Symbols in The Alchemist

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  • 0:04 ''The Alchemist'' Background
  • 0:31 Symbols in ''The Alchemist''
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Paulo Coelho's 'The Alchemist' has many symbols that work to develop the overall premise of the novel. In this lesson, we will look at the symbolism of Santiago's sheep, alchemy, and the pyramids of Egypt.

The Alchemist Background

The Alchemist by Paul Coelho tracks the journey of Santiago, a shepherd who is traveling to the pyramids in Egypt after having a recurring dream. The novel deals with many ideas, such as humility, interconnectedness, self-development, and the purity of life. Symbols represent many of these ideas in the novel. In this lesson, we will learn about the symbolism of Santiago's sheep, alchemy, and the pyramids of Egypt.

Symbols in The Alchemist

Symbols can be objects, people, actions, or words that represent something else. Symbols within literature work to develop a deeper meaning of the work that extends beyond the book itself.

First let's take a look at Santiago's sheep. Santiago is a shepherd who sells his sheep to make his journey to see the pyramids of Egypt. Although he sells his sheep, Santiago reflects on shepherding throughout his journey. The sheep live quiet, peaceful lives without the need to search for something better. Since Santiago sold his sheep and sought out something more in life than what he had, the sheep represent humility and living a fulfilled life that doesn't require the need to seek out a better path.

Now let's take a closer look at the symbol of alchemy. The practice of alchemy is the medieval-era idea of transforming one substance into another, usually one substance into gold. This practice is present throughout the novel. As Santiago ventures on his quest to see the pyramids, he meets the Englishman and the alchemist, both who practice alchemy.

Alchemy symbolizes both self-development and the value of life. Alchemy symbolizes self-development when the Englishman explains the study of alchemy to Santiago. Alchemists spend much of their lives working toward the Master Work and studying metals. It's a slow, long journey. The careful study of alchemy shows Santiago that dedication to a craft results in a skill set that can be applied to all aspects of life, and thus improve one's life. Additionally, alchemy symbolizes the purity of life. Santiago's interaction with the alchemist teaches him that life is pure, much like metals are pure. The alchemist explains to Santiago that pure elements cannot be ruined because they resist the pressures of external forces. For example, the alchemist tells Santiago that his love with Fatima will remain intact, so long as it is true.

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