The Alchemist: Spirituality, Religion, and Life Experience

The God IssueMedia

The genius of Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Alchemist, lies in its deceptive simplicity. At first glance, the reader might assume that it is merely a fable: the story of the shepherd boy Santiago and his quest for treasure.

And it is, to a degree. But when one looks closer, The Alchemist is filled with metaphors and beautiful imagery about life, love, and God’s plan for us. The story of Santiago’s journey is intriguing. However, the lessons he learns about life are what make the book meaningful.

The Alchemist begins in the Andalusian region of Spain, where Santiago is a shepherd who dreams of traveling beyond the confines of his life. However, he is content with his routine and takes comfort in caring for his sheep. Santiago is not prepared to abandon his entire life just to travel, until he meets a mysterious and magical man who changes his outlook. The man tells Santiago that each individual has a Personal Legend, something that they truly desire, which is their purpose in life to accomplish: “There is one great truth on this planet: 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. It’s your mission on earth.”

Before Santiago sets off on his journey, the man tells him a story about a boy who seeks the secret of happiness from a wise old man. From the story, Santiago learns that while he should never lose sight of his destination, he should also enjoy the experience of getting there. Santiago embarks on a quest to fulfill his Personal Legend, and Coelho gives us a beginning that immediately captivates the reader, transporting us into Santiago’s world.

While the book has many subtle philosophical messages, perhaps the most noteworthy is about religion. Through Santiago’s experiences, Coelho infers that there is only one God, but men interpret him differently. Although some men allow their interpretation of God and the rules of their religion to define them, there is an unwritten universal language with which we all can communicate. When Santiago is able to relate to those he meets during his travels, Coelho shows that humanity has commonalities that run deeper than cultural differences. God brings people together. Santiago holds a unique view of God in that his beliefs are nebulous rather than codified. His religion is based on personal experience instead of an institutional proscription. As a result, Santiago is able to take multiple religious views into perspective.

However, Coelho does follow traditional religious beliefs in that he does not feel that women deserve unique Personal Legends. Fatima, the main female character, does not receive a quest of her own. Instead, her Personal Legend is to wait for Santiago while he pursues his treasure. Furthermore, as Fatima is the only woman specifically mentioned in the book, it can be inferred that women are considered a deterrent to the Personal Legends of men. Fatima is viewed as a momentary distraction. I think this aspect of the book is sexist and unnecessary. Particularly because the book incorporates such positive ideas of religious acceptance and equality, and it would have been easy for Coelho to extend this equality to women. Despite this, women can learn the same lessons from the book as men, whether or not it was Coelho’s intent.

Despite the fact that I found the book sexist, I was still able to draw inspiration from it. There are a lot of things in my life right now that are complete variables. I have no idea where I will go to college, what I’ll be doing in two years, or even next year. I think part of this is because I’m still not sure who I am, or what I want. This used to be a cause of concern for me. However, The Alchemist made me appreciate that life is as much about the experience as it is the search of wisdom and happiness.

Overall, Coelho’s writing is excellent. His simple manner of storytelling allows the reader to discern deeper meaning from what he is saying, and make interpretations based on specific life experiences. The book is timeless. It can be read again and again, and hold a different meaning each time you read it. I don’t think it is intended for one particular age group. The Alchemist is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.

Rachel Narducci is a tenth grader at Bard High School Early College. She lives in Manhattan and enjoys writing, painting, traveling, and photography.