Review: Gender and Allegory in the Alchemist6 February 2017
To say that The Alchemist (1988) is popular would be an understatement. The jacket of my copy proclaims that Paulo Coelho’s novel has sold 65 million copies worldwide “touching the minds and hearts of his readers”.
I think the reason it’s so successful is its combination of a simple narrative and concealed allegorical meaning. The protagonist is an Andalusian shepherd named Santiago who dreams of a treasure near the Pyramids and, with the help of a gypsy and a mysterious king, sets off in search of it through the Sahara. Coelho leaves the (other?) characters unnamed and the prose stylised, inviting each reader to draw parallels between the story and their own experience.
I found the idea of the ‘Personal Legend’ an interesting, if not entirely original, way of conceptualising your life and your future. As the king Melchizedek explains to Santiago, your Personal Legend is the thing you’ve wanted to do since you were small, because during that period of life everything is possible. It’s a dream that you feel you’re meant to realise and that you have a duty to realise. To do this, you have to recognise your Personal Legend, give yourself permission to pursue it and then set out to achieve it.
Santiago’s Personal Legend is to find the treasure near the Pyramids, but when he begins his search he has no idea what the treasure is or where it lies. A Personal Legend doesn’t have to be neatly pinned down before you decide to follow it. In fact, for Santiago it’s the process of discovery and listening to his heart that turns out to be more valuable than the chest of gold and jewels he finds in the end.
‘Listening to your heart’ is not the only cliché that rears its head in the book. This one’s horror is, however, ameliorated, because Coelho stretches it into a dialogue between Santiago and his own anthropomorphised heart. Just like the next person, that heart has its own insecurities and fears. It certainly isn’t an assured fount of self-knowledge.
Here, ‘listening to your heart’ is more a way of dealing with your internal dialogue. It’s about giving authority to the parts of you that are least susceptible to social pressures, the parts that are more honest about your feelings and the parts that don’t always try to justify and rationalise your actions. This, I think, everyone could do more of.
So, Coelho’s allegory yields some interesting tools for self-reflection.
First of all, the novel doesn’t reflect that opportunity to follow one’s Legend might be distributed unevenly. Despite setbacks, Santiago is able to realise his relatively easily. His family gives him moral and financial support. He’s not obliged to stay at home to look after younger siblings or a sick relative. He’s in good health, with no disability or mental illness that might hinder him and when he encounters hardship, people who believe in him appear with advice and affirmation.
Not everyone is so lucky, yet Coelho implies that following one’s Personal Legend is a matter of personal choice rather than access to opportunity.
In some cases his representations actually entrench structural inequality. Coelho explicitly indicates that women don’t have their own Personal Legends, meaning that the question of choosing to follow them never even arises.
Fatima, whom Santiago falls in love with at first sight, says to him, “Since I was little, I always dreamed that the desert would bring me the biggest present of my life. Finally this present arrived, and it’s you… I belong to your Personal Legend”.
The possibility isn’t envisaged that Fatima might have her own treasure to search for, say, in distant Australia. Coelho quite unabashedly denies his female characters the potential to realise their unique personal fulfilment, instead subsuming them into that of his male protagonist.
As Santiago is about to leave the oasis to continue his journey, he asks Fatima, “Are you crying?”
She replies, “I’m a woman of the desert, but first of all, I’m a woman”.
Using Fatima as a mouthpiece, Coelho suggests that gender comes before all aspects of a woman’s identity, and that it therefore explains all aspects of her behaviour, including her emotional expression.
Yet he suggests that the opposite is true for men by giving the main position in this ‘universal’ tale of self-discovery to Santiago. Unlike Fatima, Santiago’s gender is hardly portrayed as the defining aspect of his identity. He’s a young traveller seeking fulfilment long before he’s a man. It’s a classic case of men being purported to “represent the positive and the neuter” as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in The Second Sex. Theoretically, then, a so-called ‘neuter’ main character enables readers of any gender to identify with his experiences, and importantly the ones that communicate Coelho’s ‘universal’ philosophy. Even if one of those experiences is playing the male part in a normative romance.
Of the millions of people who have read The Alchemist, I’m certain that many were women. Coelho urges those women to transcend the issue of gender to access his various philosophical truths, including the idea of the Personal Legend. But paradoxically, through Fatima’s character he also explicitly denies women access to their own Personal Legend. Whilst he purveys a ‘universal tale’ that supposedly crosses all kinds of boundaries, Coelho in fact entrenches some of those boundaries by dictating who is allowed to pursue personal fulfilment and who isn’t.
Yes, Coelho has touched the hearts of a squillion readers. My own heart was one of them, but it wasn’t sure whether it appreciated his prodding. It came to me complaining.