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The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. How does the story of Narcissus relate to the broader message of The Alchemist?

The myth of Narcissus usually ends when Narcissus becomes so thoroughly entranced by his own reflection that he falls in the lake and drowns. In the novel’s version of the myth, however, we learn that the lake felt upset because Narcissus died, since it enjoyed looking at its own reflection in Narcissus’s eyes. This version of the myth presents a more complicated picture of vanity than the original. As opposed to being an undesirable trait that leads to death, vanity appears to be an entirely natural characteristic, so much so that the lake displays it.

Like the introductory Narcissus story, The Alchemist itself has a message that focusing on oneself can connect a person to nature and the spiritual world. Only through single-mindedly pursuing his own Personal Legend does Santiago learn the secrets of the Soul of the World, for instance. Throughout the book, Santiago must put his own interests first repeatedly, as when he chooses to be a shepherd rather than a priest and when he leaves the oasis to continue on his journey. But through disregarding everything but his own dream, Santiago realizes his true potential. In this way, he penetrates to the Soul of the World.

2. What attitude does The Alchemist take toward romantic love?

Unlike many popular literary tales, The Alchemist initially presents love not as a goal, but as an obstacle. Santiago says his initial love of the merchant’s daughter acts as the only thing that makes him want to stay in one place forever. This desire stands in direct opposition to the journey he must complete in order to fulfill his Personal Legend. When Santiago finds his true love, Fatima, in the oasis, he feels even more convinced to abandon his Personal Legend. Fatima and the alchemist must show Santiago that his dream holds more importance than staying with her.

This picture of love is unique compared to traditional illustrations of romantic love. For one, this love is completely distinct from possession. Santiago has a significant internal dialogue about this distinction, and he puts it to the test when he leaves Fatima. Love, in The Alchemist, is also secondary to pursuing one’s Personal Legend. As the alchemist tells Santiago, Santiago’s love for Fatima will only survive if he continues living out his Personal Legend so that he will have no regrets later. Despite these facts, which seem to downplay the importance of love, Fatima’s kiss serves as the final image of the book, suggesting that love remains necessary for Santiago to live a contented life.

3. What is the attitude of The Alchemist towards material wealth and individualism, and how does it differ from major world religions in this regard?

Unlike many religions, The Alchemist does not draw a distinction between the material and the spiritual world. The book also espouses individuality as a means for achieving the ultimate goals of creation. Additionally, elements of pantheism appear throughout the book. For one, Santiago communicates and finds omens in natural entities such as the desert and the wind. The alchemist says that these elements have Personal Legends just like humans do, and that they were also born from the Soul of the World. The alchemist also associates the process of purifying metal into gold with spiritual purification.

The book’s dominant strain of evolutionary spirituality appears most clearly when Santiago tries to turn himself into the wind. In the context of the novel, when a natural element or individual pursues a Personal Legend, it will evolve into a higher state of being. The goal of creation consists of all nature, humans and inanimate objects included, undergoing this evolution until the universe achieves perfection. This philosophy differs from traditional spirituality in that it requires everything pursuing its individual dream to achieve this state rather than practicing selflessness. In fact, the novel even portrays religious characters that practice self-denial, such as the crystal merchant, as failures.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does Santiago’s spiritual journey parallel the alchemist’s practice of transforming metal into gold?

2. What are the weaknesses that Santiago sees in his flock of sheep, and how do they relate to the weaknesses of human beings who fail to pursue their Personal Legends?

3. According to the book, is it possible to live a fulfilling life without ever achieving one’s Personal Legend? Why or why not?

4. What role do forces of nature such as the wind and the sun play in Santiago’s journey?

5. During Santiago’s stay in Tangiers, what does Santiago teach the crystal merchant, and what does the crystal merchant teach Santiago?

6. What stylistic strategies does Coelho use to make The Alchemist come across as a mythic, universally applicable story?

7. What is the function of magic in The Alchemist, and what does the ability to practice magic symbolize?

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