'The Alchemist' Themes

Disguised as a fable or a hero’s journey, Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist reflects a pantheistic worldview where all things—from humans to kernels of sand—share the same spiritual essence. 

Themes

Personal Legend

Each individual has a Personal Legend, which, according to the lore of The Alchemist, 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, which in turn leads to an inner evolution that comes with a higher Personal Legend and an even higher goal. When it comes to alchemy, for example, even metals have their own Personal Legends, which is their turning into gold.

The Personal Legend is an individual’s highest calling, which comes at the expense of other things bringing joy. In order to fulfill his own destiny, for example, Santiago has to give up his sheep and put his budding relationship with Fatima on hold. The crystal merchant, having put off his Personal Legend, lives a life of regret, especially because his attitude also caused the universe to not bestow him with any favors. 

Close to the concept of Personal Legend is the word maktub, which several characters pronounce. It means “it is written,” and it is usually spoken when Santiago has taken a significant risk in order to proceed in his quest, which, in turn, reassures him. As Santiago learns, fate actively cooperates with those pursuing their own Personal Legends. 

Pantheism

In The Alchemist, the Soul of the World represents the unity of nature. As Santiago comes to realize, every natural element, from a grain of sand to a river and all living beings, are connected, and they have to undergo similar processes in a pantheistic worldview, which posits that everything shares the same spiritual essence. Just like a metal has to be purified in order to turn into gold, so does Santiago have to transform into something else in order to achieve the Personal Legend. This is a purification process, with an individual having to tap into the Soul of the World in order to achieve it. 

Santiago communicates with nature, and by doing so, he starts understanding the common language of the world, and this serves him well when he has to speak to the Sun when he needs to turn into the wind. 

Fear

Giving in to fear hinders the fulfillment of one’s own Personal Legend. Santiago himself is not immune to it. He was afraid of letting go of his sheep, of letting the old woman interpret his dream, and of having to let go of his security by departing Tangier to join the caravan. 

Both of his mentors, Melchizedek and the alchemist, condemn fear, as it is usually tied to material wealth, which leads people to get distracted from the fulfillment of their own Personal Legends. The crystal merchant is the embodiment of fear. He thinks that his calling is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but he never does that, out of fear of the future, and he remains an unhappy individual.

Omens and Dreams

Throughout the novel, Santiago experiences both dreams and omens. His dreams are a rough form of communication with the Soul of the World and a representation of his Personal Legend. Omens serve as a guidance to fulfill his dreams.

Dreams are also a form of clairvoyance. Santiago dreams of fighting hawks, which he relates to the tribal chieftain of the desert, as they indicate an impending assault. Santiago’s propensity for dreams likens him to the biblical figure of Joseph, who, through his prophetic visions, was able to save Egypt. Omens are more instrumental and are usually singular events, seen as a sign that the universe is helping him achieve his Personal Legend. They are also signifiers of Santiago’s personal growth. 

Symbols

Alchemy

Alchemy is the medieval forerunner of modern chemistry; its end 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. Just like a base metal’s Personal Legend is to turn into gold by ridding itself of impurities, so must people rid themselves of their own impurities to achieve it. In Santiago’s case, it’s his flock of sheep, which represent material wealth, as well as his budding relationship to Fatima. 

Despite the tomes devoted to alchemy, actions are better teachers than written instruction. As we see with the Englishman, book-centric knowledge does not take him very far. The right way is listening to omens and acting accordingly. 

The Desert

As opposed to Spain, the desert area is quite harsh. Santiago first gets robbed, then has to trek all the way to the oasis, and then is subject to even harsher trials, including becoming the wind and enduring a severe beating, before fulfilling his own Personal Legend. The desert, as a whole, symbolizes the trials that the hero must endure while on his quest. However, the desert is not just a land of trials; it pulses with life underneath its barren appearance, as the Soul of the World makes everything on Earth partake in the same spiritual essence.

Sheep

Santiago’s sheep represent shallow material wealth and his mundane existence before he became attuned to his own Personal Legend. While he loves his sheep, he mainly sees them as his material livelihood and belittles their intelligence, asserting that he could kill them one by one without them even noticing.

Some characters remain in the “sheep” stage of their lives. The crystal merchant, for example, , prefers to stay in his everyday life despite having a Personal Legend, which leads to regret.

Literary Devices: Biblical Metaphors

Despite being an allegorical hero’s journey with a pantheistic worldview, The Alchemist is rife with references to the Bible. Santiago’s name is a reference to the Road of Santiago; Melchizedek, the first mentor figure he encounters, is a biblical figure who helped Abraham. Santiago himself is likened to Joseph for his gift of prophecy. Even the mundane flock of sheep have a biblical connotation, as congregants of a church are usually likened to sheep.