The Alchemist

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Alchemy Symbol Icon

Both the Englishman and the alchemist describe the practices of alchemy to Santiago, and in both cases, the specifics of alchemy symbolize larger life lessons. The Englishman explains that the pursuit of the Master Work, in which alchemists spend years carefully studying and purifying metals, actually purifies the alchemists themselves. Self-development goes hand-in-hand with development of the Master Work. From this, Santiago realizes that one may pursue “an alchemy of life,” in which self-development results from study of the world and from application of the other principles of alchemy to everyday practices. Later the alchemist describes many aspects of alchemy—like the origins of the Emerald Tablet—which are also applicable to human life. The alchemist explains Santiago’s connection with Fatima in terms of alchemy, saying that a pure material cannot be tarnished or changed. This is a concept from alchemy, but Coelho uses it as a metaphor for life, and in this context it claims that the love between Fatima and Santiago will not spoil with time—if that love is pure.

Alchemy Quotes in The Alchemist

The The Alchemist quotes below all refer to the symbol of Alchemy. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper One edition of The Alchemist published in 2014.
Part Two Quotes

“The alchemists spent years in their laboratories, observing the fire that purified the metals. They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves.”

Related Characters: The Englishman (speaker), Santiago
Related Symbols: Alchemy
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago first learns about alchemy from the Englishman who has devoted his life to the study of its practices, and then he continues to learn about it from the Alchemist throughout the novel. The Englishman focuses on studying alchemy carefully and systematically, whereas the lessons of the Alchemist focus on simplicity and studying the world. From the Alchemist, Santiago learns ideas about alchemy in a broad context. In other words, the principles of his study are applicable to many different contexts. Alchemy teaches a person how to purify metals and how to understand chemical elements, but these processes can also be applied to life, and Santiago learns how to purify himself and how to understand the basic principles of the world.

Alchemy is used as a powerful metaphor in the novel and in Santiago’s life. He does not work directly with chemical elements or seek the philosopher’s stone, but he uses the same practices of alchemy in new contexts. He learns how to value simplicity and learn by observation, as the alchemists in this passage do when “observing” and “discovering.” In this quote, one of the first about alchemy in the novel, the reader is asked to see alchemy as a symbol for life, or a spiritual path. Those who practice purifying elements, purify themselves.

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“I learned that the world has a soul, and that whoever understands that soul can also understand the language of things. I learned that many alchemists realized their destinies, and wound up discovering the Soul of the World, the Philosopher's Stone, and the Elixir of Life. But, above all, I learned that these things are all so simple that they could be written on the surface of an emerald.”

Related Characters: The Englishman (speaker), Santiago
Related Symbols: Alchemy, The Emerald Tablet
Page Number: 85-86
Explanation and Analysis:

The Englishman asks Santiago to describe what he has learned from the alchemy books he loans the younger man during their journey. In this passage, Santiago explains what he has learned with an answer that surprises the Englishman. While the two have read the same texts, they have learned very different things. The Englishman values the complexity of alchemy and the hard work it requires. Santiago, on the other hand, values its simplicity and universality. The examples he provides in this quote all focus on universal ideas that make connections across places, cultures, and activities. Santiago speaks of the “Soul of the World” which is accessible to anyone, the success of alchemists in achieving their Personal Legends, and the simplicity of these ideas, which could be contained on the Emerald Tablet. The Englishman values the exclusivity of alchemy, believing it only yields its secrets to those who put in hard work. Santiago sees alchemy as broadly applicable and inclusive. His interpretation of alchemy ties into the idea used throughout the novel that the practices of alchemy can be applied in many areas of life. 

The Emerald Tablet contains universal ideas that require little explanation, as evidenced by the small amount of writing needed to communicate them. This shows that the more universal and applicable an idea, the simpler it often is.

“If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return.” The man was speaking the language of alchemy. But the boy knew that he was referring to Fatima.

Related Characters: The Alchemist (speaker), Santiago, Fatima
Related Symbols: Alchemy
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

As Santiago and the Alchemist set off across the desert on the final leg of Santiago’s quest, the Alchemist can tell that Santiago is sad to be leaving Fatima behind. He offers these words of reassurance, which encourage Santiago to trust in the power of his connection with Fatima, which will outlast time and distance if it is a “pure” and lasting love, not just "a moment of light.” This is one of the most explicit examples in the novel of alchemy as a metaphor for life's events. The Alchemist is speaking about a principle of alchemy—that pure matter cannot be contaminated—but Santiago understands this concept to be a metaphor for an idea about love—that pure love cannot be contaminated by time and separation. Throughout the novel, the study and practice of alchemy is used as a model for living an examined life of self-improvement and learning.

The language of the Alchemist’s metaphor uses not only the elements of alchemy, but observations about the world. He describes a more fleeting love as “a moment of light, like the explosion of a star.” The explosion of a star is very bright, but its brightness and energy means that it also expires quickly. By applying this observation to love, the Alchemist is arguing that a bright love is temporary, but the pure love between Santiago and Fatima will be long-lasting.

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Alchemy Symbol Timeline in The Alchemist

The timeline below shows where the symbol Alchemy appears in The Alchemist. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part Two
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...true language of the universe. First he studied Esperanto, then world religions, and most recently alchemy. He feels that although he has discovered important truths about alchemy, he is not yet... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...he is doing the same. Santiago admits to the Englishman that he doesn't know what alchemy is. (full context)
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...teach many strange ideas. In one book, Santiago learns that the most important item in alchemy is the Emerald Tablet. Santiago wonders why, if this single text explains everything about the... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...responds that Santiago is obsessed with simplifying everything. He feels that the many steps of alchemy are important. The two parts of the Master Work are the creation of the Elixir... (full context)
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...order to free oneself from negative thoughts. Santiago begins to believe that one can learn alchemy in everyday life. Santiago is particularly interested in the Philosopher’s Stone, but whenever he tries... (full context)
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
The Unimportance of Death and Fear Theme Icon
Santiago asks the Englishman why the alchemists of the past have made the processes of alchemy so complicated. The Englishman replies that the complexity allows only those with enough responsibility to... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Maktub and What is Meant to Be Theme Icon
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
Santiago returns the alchemy books to the Englishman. The Englishman asks him what he has earned. Santiago says that... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
The Englishman is disappointed, because none of the complexity and years of research involved in alchemy have made an impression on Santiago. He tells Santiago to go back to watching the... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Maktub and What is Meant to Be Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...he will know the man when he sees him. He reflects that the secrets of alchemy need to be transmitted by word-of-mouth. His only explanation for this is that the truths... (full context)
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...come all this way for nothing. Santiago points out that he had never heard of alchemy, so maybe others in the oasis simply don't know the alchemist by that title. The... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Maktub and What is Meant to Be Theme Icon
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...Pyramids. The alchemist welcomes Santiago into his tent. Santiago looks around for the implements of alchemy, but does not see any. The alchemist invites him to have a drink and to... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Maktub and What is Meant to Be Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...can always come back to them. Even though the alchemist is speaking of metals and alchemy, Santiago knows that he is actually talking about Santiago’s love for Fatima.  It is difficult... (full context)
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...he prepares their dinner that night, the alchemist explains that he learned the procedures of alchemy from his grandfather, who learned from his father, and so on. In the early times,... (full context)
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...Emerald Tablet. The alchemist points out that the Emerald Tablet exists in the context of alchemy, and the boy is in the desert, so Santiago should immerse himself in the desert,... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
...they're only two days from the pyramids. Santiago again asks about the alchemist teaching him alchemy. The alchemist replies that Santiago already knows the practices that allow him to reach to... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
The Unimportance of Death and Fear Theme Icon
...world: the world is the visible part of God’s creation and, through the processes of alchemy, the perfection of God can be actualized in the material world. The alchemist says that... (full context)
The Pursuit of Your Personal Legend Theme Icon
Maktub and What is Meant to Be Theme Icon
The Interconnectedness of All Things Theme Icon
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon
Santiago says that alchemy exists so that everyone will strive for improvement, just as gold exists as lead until... (full context)