An Analysis of The Alchemist
I’m going to wrap up my Read Like a Writer thread of posts with a lecture I wrote during my MFA analyzing The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I’ve slightly revised my original lecture for this post. In a previous post, I included images on how I annotate and analyze writing. That image came from The Alchemist, and what I’ve include below is the result of those annotations.
While it has been shunned a bit, it’s always good to start out with a simple question: Did you like the book? Yes or no suffices, but you can’t stop there. You need to understand why you said yes or no. I like The Alchemist. I was satisfied with and entertained by this book. There are obvious connections to the Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth delivered through a simple narrative, and there are pervasive religious threads that may have contributed to the success of this novel. This is certainly a book that may be taken seriously above the literary naysayers that reject it due to its popularity. However, in that seriousness, it needs to be looked at objectively, through a literary lens that takes into account the author’s life and, therefore, the author’s perspective.
The Alchemist is filled with parables and seemingly one success after another even against insurmountable odds, but those odds are evened and made attainable through magical realism. However, this novel is still influenced by the author who chose “to find the meaning of life” and after living what others considered a normal life “walked the 500-mile road to the Galician pilgrimage site Santiago de Compostela. [and said] ‘Now I am going to fulfil my dream. I may be defeated but I will not fail'” (The Guardian). That final statement, “I may be defeated but I will not fail” is the central theme of The Alchemist. While the boy in The Alchemist seems to fail from time to time by stalling in his journey, there is still the future in which he is able to attain his dream. However, it goes beyond this simple plot analysis and becomes the author’s life.
The message of The Alchemist isn’t that anything can be accomplished; it’s that things are accomplished or done and even failure is an accomplishment; hence the reason for Coelho stating, “I may be defeated but I will not fail” (The Guardian). Here he is clearly stating that even if he fails to achieve his dream, he has succeeded because at least he tried to attain his dream, which is something many cannot attest to doing. This theme is set early in the novel when the boy’s father gave him “three ancient Spanish gold coins” after which he could see in his father “a desire […] to travel the world—a desire that was still alive, despite his father’s having had to bury it, over dozens of years, under the burden of struggling for water to drink, food to eat, and the same place to sleep every night of his life” (Coelho 11). His father lives a life of normalcy, which is what Coelho himself was attempting to avoid his entire life since “he longed from a young age to become a writer, an ambition his parents frowned upon so much that they sent him, aged 17, to an asylum” (The Guardian). He continued his defiant quest against normalcy even after being “enrolled in law school” of which he describes as “one of several attempts to become, as he puts it disdainfully, ‘normal’ [and] back in 1975 […] married someone in church, got a job [and] was normal for seven years” (The Guardian). And, much like the boy in The Alchemist, Coelho “sold everything and […] started travelling [the world]” (The Guardian). This defiant quest had what seemed to be failures. For instance, after “writing lyrics for [a] Brazilian rock star. Brazil’s ruling militia took exception to his lyrics [and] he was repeatedly arrested for subversion and eventually tortured with electric shocks to his genitals” (The Guardian). Nevertheless, even after extended failures—perceived stalls in his life just like the boy in The Alchemist had similar stalls—Coelho somehow persevered and achieved his dream of becoming a writer just like the boy achieved his dream. It’s because of these parallels to the author’s life that this book could certainly be taken seriously. Reading this book alone, not knowing the author’s perspective significantly degrades its seriousness.
The Alchemist is light in mood and style while addressing weighty issues tempered with magic and mythology. The magic and mythology are used bluntly with the reader continually cudgeled with parables and religious, philosophical dogma. That being said, Coelho had a tragic life filled with misery until he became a writer. Those experiences are directly reflected in his writing: Coelho’s tone and mood are fervent and fantastical as he explores serious issues in his own style. Coelho’s The Alchemist, once his entire life is taken into account, is almost autobiographical and addresses how the tragedy in his life caused him to become who he is today, to succeed at his dream even among failures of the past and facing the potential for failure in the future. But, as Coelho states, “I may be defeated but I will not fail” (The Guardian).
There’s contention as to whether this novel is literary or genre. At face value and logically, this book is a fairy tale. There is an ordinary boy who goes on an adventure. That same boy is aided by and interacts with spirits: the wind, the sun, and “the hand that wrote all” (Coelho 157). Fairy tales are not considered literary; therefore, this book is not literary.
Now, I hate doing this because I don’t like being wishy-washy in literary analysis and criticism, but this book is also literary (as my arguments above have alluded to all this while). The intent of this book being literary may be bluntly stated by Coelho himself when he writes, “’Speak to the hand that wrote all,’ said the sun” (157). “The hand that wrote all” may be the author of The Alchemist, Coelho himself. Sure, it’s an allusion to a god because the author is religious, but this book may border on being autobiographical, and autobiographies are written by the one who experienced the events that are being recounted—this, perhaps, solidifying that “the hand” is Coelho’s. Coelho may even take this one step further by writing, “Because only the hand understood that it was a larger design that had moved the universe to the point at which six days of creation had evolved into a Master Work” (158). All the events the boy faces, obviously, are a construct of the author, an author who wanted to create a “Master Work” or masterwork, continuing his dream of being a writer, and if that writer’s life is taken into context, the messages of this novel become far weightier and the tone more serious. Just because this book isn’t rooted in a world that is definitively real or through language that directly translates to the real world doesn’t necessarily exclude this book from the literary club.
This book is a phenomenon where the author uses the perfect amount of literary, philosophical, and mythological alchemy to create a book that has resounded positively and negatively with millions (both of which perpetuated sales). There is not any one right answer to the question of literary versus genre regarding The Alchemist, and part of me wonders if that really matters. The bottom line is, this book got millions of people to read and therein lies its success.