Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist tells the story of Santiago, a young shepherd living in an abandoned church in a small Andalusian town, who is stripped of his comfortable and safe lifestyle after an encounter with Melchizedek, an Islamic king who tells him of his “Personal Legend” (21). Melchizedek points Santiago in the direction of his treasure only after taking one-tenth of his money, giving him two stones, and a lesson on reading omens. Throughout his journey, Santiago meets new friends, has everything stolen from him three times, and travels the vast and unknown Sahara Desert all while achieving personal growth and an understanding of his life’s meaning. His journey leads him to an Oasis where he meets the alchemist, a man who will lead him on to the pyramids of Egypt. When Santiago finally completes his journey and arrives at the pyramids, he is beaten by soldiers and ironically told where the treasure is truly hidden: buried beneath a tree at an abandoned church, the exact spot where he had started.
Coelho masterfully works symbolism into The Alchemist to give the reader a direct picture and deeper understanding of his piece. These symbols allow the reader to gain valuable insight into the piece through background knowledge and relations to the symbol itself. One example of symbolism in The Alchemist is mirages, or hallucinations. This symbol is not used in the way a typical reader would think. Instead of meaning a picture that one sees in the extreme heat, it is used to represent a vision or aspiration. Although the term mirage is mentioned only once in the novel, it is symbolized throughout by Santiago’s struggle to obtain his treasure. His hardships in traveling give the reader a sense that the treasure itself may be a mirage, something Santiago is only dreaming of but may never physically reach.
Coelho uses two separate meanings of the word mirage. The literal definition word mirage is used the one time that it is mentioned and is understood to mean a vision. Santiago is watching hawks flying through the sky when an adverse move by one bird causes him to see a sign. Suddenly, one of the hawks made a flashing dive through the sky, attacking the other. As it did so, a sudden, fleeting image came to the boy: an army, with its swords at the ready, riding into the oasis. The vision vanished immediately, but it had shaken him. He had heard people speak of mirages, and had already seen some himself: they were desires that, because of their intensity, materialized over the sands of the desert. But he certainly didn't desire that an army invade the oasis. (100) At this point in the novel, Coelho is using mirage in the literal sense of a vision seen in the desert. Although Santiago sees it is a sign of the future and acts on this thought, the meaning of the word in this sense remains the same.
Coelho also inadvertently compares Santiago’s entire journey as a mirage in itself. There are many times throughout the plot where it seems Santiago has almost reached his treasure or has made progress only to find a block in the road or a digression he must make. Although the reader may not make the connection during the first read, it is evident that the story line mirrors that of a mirage as Santiago seems physically unable to reach his treasure with ease.
The first instance of such struggle comes early in his journey. Santiago sold his sheep and was traveling through Tangier when he stopped in a bar. There he meets and strange man who, for the right price, offers to take him to the pyramids claiming they “could get to the Pyramids by tomorrow” (36). Santiago allows himself to trust this man and lets him hold his money, the entirety of his possessions. The man leads Santiago through the plaza, a maze of people, vendors, and animals and, eventually, Santiago loses the stranger and all his money. This is the first time Santiago’s Personal Legend could be perceived as a...