The Alchemist

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Themes and Colors
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
The Unimportance of Death and Fear Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Alchemist, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Theme Icon

Throughout the novel, alchemy often functions as a symbol or metaphor for lessons that Santiago learns about life and the world. At the heart of alchemy is the Emerald Tablet, an ancient artifact on which was written the instructions for creating the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, the two most important creations an alchemist can attempt to produce. The alchemist teaches Santiago that in modern times, the Stone and the Elixir are incredibly difficult to produce, because humans began to mistrust simplicity. Instead, they compiled massive amounts of information and practical knowledge about the Stone and Elixir and how to create them, and all of this information got in the way of a truth simple enough that it could be written on a single stone. Because the lessons of alchemy in the novel are more broadly applicable as life lessons, Santiago learns from the alchemist that sometimes complexity can obscure the truth, which is simple.

The alchemist also highlights the value of simplicity as it connects to purity. He tells Santiago that if he finds something made of pure matter, it never spoils. As the alchemist explains this principle, Santiago realizes that it also applies to the love he shares with Fatima. Because their love is simple, and it does not involve other notions of dependency or ownership, it will not spoil. Fatima herself demonstrates the power of simplicity through her faith in Santiago’s return. She does not complicate their love with other emotions or conditions, and Santiago learns the value of this type of love without ownership.

The concept of the Soul of the World also implies the value of simplicity, because any one object in the world can be used to learn about and access the whole world. This places immense value on simple and small objects. As the alchemist says, a grain of sand can teach someone everything there is to know about the desert. Therefore, it is valuable to study and learn from the small things. Santiago realizes that even before he set off in pursuit of his Personal Legend, he learned some of the most important life lessons from his sheep—simple and humble creatures, which nevertheless demonstrate important qualities. The novel repeatedly presents simplicity, as opposed to complexity, as the means to accessing fundamental truths and life lessons, and often uses alchemical imagery to emphasize this point.

Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity appears in each chapter of The Alchemist. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity Quotes in The Alchemist

Below you will find the important quotes in The Alchemist related to the theme of Alchemy and the Value of Simplicity.
Prologue Quotes

“I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.” “What a lovely story,” the alchemist thought.

Related Characters: The Alchemist (speaker), The Lake (speaker), Narcissus
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

The prologue of this novel features an updated version of the Narcissus myth from Ancient Greece. In the original myth, Narcissus drowns in the lake where he is addicted to gazing at his own reflection. In this version, the lake mourns his death because it lost the opportunity to admire its own reflection in Narcissus’s eyes. The alchemist’s approval of this story and its placement at the beginning of the novel seem to function as a cautionary tale for the reader. The legend of Narcissus has been a cautionary tale since antiquity, warning against overly indulgent self-love. This new version seems to also point out that self-love can be more pervasive than we might expect. Our reactions and emotions might be guided by selfishness and self-focus. Paul Coelho cautions his reader against looking for his or her own reflection in this story, as the lake looks for her own reflection in Narcissus.

The protagonist of the novel, Santiago, is an everyman figure. Many readers might see themselves and their need to fulfill their personal legends reflected in his story. However, the reworked Narcissus myth warns that a reader might be too quick to look for his or her reflection and thus lose sight of larger lessons the story might teach.


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Part One Quotes

Here I am, between my flock and my treasure, the boy thought. He had to choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have.

Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Related Symbols: Santiago’s sheep
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago learns about Personal Legends from Melchizedek, who encourages him to seek his by going on a quest to find the treasure from his dreams. In order to do so, Santiago must abandon his flock of sheep and the country in which he has lived his whole life. In this passage, Santiago sees the choice that is before him. He is split between staying with his flock, which represents familiarity and safety, and pursuing his treasure, which represents the unknown, but also the possibility of even greater happiness and fulfillment. This choice shows that the road toward one’s Personal Legend is not always easy. Risks must be taken and difficult choices must be made.

In order to make this choice and pursue his Personal Legend, Santiago cannot be afraid of the unknown. This fear could prevent him from taking a risk that would result in his happiness. Santiago later sees other characters, such as the Crystal Merchant, who are prevented from pursuing their Personal Legends because they are afraid of taking this very same risk. The distillation of Santiago’s specific choice (between his sheep and his treasure) into one between the familiar and the unknown shows that this is a universal choice that humans face. At some point in our lives, we will each need to choose to take a risk in order to open up new possibilities for happiness.

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.

“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.

“And I am a part of your dream, a part of your destiny, as you call it. That’s why I want you to continue toward your goal. If you have to wait until the war is over, then wait. But if you have to go before then, go on in pursuit of your dream. The dunes are changed by the wind, but the desert never changes. That’s the way it will be with our love for each other…Maktub,” she said. “If I am really a part of your dream, you'll come back one day.”

Related Characters: Fatima (speaker), Santiago
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Fatima’s reaction to Santiago’s declaration of love relies on her understanding of the world as a place in which events, meetings, and actions are “written” by the hand of God. Her faith allows her to tell Santiago to go on his quest. Like the camel driver, she is not afraid of the future because she trusts in the idea of “maktub,” or “it is written.” She uses this exact same language, despite not having interacted with the other characters in the novel, such as the Crystal Merchant, who hold this worldview of God writing all that happens. Because Fatima repeats this same lesson, it is made abundantly clear that this is one of the central themes of the novel.

Fatima’s expression of her faith that Santiago will return if “it is written” uses descriptive language of nature. She says that “the dunes are changed by the wind, but the desert never changes.” This metaphor shows that while the surface of something might change, the identity of a thing cannot be changed. By comparing her and Santiago’s love to the desert, she shows that their love is deeper than the surface level, which can change in appearance. This nature metaphor also reinforces the idea that important life lessons can be learned from observing the natural world. Fatima models her behavior on a truth she learned while observing the desert.

Of course, it's also worth noting that Santiago and Fatima's love is supposed to be "deep and unchanging" because of destiny, not because they have actually gotten to know each other. Furthermore, Fatima only really exists as a part of Santiago's destiny--she has no real agency or "dream" of her own in the novel.

The camel driver understood what the boy was saying. He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of the birds… whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World.

Related Characters: Santiago, The Camel Driver
Page Number: 104-105
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago has a vision of an army invading the oasis and decides to explain this to his friend the camel driver. He also explains that seeing hawks flying and fighting above the desert made him feel as if he were in touch with the Soul of the World. His vision seemed to be the result of this connection with the Soul of the World, as if by accessing the Soul of the World, Santiago was able to access knowledge of the future. The camel driver understands this idea because he believes that everything in the world is connected. This quote explains the consequences of that connection: if everything is connected, any one thing contains, or allows access to, all things. Therefore, it is enough to study a small corner of the world if one wants to learn about the whole world. The camel driver gives several examples of a small corner of the world that could provide information about the whole world—a page of a book, a hand, a card, the flight of birds. These things are all very simple. This shows that the more universal a concept, the simpler it is. (This concept also applies to alchemy, as the book makes clear elsewhere.)

“You must understand that love never keeps a man from pursuing his destiny. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t true love… the love that speaks the Language of the World.”

Related Characters: The Alchemist (speaker), Santiago
Page Number: 12412
Explanation and Analysis:

The alchemist speaks these words to Santiago when Santiago again feels torn between staying in one place and continuing his quest toward his Personal Legend. This choice between staying in the oasis with Fatima or continuing across the war-torn desert echoes his choice earlier in the novel between his flock of sheep and his treasure: one is familiar and comforting, the other unknown and risky. The alchemist helps Santiago with this choice by offering this advice, which says that true love doesn’t get in the way of pursuing one’s Personal Legend. This is credited to the fact that “true love” “speaks the Language of the World.” This Language of the World is the universal language that unites all beings and things in this novel. If one can access the universal language, one can transcend boundaries. Therefore, true love is defined as a connection that transcends boundaries and connects lovers across time and space through the universal language.

Even though Santiago has to leave to pursue his Personal Legend, he and Fatima are connected through the Soul of the World. If Santiago didn’t leave, it would be because he was afraid of losing Fatima and their love. But only a temporary love can be guided by fear. According to the alchemist, fear of loss and separation is irrelevant to true love, because true lovers are connected through the universal language wherever they go.

“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.