Paulo Coelho attempts to address his views regarding the purpose of life and how individuals might find their own purpose in his novel, The Alchemist. The novel’s ultimate message is that the universe helps people who help themselves, not in itself an objectionable moral for a well-written novel. However, the way Coelho makes this argument succeed is not by way of anything that will hold true for most of his readers, but by use of a rhetorical trick. Furthermore, Coelho’s message could be interpreted as only valid when applied to a small group of people, those who are already a part of the dominant global culture. Despite its best-selling nature and general acclaim, then, Coelho’s story a young boy and his “Personal Legend” (22) does not make a compelling argument. This is because, when faced with scrutiny in the form of looking at the larger universe outside his novel, Coelho’s notion of a purposeful and benevolent universe does not work.
The Alchemist starts with its protagonist, a young shepherd named Santiago living a simple life in the hills of Andalusia, in Spain. Santiago enjoys reading, and has had the same dream—one in which he is told of a great treasure—twice in a row. Most of the story is about his travels as he journeys to Egypt to find this treasure, and he eventually does find a chest of gold, although it turns out to have been where he was originally sleeping all along. In the epilogue, we see Santiago, now a rich man, happy not only from his new-found wealth, but from the way he has grown and the things he saw on his journey. This, we are meant to assume, is the real treasure, and it is one that ties in with the conclusion—calling it a ‘moral’ might be a bit too strong—that Coelho builds up in his story from nearly the start.
Throughout the novel, Santiago is met with resistance to his dream. The leader of the bandits who attacks him tells him he needs to “learn that a man shouldn’t be so stupid” (Coelho 163). After he leaves Spain he has all his money stolen in Tangiers by a man who ironically tells him that the city “is a port, and every port has its thieves” (Coelho 37). Despite these set-backs, Coelho smoothly sets up as the main premise of the novel the idea that a positive attitude and a desire for success overcomes all obstacles. This is made most explicit in the role of Melchizedek, who tells the boy the book he is reading “describes people’s inability to choose their own Personal Legends” (Coelho 18) and argues that, in fact, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” (Coelho 22).
Melchizedek’s discussion of the book, especially, is a coy nod to the type of story Coelho himself is writing. This type is clearly one which follows the old man’s opinion rather than the one in the book Santiago is reading. Herein lies the real problem: Coelho’s acknowledgment that he is writing fiction—or indeed the fact that he is writing fiction at all. Because of this, The Alchemist loses any ability to argue about the facts of the real universe. And yet that, it is implied, is just what it is doing. Coelho is surely urging the reader to act more like Santiago and follow his or her dreams, as can be seen by the ending of the novel where the shepherd is happy and rich. The way some of the other characters who have no wish to reach their own personal legend are described leaves this in no doubt.
Unfortunately, Coelho’s argument is essentially circular, or at least begs the question it claims to answer. Begging the question, also known as petitio principii, is a logical fallacy which happens when “writers assume as evidence for their argument the very conclusion they are attempting to prove” (Wheeler). In other words, Coelho uses the plot of his novel to prove that his premise—the idea that the universe is a benevolent helping agent—is valid. While this might be acceptable if the novel were real, it is not. This means Coelho’s argument is logically circular, because it uses itself to prove that its conclusion is a valid one. The classic example of this type of argument is using the Bible to prove that God exists, because the Bible says God exists and the Bible is the word of God, and thus cannot lie (Wheeler). Clearly this is similar to what Coelho is doing, using his novel both as the argument he is making and as proof that it is true. Coelho also engages in a hasty generalization by assuming that what is true for Santiago is true for everybody, something else that does not hold up to outside scrutiny.
The last point is particularly interesting when explored from the point of view of postcolonialism. Postcolonialism is a field of literary criticism where traditionally ignored parts of the world are given center stage, and where the focus on Europe is held up to criticism. More specifically, Postcolonialism “is the study of the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period” (Bahri), always with a focus on how this interaction had a negative effect on the colonized. In literary terms, postcolonialism often focuses not only on the historical colonization of other countries but on how that non-Western cultures are still marginalized today. It is interested in the question of whether “new forms of imperialism [are] replacing colonialism and how” (Bahri).
The impact of this theory on The Alchemist should immediately be clear. Santiago is from Spain, and he is the one who benefits in the novel. From this point of view, it could be argued that Coelho’s “Personal Legend” idea only holds true for Europeans who are educated and part of the establishment—as we learn that Santiago is, since he was not only educated but “had studied Latin, Spanish, and theology” (Coelho 8). Furthermore, non-Europeans are repeatedly marginalized in the text. The woman who tells Santiago’s fortune is dismissed as “the Gypsy,” and Melchizedek sadly informs Santiago that such people are “experts at getting people to” give up their money (Coelho 25).
The (presumably Arabic) leader of the bandits who attack Santiago at the end of the story also come off badly. Their leader scoffs at the young boy for being “so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream,” adding that he had a similar dream about a treasure in Spain that he did not act on (Coelho 162). Implicit in this is the suggestion that the bandit is, in fact, stupid, for not acting on his dream, a suggestion that is made more potent by Santiago’s subsequent discovery of “a chest of Spanish gold coins” at the location the bandit dreamed of (Coelho 166). This could be used to make the argument that it is only Europeans who can really follow their dreams. To push the argument further, one could bring up Fatima, who exists in the text only as “the merchant’s daughter,” (Coelho 5) and as an object of Santiago’s love. She is never even asked to think what her personal legend might be.
Such a critical level of thought as postcolonialism, while it does shed interesting light on Coelho’s novel, is not even necessary to show how unrealistic its view of the universe is. Santiago’s seemingly blessed life has already been discussed enough above, but a comparison to another, much darker “personal legend” brings it into even more stark relief. This other legend is a more well-established one: the myth of Sisyphus, the man in Hades forced to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Albert Camus, in his essay on the subject, suggests that Sisyphus’ “unspeakable penalty” is that his “whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing” (120). Camus’ main argument, despite the obvious differences in approach and subject matter, is not entirely dissimilar. He argues that, despite, Sisyphus’ torment, “he is stronger than his rock” because of his ability to think while he returns down the mountain to retrieve it (Camus 121). This shows man in direct opposition to the universe, but still happy.
Although Camus’ argument is obviously much more depressing, as it does not rely on people generally getting what they want without any difficulties, it seems more realistic when you consider the vast majority of the world. Indeed, Camus himself says that “the workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks,” comparing him directly to Sisyphus’ torment (121). If every single person had a great “personal legend” like Santiago does, the world would not function. This can be seen even in the text of the novel, because so much of Santiago’s success relies on people who are not following their hearts. If it were not for his friend he traded his sheep to, for instance, or the people who run the caravan and the ship he uses to get to Egypt, Santiago’s legend would be impossible. It also, as suggested by a postcolonial approach, implicitly relies on the (again, presumably Arab) bandit captain not following his own personal legend. When viewed objectively, it becomes obvious that Santiago’s fable is just that—a fable. It is not something that could ever be possible in the real world, at least not most of its people.
Ultimately, then, Coelho’s upbeat parable of following your heart and finding your life’s true purpose runs into problems on several levels. First, there is the patent unreality of a text where the protagonist is so obviously singled out by a benevolent universe, or God. This problem is made worse by Coelho’s reliance on his own story to argue that the principle which guides it is a valid one. Finally, the troubling tendency of Coelho’s novel to focus on a typically privileged type of person—a white man who is part of the dominant culture—makes his message even more difficult to swallow. If Coelho had chosen as his premise an argument that was dependent on outside proof, his novel might have made a compelling read that truly affirmed a person’s ability to change his lot; as it is, Santiago comes across as an unnaturally blessed protagonist for whom everything was always going to go right anyway.
- Bahri, Deepika. “Introduction to Postcolonial Studies.” Postcolonial Studies at Emory. 1996. Web. October 17, 2010.
- Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967. Print.
- Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.
- Wheeler, Kip. Logical Fallacies Handlist. September 30, 2010. Web. October 17, 2010.