The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo

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To my relief, I was not the only one at the book club meeting that didn’t love this month’s choice!

I don’t usually read modern fiction; it’s just not my thing, and I can’t really say way. Maybe I’m just always reading the “wrong” modern fiction and so it has a bad rap in my mind. I did try to have an open mind when I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. I think discussing it with others did help me to give it more of a chance. I probably wouldn’t have finished it, despite its brevity, if I didn’t know the book club meeting was coming up.

In the end, I thought the writing trite and the underlying message saccharine. The author was aiming for a specific religious agenda, and it seemed forced and inappropriate to me. Besides, the back cover of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo claims, “Every few decades a book comes along that changes the lives of its readers forever.” I guess that just meant that I expected more from it.

In The Alchemist, a young shepherd dreamed of the pyramids in Egypt. The next morning, he met a mysterious king who told him to follow his dream, so he sold his sheep and moved to Africa in search of the pyramids. When he was robbed of his money, he had to find a way to earn more so he could continue to follow his dream. In the desert on the way to Africa, he found other people searching for their “Personal Legends” (i.e., their life-long dreams). One man was afraid to pursue his dream; one man was so distracted in searching for his dream that he missed seeing it right in front of him. The alchemist, a wizard who turns lead into gold, guided the young boy to the pyramids, teaching him how to read nature to find the meaning of the omens on his way to accomplishing his “Personal Legend.”

The Alchemist has been termed a fable. As such, it is telling the story of everyone’s journey through life. It’s a spiritual book. The king at the beginning was Melchizedek of the Old Testament 4,000 years later, giving Santiago the Urim and Thummim to guide him when he struggles. Melchizedek and the alchemist paraphrased biblical truths throughout the book.  Because The Alchemist is a parable of a spiritual journey, my thoughts about the book are spiritual and religious in nature.

The Negative

Of all the religious messages that are discussed in The Alchemist, one seems strangely absent: charity. Instead, it seemed to me that Santiago was encouraged throughout to be selfish in his quest, ignoring others (even a woman he loved) on the way. I believe that in reality, as Paul says many times in scripture, life is about serving other people.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. …

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. …

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (KJV, 1 Corinthians 13: 2, 8, 11-13)

I felt that Coehlo was encouraging us to follow childish things: random dreams that don’t really build us. Is Santiago’s box of gold really supposed to symbolize something precious in our spiritual life? That seems contrary to the gospel Jesus preached:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (KJV, Mat 6:20-21)

The Positive

There was one part that I did like in the book, and that was Santiago’s work with the crystal merchant. Because Santiago wanted to continue his dream, he needed more money and therefore kept suggesting ideas to the merchant for improving business. At one point, the crystal merchant observed that because of the boy’s influence, he’d have to expand the shop, which may not be a good thing for him. He says,

I’m already used to the way things are. Before you came, I was thinking about how much time I had wasted in the same place, while my friends had moved on, and either went bankrupt or did better than they had before. It made me very depressed. Now, I can see that it hasn’t been too bad. The shop is exactly the size I always wanted it to be. I don’t want to change anything, because I don’t know how to deal with change. I’m used to the way I am. (page 57-58)

I do think it’s important for a person to be happy with the life he or she has chosen. Like the shopkeeper, we might be happy with the status quo when we realize our alternatives. Finding things that make us happy in our situations in life is very important. We should all have goals and dreams of some kind. Maybe this book can help people be proactive in finding those goals and dreams.

I do believe that personal dreams (or “Personal Legends,” if you insist) change as we grow older, as we make decisions, and as other people enter our lives. Our five-year-old dreams should grow up into adult dreams. Sometimes they may be similar, but they still have to be appropriate for adults.

And I think that loving and serving other people is a key to a happy life, not searching for physical treasure or selfishly abandoning others in order to pursue a childhood dream.

Did you like The Alchemist? Why or why not? Did you think Santiago was being selfish?

What was/is your dream? Has it changed throughout your life?

I had two dreams as a child: to write books and to travel. I’ve had the chance to travel (so someone’s going to say “but you already got your dream!”). It’s interesting: my family had the chance to spend a year living in Australia, and although I’d still love to travel through Europe, I’d be okay to never travel again. It’s really nice to stay in one place. I also no longer feel any compulsion to write a book. Raising a happy, healthy, well-developed son has replaced any other dreams I had. Maybe someday I’ll consider writing, but really, my dreams have changed since I was a child. I’m liking the motherhood and the reading things right now.

If you have reviewed The Alchemist on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Other Reviews (I’m sure I missed a lot! These are just the first two pages from the search engine.)

Reviewed on June 18, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I love the passages you picked from the Bible and contrasted them with the book. I didn’t specifically think exactly the same things when I read this (almost 10 years ago, and then again about 3 years ago), but, yes, I think it even has more new age principles than biblical. New age thinking is more into the self, while the Bible is more into others, selflessness.

    I didn’t have violent reactions about it, though. I liked it, mildly, for its accessibility, but also didn’t love it for its extreme generality, which isn’t exactly life-changing, to say the least. But it is a fable, hence that. I’m pretty forgiving of authors.

    I liked his book The Fifth Mountain better. But I didn’t also completely love it. I just didn’t dislike it.

    However, I read Eleven Minutes, and had negative feelings for the book almost all throughout. And then I read Veronika Decides to Die, which I couldn’t finish. I have never felt compelled to pick up anything by him after that.

    I still like Coelho as a person because I know he’s a sincere and compassionate man, but I just don’t have any patience with his books any longer. Just not my cup of tea.

  • I totally agree with you on this book. As you say: trite and saccharine. I never like to be spoon fed, and the food wasn’t even very good. But I wouldn’t write off modern fiction altogether!

  • Thanks for the link to my review. I liked this book a whole lot more than you did…but I didn’t contrast it to the Bible so much as looked at it in a more global way and so I found there to be some wisdom in this fable which resonated with me. I can see where some readers would find it too simplistic or too New Age. This seems to be one of those books which polarizes readers – they either love it or hate it…not a lot of gray!

  • I have never considered Coehlo literary fiction – especially this book, I’ve always thought it was a parable that was really a self-help volume or something like that. To be fair, I’ve never read it, but it had always seemed quite shallow to me, so I didn’t bother. I think there’s much better modern fiction for you to spend your time on! Don’t discredit all of it simply because of this guy! 😉

  • I’ve been curious about this book, but the story didn’t sound very interesting to me. I also do not trust books that have commentary on the back that says “this book will change you forever.” How does the book know that? That is an immediate turn-off for me.

    I loved that you included the Corinthians passage in your review. These words were spoken on my wedding day and we did use the King James version with the word “charity” instead of “love.” I always felt like that version spoke to me more than the translation with “love” in it.

  • Because I’m not a religious person and don’t believe in the Bible, I didn’t mind the messages in this book at all. I felt it was more spiritual than religious. To me, it was about never giving up on yourself. About trying again and again when we fail. Living life instead of trudging along without every taking time to look around us. In a way, I think the book was congruent with religion. If you liken the treasure, for instance, with Heaven, and his difficult path as the straight and narrow way, and all the distractions as things meant to lure him off the path, it seems to fit. I don’t think the book could address all messages, but I do think it all depends on how you look at it. I can understand the sacchirine comment. For some reason, I was able to take that with this one, when I normally can’t.

    My review is here:

  • My book club discussed this one a year or so ago. We had mixed opinions as well. Some really loved it, others were bored with it. Honestly I can’t remember what I thought of it other than the fact that Jeremy Irons narrating the audio book did a fantastic job.

  • I have not read any Coehlo. I’m hoping to get to him this year. He’s on my TBR short list. I see a lot of mixed thoughts on him, so I’m anxious to give him a try.


  • I haven’t read this Coehlo, but I did read – and enjoyed – his ‘Veronika Decides to Die.’ My impression is that book isn’t as “shove the message down your throat” as his other books, which I haven’t read. Veronika was a wonderful read.

  • Kathy, thanks for reading!

    Jackie, yeah, maybe this author is not for everyone…

    claire, I am not familiar with new age thinking…I tend to take a more a Biblical/religious stand in my own life. So I guess that’s why this didn’t help me, or appeal to me. And yes, I certainly am not saying anything about the author as a person. I just didn’t love his book. I’m not sure my reaction was violent either. It just didn’t do much for me and the “self” focus kind of rubbed me the wrong way a little bit.

    Mary, I’m going to give modern fiction a chance….a little at a time.

    Wendy, I do think there was so good wisdom in it! But since most of it originated from the Bible anyway, I guess I just like to stick with the original source for inspiration!

    Steph, it’s interesting to consider this self-help. I really just read it for the book club; it only took an hour and a half. I probably won’t waste my time with any of his other books, though.

    Tracie, I agree — no book speaks to everyone in the same way.

    Amanda, I think that’s what is meant by “new age.” I can see the journey as you describe it and I love the fact that it’s encouraging people to not give up on themselves. I wouldn’t say it’s a horrible book, just not for me!

    Heather J., audiobook narrators do help sometimes, don’t they?!

    Lezlie, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  • I have tried to reading another of his books Veronika Decides to Die, and couldn’t get into it. The movie is coming out in he fall, maybe I will see it and see if it can tempt me back into the book. I know the Alchemist is supposed to be his big book but I have never heard enough good stuff about it to want to read it. Maybe it’s one of those love it or hate it type things.

  • Hi Lisa, thanks for the recommendation. It sounds like Veronika is another love it or hate it book! I think I may stay away from Coehlo for now, but we’ll see in the future!

  • I hate book descriptions with quotes like the one you pointed to. It just makes me think the book is going to be amazing, and so even if it’s really good I feel disappointed. Plus, book jackets say that so often it annoys me. I’m sorry you didn’t like this more. Modern fiction might just not be your thing — I wish I could think of something to recommend at the moment, but I’m fresh out 🙂

  • I met a guy while travelling who swore by this book: he said it changed his life. I was amazed, so I picked it up somewhere – a secondhand bookshop, probably. And I was like: ‘what?’ It is very fable-like, and I almost think it would be lovely as a little morality tale in a children’s collection, apart from your observation that charity isn’t seen as a very important virtue! But I didn’t think it was anything special either. I can’t really remember what happens at the end, but I’m sure it was just a ‘follow your dreams’ message – kind of reminds me of those feelgood dance movies, like Save the Last Dance or whatever…haha!

  • estelle, yeah, I’m a bit suspicious of that kind of “change your life” comment. Maybe it’s the “morality tale” feature that made it not my favorite: it wasn’t a bad book but not a favorite for me either!

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