Study Guide

The Alchemist Fate and Free Will

By Paulo Coelho

Fate and Free Will

Part 1
Melchizedek

"And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." (1.118)

Ooh, ooh, we know. How about an unlimited supply of chocolate milkshakes and fries? Oh, wait. Maybe the old king was talking about a desire that goes beyond the after-school hunger pangs. He's saying that there's a deep desire in each of us to fulfill our dreams, and that if we'll go for it things will fall into place to help us achieve it.

"What's the world's greatest lie?" the boy asked, completely surprised.

"It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie." (1.83-84)

When Melchizedek sees the book that Santiago is reading (we're pretty sure it's Dr. Zhivago), he says that it's irritating: it portrays its characters as helpless against the tide of history. The old man's message is that everyone can control their own lives and reach their goals, regardless of their circumstances. Here, anyone missing a pair of bootstraps?

"[. . . T]here is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth." (1.115)

Hm. Things are starting to get tricky here. First Melchizedek said that fate doesn't control people. Now he's saying that your desires aren't really your own, but come from the universe. So does that mean we're fated to want what we want? Doesn't that leave us out of control?

Santiago

"They wanted me to be a priest, but I decided to become a shepherd." (1.85)

By defying his parents, Santiago is showing that he is not one of the sheep-like people who just do what people expect of him. He's already taken a first step toward taking control of his own life, by following his dream to travel. (Also, Brain Snack: Jesus is often symbolically referred to as a shepherd, and priests have "flocks," so … good job escaping your destiny, Santiago. Not.)

Part 2

And when two such people encounter each other, and their eyes meet, the past and the future become unimportant. There is only that moment, and the incredible certainty that everything under the sun has been written by one hand only. (2.257)

Love is one of the most important manifestations of fate in The Alchemist. The cool part about it is that it isn't just one person realizing their dream; it´s a moment where two people´s dreams combine, because the mysterious hand that wrote the whole world history has decided that they would be in love. (Of course, notice that Santiago gets to travel the world which Fatima has to hang out in the desert and wait. Girls, always hanging around waiting for their true love to show up, right?)

The Englishman was disappointed. It seemed he had made the long journey for nothing. The boy was also saddened; his friend was in pursuit of his Personal Legend. And, when someone was in such pursuit, the entire universe made an effort to help him succeed—that's what the old king had said. He couldn't have been wrong. (2.243)

This is one of several setbacks that cause Santiago to doubt the idea that dreams are fated to come true. When he and the Englishman have trouble finding the alchemist, it seems that, even though the Englishman is following his Personal Legend, they've come to a dead end. Of course it's all part of the fun, since the difficulty of finding the alchemist leads Santiago straight to Fatima. Bonus two-for-one on Personal Legends. Ka-ching!

"Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him," his heart said. "We, people's hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer want to go in search of them. We speak of them only to children. Later, we simply let life proceed, in its own direction, toward its own fate." (2.513)

Here's another fate + free will moment. Apparently everyone is fated to find a treasure (really? um, still waiting over here), but we're also able to use our free will to ignore the signs and refuse to seek the treasure. In other words, we should be buying those lottery tickets?

The Alchemist

"If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return." (2.467)

Okay, Mr. Alchemist, you´re getting pretty abstract with your yakkity-yak. Let´s unpack this code. The alchemist is using alchemy as a metaphor for love; if Santiago has found true love or pure matter, it will last forever, even as he goes out on his quests for treasure. But if it's just a crush or a flirtation—a moment of light—then there was no substance there in the first place and it won't last.

"I'm an old superstitious Arab, and I believe in our proverbs. There's one that says, 'Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.'" (2.710)

Hmm. Something may be lost in translation, but it seems to us that there is an "only" missing in here. Logically, everything that happens twice also has happened once, so the sentence doesn't really make sense. But apparently there are two types of events: the once-in-a-lifetime kind and the kinds that we are fated to repeat in a pattern. Of course, there's no way you'll know which is which until it either (1) happens again, or (2) you die.

The Crystal Merchant

"Maktub," the merchant said, finally.

"What does that mean?"

"You would have to have been born an Arab to understand," he answered. "But in your language it would be something like, 'It is written.'" (2.47-49)

Here comes the maktub again. This Arabic concept of an event being written has a lot to do with fate and destiny. The crystal merchant isn't really into Santiago's innovations to his business, but he feels that destiny has brought the boy to his shop and there's no stopping the changes to come. The events are written and he's not powerful enough to erase them.