'The Alchemist' Overview

The Alchemist Cover 25 Anniversary

The Alchemist is an allegorical novel published in 1988 by Paulo Coelho. After an initial lukewarm reception, it became a worldwide bestseller, with more than 65 million copies sold. 

Fast Facts: The Alchemist

  • Title: The Alchemist
  • Author: Paulo Coelho
  • Publisher: Rocco, an obscure Brazilian publishing house
  • Year Published: 1988
  • Genre: Allegorical
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: Portuguese
  • Themes: Personal Legend, pantheism, fear, omens, biblical metaphors
  • Characters: Santiago, the Englishman, Melchizedek, the crystal merchant, Fatima, the alchemist 
  • Notable Adaptations: An illustrated version with artwork provided by Moebius, a graphic novel produced in 2010.
  • Fun Fact: Coelho wrote The Alchemist in two weeks, and, after one year, the publisher gave the rights back to Coelho, who felt that he had to heal from the setback, which led him to spend time in the Mojave desert.

Plot Summary

Santiago is a shepherd from Andalusia who, while resting in a church, dreams about pyramids and treasures. After having his dream interpreted by an old woman, and after learning the concept of “Personal Legends,” he sets out to find those pyramids. Significant stops in his journey include Tangier, where he works for a crystal merchant, and the oasis, where he falls in love with Fatima, a “desert woman,” and meets an alchemist.

During his travels, he also gets acquainted with the concept of the “Soul of the World,” which makes all beings partake in the same spiritual essence. This allows him to turn into the wind while facing some captors. Once he finally reaches the pyramids, he learns that the treasure he’d been looking for was by the church where he was resting at the beginning of the novel.

Major Characters

Santiago. Santiago is a shepherd from Spain and the protagonist of the novel. While at first he is content with tending sheep, once he gets acquainted with the concept of Personal Legend, he sets out on an allegorical journey to pursue it.

Melchizedek. Melchizedek is an old man who is actually a renowned biblical figure. He is a mentor to Santiago, as he educates him on the concept of “Personal Legend.”

The Crystal Merchant. He owns a crystal shop in Tangier, and, even though he is aware of his own Personal Legend, he chooses not to pursue it, which leads to a life of regret. 

The Englishman. The Englishman is a bookish individual who used to solely rely on books to pursue knowledge. He wants to learn alchemy and is looking for the alchemist who lives at the Al Fayoum oasis.

Fatima. Fatima is a desert woman and Santiago’s love interest. She understands omens and is happy to let destiny run its course.

The Alchemist. The titular character of the novel, he is a scimitar-wielding, black-clad 200-year-old man who lives at the oasis. He believes in learning by doing something rather than reading it.

Major Themes

The Personal Legend. Each individual has a Personal Legend, which is the only means by which to achieve a satisfying life. The universe is attuned to that, and it can achieve perfection if all of its creatures strive to achieve their own Personal Legend

Pantheism. In The Alchemist, the Soul of the World represents the unity of nature. All living beings, are connected, and they have to undergo similar processes, as they share the same spiritual essence.

Fear. Giving in to fear is what hinders the fulfillment of one’s own Personal Legend. As we see with the crystal merchant, who never heeded his calling to make a pilgrimage to Mecca out of fear, he ends up living in regret.

Alchemy. Alchemy’s goal was to transform base metals into gold and to create a universal elixir. In the novel, alchemy serves as a metaphor of people’s journeys in pursuit of their own Personal Legend. 

Literary Style

The Alchemist is written in a simple prose that is heavy on the sensory details. It contains a lot of extremely quotable passages, which gives the book a “self-help” tone.

About the Author

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian lyricist and novelist. He had a spiritual awakening upon walking the Road of Santiago de Compostela. He is the author of over 30 books between essays, autobiography, and fiction, and his work has been published in more than 170 countries and translated into more than 120 languages.