feat of magic, it is an encounter with the divine.

Santiago’s journey seems to end where it begins: he reaches the Pyramids and is robbed and beaten, only for one of the men to recount his own recurrent dream—of a great treasure at the very church where Santiago once herded his sheep! (108). Santiago’s physical journey has taken him right back to where he began, but the cardinal point is that spiritually, he could not have reached his destination without the journey. As the alchemist says, his words carried on the wind, “’If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids’” (109). The destination, then, is unachievable without the journey: Santiago’s experiences have enabled him to achieve incredible epiphanies of the divine. By learning to read the omens, he can now see a divine plan at work in his own life, and all around him—spiritual riches he never could have gained without his experiences. Now that he has achieved what he set out to do, he can return to Fatima—and thus, his spiritual journey will continue with her, in accordance with the divine plan (110).

Works Cited

 

Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. Trans. Alan R. Clarke. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

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