This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Who are the main characters in The Alchemist? What is each character’s significance in the story?
The Alchemist is a story of transformation. But rather than transforming lead into gold, Paulo Coelho teaches us, through the story of a shepherd boy who has the courage to follow his dreams, the power of transformation for our lives.
Here’s a look at the characters from the story.
The main character in The Alchemist is an Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, who dreams of traveling. He’s expected by his parents to go into the priesthood, but he chooses instead to become a shepherd so he can wander the countryside. He prefers constant travel because when you stay in one place, he says, too many people get too involved with you, and therefore expect you to conform to how they think you should live.
Through this backstory, Coelho establishes that Santiago is one who follows his own path in life. We learn through this character, and others along the way, how important it is to not give in to others’ expectations and to be true to yourself and find your own destiny.
The old man in the plaza, who turns out to be a king named Melchizedek, strikes up a conversation with Santiago, and through this conversation, Coelho teaches us about the importance of following the signs that will guide you to your destiny.
The Crystal Merchant
Through the next important encounter in the story, Coelho shows us what can happen when we encounter obstacles on our path, and what becomes of those who don’t follow their life’s calling.
When Santiago arrives in Africa, before setting out toward Egypt, he’s robbed of all his money. This is the first major obstacle along his way. He becomes discouraged and begins to doubt everything he’s believed in. But he realizes that he needs to earn money to either continue on his journey, or return home, so he acquires a job in the shop of a crystal merchant, where he ends up working for a year.
During that time, Santiago has many conversations with the merchant, some of them about following his calling. The merchant tells the boy that he’s always dreamed of going on pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; it’s his calling in life. However, when Santiago asks why he doesn’t go, the merchant admits that he prefers that it stay a dream. He feels that if he actually achieves it, he’ll have nothing left to dream of, and therefore nothing to live for.
Through the next character we encounter, Coelho teaches us about tapping into our collective spiritual power.
Traveling on the desert caravan along with the boy is an Englishman, who’s seeking to learn alchemy, the magical art of turning lead into gold. While the Englishman is explaining alchemy to the boy, he tells him about the Soul of the World and its universal language.
Santiago’s meeting with an alchemist at the oasis brings us to the penultimate point of the story. It’s in the boy’s interactions with the alchemist that Coelho teaches us the nature of true love, as well as what it means to learn the universal language, immerse ourselves in the divine spirit of the universe, and believe in the power of transformation.
The caravan eventually arrives at an oasis, where the boy finds love. He meets a girl named Fatima, with whom he feels an instant soul-mate bond, and he knows she must be part of his calling. He’s tempted to give up his mission and stay in the oasis with Fatima. He fears that if he leaves he’ll never see her again, although she assures him she’ll wait for him because she too believes in the universal signs. But again, his temptation to stay is a test, as he’ll soon discover. Santiago will realize that again he almost gave up on following his calling out of fear and the lure of comfort over risk.
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- A guide to the infamous story by Paulo Coelho
- A breakdown of the symbolism and lessons found in the story
- A comparison of Coelho's ideas to other philosophical and spiritual traditions and beliefs