So I just finished reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and thought I’d share my thoughts. I’d never heard of the book, or indeed the writer, before receiving the book as a gift a few weeks ago (though I have since come to know that the author is quit prolific), so my opinions of the novel are based solely on the novel, having had no predispositions or biases before reading it. Anyway, lets get to it.
The Alchemist tells the story of a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago, content in his rambling life until a recurring dream incites in him a longing for adventure. Santiago sells his sheep travels to north Africa in search of treasure and the fulfillment of his destiny.
I have mixed feelings about The Alchemist. As I said, going into the Alchemist I really didn’t know what to expect. The cover blurb sounded intriguing, and the many quotes from critics sampled on the first two pages spoke of a moving novel full of great wisdom and inspiration. Having now finished the book, I will agree that it does contain a good amount of wisdom, and it is inspirational (and on a few occasions actually quite witty), but I’m not sure how I feel about it as a novel.
The actual story of the book is good, and the ending (I won’t spoil it here) was rather more satisfying and surprising than I’d expected. However, the execution of said story, to my tastes at least, feels a bit simplistic and, with the exception of the aforementioned ending, predictable. Santiago’s journey is one of personal discovery, and the lessons he learns about life and happiness and finding your way in the world are all beautiful and uplifting, but they’re hardly new, and to someone such as myself who’s grown up hearing similar “you can do anything you set you mind to” and “follow your dreams/heart/talent/calling/destiny” type messages, Santiago’s ultimate success feels like a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the novel establishes such a feeling of positivity so early on that I could never really doubt in Santiago’s abilities, or find his struggles, while relatable, particularly engaging.
I also don’t quite know what to make of the characters. On the one hand most of them do feel quite vibrant and real, but at the same time they can be somewhat flat. For example, at one point in the novel Santiago meets and subsequently works for a crystal merchant (crystal as in glass, not the pretty shiny stuff what comes outta the ground) who has so many real, understandable human elements, but is used by the author to make a point about giving up on one’s dreams. What makes this particular character’s purpose so clear, I think, is that way it is conveyed. While the narrative or the protagonist could have made subtle or even blatant observations about the merchant to relay this message; instead we have the actual character himself telling us about his failure to realize his dreams, even going so far as to explain why he did so.
“You dream about your sheep and the Pyramids, but you’re different than me, because you want to realize your dreams. I just want to dream about Mecca. I’ve already imagined a thousand times crossing the desert, arriving at the Plaza of the Scred Stone, the seven times I walk around it before allowing myself to touch it.
“…But I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.”
–The crystal merchant speaking to Santiago.
Such heavy handedness may be my biggest complaint about the novel. I was drawn into the story at first, enjoying the simple beauty of Santiago’s life, but before long a character appears to push Santiago to begin his journey whose very existence seems bound to that singular purpose. The way in which he and all of the other characters speak throughout most of the rest of the novel is so pointed and unrealistically introspective that at times, I felt more like I was reading a self help book than a novel. Perhaps if the story had been told with a degree more subtlety and nuance I would have found it more to my liking. But then, art is subjective, isn’t it? Even though the prose and dialogue wasn’t to my personal taste, I did still enjoy the novel.
“Don’t forget that everything you deal with is only one thing and nothing else. And don’t forget the language of omens. And, above all, don’t forget to follow your Personal Legend through to its conclusion.”
–The King of Salem speaking to Santiago about his Personal Legend.
It feels weird to me, as an aspiring writer, to be criticizing a novel so wholly concerned with the idea of realizing one’s dreams. I suppose some of what puts me off about the story might be the level of spirituality, but even then I’m not so sure. It’s true, the novel makes frequent references to God and religion, and as an atheist this does little for me, but I actually consider myself a mildly spiritual person and have no qualms about finding the wisdom in Coelho’s words, though I may disagree with some of the details.
“In order to find the treasure, you will have to follow the omens. God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you.”
–The King telling Santiago how to find the treasure revealed to him in his dreams.
There is one final aspect of the novel I’d like to discuss, and that is its attitudes towards women. Now, I want to be clear I don’t think that The Alchemist is deliberately or aggressively sexist, but the nature of what few female characters exist in the novel is somewhat problematic. There are, by my count, three “named” female characters. I say “named” because Coelho tends to refer to characters, even the protagonist, by their occupations or by what they are (e.g. Santiago is often called simply “the boy.”), and some main character’s real names are never actually revealed.
Anyway, there are three named female characters in the novel, compared with a considerably larger number of men. Of these three, one, a Gypsy fortune teller, appears, at least to my admittedly untrained eye, to be a somewhat racially insensitive stereotype. The second character, the young daughter of a shopkeeper, is an underdeveloped and casually forgotten love interest of Santiago. And the third character? Another love interest and the only female character to get an actual name, Fatima. Fatima is more developed than the shopkeeper’s daughter, though in a problematic fashion. You see, it is revealed that all Fatima has ever wanted in life was for the desert to bring her a man (sound sexist yet?).
People said that Gypsies spent their lives tricking others. It was also said that they had a pact with the devil, and that they kidnapped children and, taking them away to their mysterious camps, made them their slaves.
–Santiago’s problematic thoughts about Gypsies are never properly corrected in the course of the story. He does later, after much personal growth, reflect that the Gypsies are quite smart, but as I said the passage doesn’t properly correct the stereotypes.
When she and Santiago first meet, they fall instantly in love and Santiago decides he want to marry her. After a few days they more or less agree they want to spend the rest of their lives together, but Santiago’s journey is still incomplete. Fatima encourages him to pursue his destiny, promising to wait for him. This element of Fatima’s character is used to make a valid point about not holding the ones you love back from fulfilling their dreams, but the fact that it’s the woman doing the waiting and the man doing the soul searching is problematic. Where as Santiago ultimately waits to be with Fatima so that he can fulfill his destiny, Fatima has no goals or ambitions beyond Santiago.
“I have been waiting for you here at this oasis for a long time. I have forgotten about my past, about my traditions, and the way in which men of the desert expect women to behave. Ever since I was a child, I have have dreamed that the desert would bring me a wonderful present. Now, my present has arrived, and it’s you.”
–Fatima talking to Santiago. Problematic on many levels.
Interestingly, Fatima’s character might not have been as problematic if there had been at least a few more female characters elsewhere in the novel. You see, all throughout Santiago’s travels he meets other characters at various stages of what the book refers to as their “Personal Legends” (essentially their destinies). These different people are all quite different and lead drastically dissimilar lives, but they all have one thing in common: they’re men. Not once in the novel do we meet a female character in search of treasure, or knowledge, or the realization of their personal destiny. In fact, the closest the book comes to this is a line in which one character, while trying to convince Santiago to continue his quest, tells him that Fatima has already found her treasure–Santiago.
I really do feel a bit bad criticizing the book, especially considering I actually did enjoy reading it. In the end, though, there were aspects of it that just didn’t click with me. I’ll be the first to admit that some of my complaints are subjective, but I feel confident in saying that The Alchemist is a flawed novel. But then, most are.
[If anyone reading this thinks I'm crazy, or would like to share their own thoughts on The Alchemist, please leave a comment--I'd love to hear some different opinions. Thanks!]