Study Guide

The Englishman in The Alchemist

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The Englishman

Hip, hip, cheerio, don't you know?

Well, even if the Englishman doesn't talk that way, we can't help but caricature him because pretty much all we know about him is that he's a man and he's English. Put it together and what do you get? The Englishman. That's right.

Okay, but there's got to be some reason he shows up in the caravan with Santiago, besides being from Merry Old England. Especially in a book that explicitly tells us that there are no coincidences. So what's his deal?

The Englishman is, like Santiago, looking for his treasure and following his Personal Legend. He's got his own, personal set of Urim and Thummim, and knows all about omens. But the
Englishman works as a foil to Santiago because he's going about his journey in a very different way than our buddy Santi.

For one thing, whereas Santiago learns from watching animals and nature, the Englishman is a bookworm and learns through studying his ancient alchemy texts. When they decide to switch it up and practice the other's way, they both get frustrated:

The Englishman was disappointed. The years of research, the magic symbols, the strange words and the laboratory equipment…none of this had made an impression on the boy. His soul must be too primitive to understand those things, he thought.

[. . .]

"Go back to watching the caravan," he said. "That didn't teach me anything, either." (2.199-201)

Of course, when he finally meets the alchemist, the Englishman learns that having his head buried in books all day wasn't going to get him anywhere. This man of ideas is ready for some action—and it can't come soon enough. He tells Santiago, "It was my fear of failure that first kept me from attempting the Master Work. Now, I'm beginning what I could have started ten years ago. But I'm happy at least that I didn't wait twenty years" (2.298).

What a great attitude, right? E for effort (and for Englishman). The Englishman's role in the novel seems to be to show that Santiago's path isn't the only one; as long as you follow the signs, you too can achieve your Personal Legend ™.

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