The Alchemist

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The Alchemist Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho was born in 1947 and grew up in Brazil. From a young age, he was interested in literature and hoped to become a writer. He was an introverted and unusual teenager and, at age 17, his family admitted him to a mental hospital. He escaped three times over the course of his three-year stay. In an effort to conform to his parents’ and community’s standards, Coelho enrolled in law school. He dropped out after a year and led a life of wandering and poverty, traveling throughout South America, Mexico, Europe, and Africa. He worked as an actor, a theater director, a journalist, and a songwriter for other artists, before being arrested in 1974 for his “subversive” liberal song lyrics. Coelho’s life was dramatically changed in 1986 when he completed a 500-mile pilgrimage walk in northwestern Spain: the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James). While on pilgrimage, Coelho experienced a spiritual awakening which encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a writer. Coelho appears to pay homage to this transformative experience with the name of The Alchemist’s protagonist: Santiago. Coelho’s most famous novel, The Alchemist, was published in 1988. It was his third book, following an unsuccessful first book Hell Archives (1982), and a non-fiction account of his spiritual awakening on the Camino de Santiago, The Pilgrimage (1986). In 1994, HarperCollins picked up The Alchemist after its small initial printing. After that, it became a worldwide phenomenon, establishing Paulo Coelho as a household name. Since then, Coelho has published regularly, bringing his total published works up to thirty. He continues to write, and he and his wife divide their time between Rio de Janeiro and the Pyrenees Mountains of France.
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Historical Context of The Alchemist
As a contemporary novel, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist responds to the concerns of a generation growing up in an age of rapidly advancing technology and globalization. Published during continued international Cold War tensions in the late 1980s, the novel deals directly with themes of fear and control. The Cold War between the US and the USSR prominently and publically featured massive military technological advancements, and nuclear warfare was a real possibility. Coelho’s novel directly cautions against letting fear overpower one’s individual life decisions. The novel also strongly advocates for the power of the individual to take charge of his future. This message has impacted people across cultures in a generation when international exposure to the horrors of the world has paralyzed many people. In addition to this contemporary context, The Alchemist also responds to a much older history in terms of the role of religion and spirituality in the novel. The story was inspired by Coelho’s pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, a route of pilgrimage that became popular in the Middle Ages, leading travelers to a shrine for the apostle James in Northwestern Spain. The parallel between this journey and Santiago’s quest in the novel is clear, as Santiago’s route also features Spain and emphasizes the spiritual development acquired by pilgrims along the journey. Coelho’s Catholic background influenced his understanding of religion, but he departs from strict Christian terminology in his novel, instead using terms such as “The Soul of The World” to refer to a spiritual force connecting all of creation.
Other Books Related to The Alchemist
The basic story line of The Alchemist is not of Coelho’s invention, and has its roots in much older literature. A parable of two dreamers who both dream of the other’s treasure appears in a traditional Jewish story. 13th century Persian poet and scholar Rumi also created a story featuring two dreamers titled “In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad.” Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges repurposed these older accounts in his 1935 short story “Tale of Two Dreamers.” Coelho, a South American writer like Borges, is joining a tradition. It is also fitting that he selected a Jewish parable as the frame for his novel, which deals explicitly with religion, and yet updates these themes for a contemporary audience. This complex use of both existing literature and contemporary context is clear in the character of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a Biblical figure who is mentioned in the Bible as a priest and the King of Salem, but whose character is not fully developed. Coelho repurposes Melchizedek, assigning him a new role as the protector of people pursuing their Personal Legends, while maintaining Biblical details about the character such as his title of “King of Salem.”
Key Facts about The Alchemist
  • Full Title: The Alchemist
  • When Written: 1987
  • Where Written: Brazil
  • When Published: 1988
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Allegorical Fiction
  • Setting: Southern Spain and Northern Africa
  • Climax: Santiago does not discover his treasure at the pyramids, and is attacked by refugees of the desert wars. The leader of the refugees speaks of his dream about treasure, and the truth about Santiago’s treasure is revealed to him.
  • Point of View: Third person limited
Extra Credit for The Alchemist

Guinness World Record. The Alchemist is the most translated book by a living author, and one of the best selling books ever, which speaks to its universal qualities. It appeals to readers from many different backgrounds.

Two weeks. It took Paulo Coelho only two weeks to write The Alchemist in the year 1987. He says that the story was already “written in [his] soul.” He was inspired by his life-changing pilgrimage in Spain on the Camino de Santiago.