Reading Like A Woman The Alchemist/Women and Philosophy

In Woman and the History of Philosophy, Nancy Tuana disputes the common idea that a philosopher’s gender biases are not “philosophically significant” (Tuana 6). Dismissing a philosopher’s gender biases on the basis that he was “a man of his times” implies that one’s conceptions of gender do not play any role in his larger theoretical framework. If this is the case, then expanding a philosopher’s ideas about men to include women should be as simple as a gender neutral interpretation of traditionally male-specific terminology, and this inclusion of women should not alter the meaning of the text in any way.  Therefore, the gender of a reader should have no impact on his or her experience with the text. However, according to Tuana, these implications are not consistent with the actual experiences of women reading philosophy.

Nancy Tuana notes that a woman is likely to feel alienated from the text due to her uncertainty about “where to place herself” within it (Tuana 2). To insert herself into the text, a woman must conceive of herself as acting like a man, often at the expense of qualities and abilities that she values. As a result, it becomes impossible for her to analyze the text outside the context of womanhood. To help readers recognize this perspective in various philosophy texts, Tuana introduces the concept of “reading like a woman.” The process of reading like a woman, which Tuana defines “a form of critical reading with an emphasis on gender issues” for both men and women, has three basic components (Tuana 5). First, recognize that texts of philosophy are “neither autonomous or universal;” that is, a philosopher’s ideas cannot be properly understood independently of his particular perspective, including the cultural values he has inherited. Second, shift one’s focus so that it privileges the conception of a woman within the text, and third, challenge society’s definition of a woman as “not male, as Other,” as limited and defined by others’ perceptions of her (Tuana 7). 

Nancy Tuana’s process of “reading like a woman” is certainly applicable to Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. The novel follows Santiago, a boy from Andalusia, on his journey to realize his Personal Legend. The boy had always dreamed of travelling, but since his family had relatively little money, the only way for him to fulfill his dream was to leave his village, with his father’s blessing, and become a shepherd. One day, after he has been herding sheep for quite some time, the boy decides to consult an old Gypsy woman for an interpretation of a dream he had twice. The woman proclaims that there is treasure for him to find in Egypt, and urges him to give her one tenth of his treasure in exchange for her information about where to find it. The boy agrees and, disappointed by the impracticality of her suggestion to go to Egypt, goes to the market for something to eat. 

At the market, the boy meets an old man who knows information about the boy that he has never shared with anyone and claims to be the king of Salem. The old man tells the boy that he has succeeded in discovering his Personal Legend, “what you have always wanted to accomplish” (Coehlo 23). According to the old man, every person has this knowledge when they are young and willing to dream, but most people forget about it as time passes because “a mysterious force” convinces them that it is not possible to realize their dreams (Coehlo 24). The old man promises the boy that he will tell him what to do to fulfill his Personal Legend in exchange for one tenth of his flock of sheep, and the boy reluctantly agrees. When he brings the sheep as promised the next day, the old man tells him that there is treasure for him to discover at the pyramids in Egypt, which thrills the boy because it is the same advice that the Gypsy woman gave him after interpreting his dreams. The old man removes two stones from his breastplate—Urim and Thummim—and gives them to the boy to use as omens during his travels. 

The first component of Nancy Tuana’s process for reading like a woman requires readers to accept that no philosophy exists outside of the context in which it was written. Therefore, she would undoubtedly encourage readers of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist to think critically about the possible gender biases of the old man who shares his ideas with the boy and to reflect on the way those gender biases might manifest in his explanation of Personal Legends. Unsurprisingly, it is in the old man’s explanation of a Personal Legend that the novel’s gender biases first become apparent. The old man claims that all people have a Personal Legend, whether or not they know about it or choose to acknowledge it. However, the manifestations of others’ Personal Legends throughout the novel tell a different story. For example, the old man provides two example of people with Personal Legends— a miner who finds emerald and thus fulfills his Personal Legend minutes before he was going to give it all up, and a man who prefers the secure lifestyle of a baker even though his Personal Legend is to travel the world—to express the different relationships individuals have with their dreams. Not only are both of these examples men, but the nature of their Personal Legends suggests that people can only discover and fulfill them through activities that are suggested to be exclusive to men in the boy’s society.  

The old man’s focus on careers is one example, since there are several suggestions throughout the novel that women typically do not have careers in the boy’s society. Another example is the situation which allows the old man to reach the boy with his message in the first place. Throughout the novel, there is no mention of women who travel alone, which suggests that it is uncommon to send women out on their own in the boy’s society. Meanwhile, the reaction of the boy’s father to his departure suggests that it is fairly commonplace for men to venture out on their own. The old man is able to reach the boy partly due to his specific circumstances: he is sitting alone at the market in the place where he travelled to raise his sheep. It seems unlikely that a women would be easily permitted to make such a choice, and it may not be as acceptable within that society for an old man to approach a woman sitting by herself at the market. Even the process of fulfilling a Personal Legend would likely be less plausible for a woman in such a society. First, it would likely be much less safe for her travel alone, even if she were permitted to do so. Second, being a man gives the boy access to certain opportunities that may not be available to women. One example of this is the boy’s employment by the crystal merchant. After he has lost everything, the boy is able to earn enough money to allow for his future plans by working for the crystal merchant for several months. If women are even permitted to work in the region in which he worked, they would definitely be less likely to find work from a stranger so quickly. 

Nancy Tuana’s process for reading like a woman also encourages readers to prioritize the conception of women within a text. Throughout the novel, there are subtle indications that women in the boy’s society either do not typically have careers, or that if they do, their careers are not nearly as significant to their identities as those of men in the same society. For example, the boy recalls that his parents wanted him to become a priest so that he could be “a source of pride for a simple farm family” (Coelho 10). When the boy expresses his desire to travel as a shepherd instead, his father tells him, “Take to the fields, and someday you’ll learn that our countryside is the best, and our women are the most beautiful” (Coelho 12). The implication of these two statements, both made by the boy’s parents is that in the society in which the boy grew up, a man derives pride from his career, while a woman derives pride from her beauty. Furthermore, sources of individual pride extend to the entities to which a person belongs. These statements suggest that men primarily belong to a particular family, while women primarily belong to the land of their birthplace. This disparity suggests that men are treated like individuals, while women are treated like possessions. Men are encouraged to actively contribute to the pride of their families by taking on respected careers, while the emphasis on women’s beauty gives them very little control over how much pride they can contribute to their birthplace. 

The last component of Nancy Tuana’s process for reading like a woman requires readers to challenge society’s preconceived notion of individual women as defined by their relationship to others—especially men—in their lives. Throughout the novel, the boy seems to subscribe to the idea that women exist in relation to the men who know them. For example, in the beginning the novel, the boy goes to a merchant to sell some wool and encounters the merchant’s beautiful daughter. After just one conversation, he is so infatuated with her that her presence apparently fills him with “the desire to stay in one place forever” despite his self-professed need to travel (Coelho 8). However, it is apparent from this conversation that he actually knows nothing about who the girl is; he spends their entire interaction trying to impress her with details about himself and simply never gets around to inquiring about her life. On page 23, when the old man is writing details about his life in the sand that he never shared with anyone, he admits that he does not even know her name. When the old man explains the reasons a man might decide to become a baker rather than fulfill his Personal Legend, the boy “feels a pang in his heart” at the thought of the merchant’s daughter opting to marry a baker rather than him (Coelho 25). This indicates that even with his new perspective, he is only able to conceive of the girl in relation to the men in her life, rather than considering the possibilities of her own career. In other words, the defines himself by his own career as a shepherd, while she is defined in terms of her what is the career of her father. His romantic interest in her suggests that they are approximately the same age, which in turn, indicates that this disparity is likely due to gender, rather than other factors. 

On the surface, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a story about a boy who achieves his dreams in spite of the countless, seemingly insurmountable obstacles he faces throughout the novel. Paulo Coelho emphasizes that the boy’s success is due in equal parts to his own personal efforts and the universe’s conspiracy to help him obtain what he desires. However, applying Nancy Tuana’s process for reading like a woman to The Alchemist reveals that there are several more factors at play. The moral of the boy’s story is that everyone can achieve his own Personal Legend as long as he is willing to relinquish the lifestyle he has become accustomed to, relentlessly pursue his goals in the face of great adversity, and trust that the universe has his best interests in mind. However, the absence of important women with speaking in the novel as well as the apparent rarity of a woman achieving her Personal Legend indicates that this theme is not necessarily applicable in the context of womanhood. 

The process of reading The Alchemist like a woman compels readers to reflect on the possible reasons for the apparent scarcity of woman who have achieved or even have knowledge of their Personal Legends. One possibility is that women are simply less likely to pursue such a journey, either because they have no real interest in personal fulfillment, or because they are simply too attached to their ways of life to take the same risks as a man.  This possibility paints woman as inherently less human than men. Even if one assumes that the nature of woman is different but not necessarily inferior to that of man, this assumed hesitance of a woman to take risks for the sake of achieving her dreams simply provides her with less options for personal fulfillment than a man, and renders the opportunities she does have for personal fulfillment that much less accessible. 

 Another possible explanation for the apparent absence of women from stories of fulfilled Personal Legends is the prospect that a woman’s Personal Legend tends to conform to the role society imposes on her. This theory would be most applicable to the apparent theme of the novel, but it is also the least consistent with the process of fulfilling one’s Personal Legend as presented in the novel. For men in the novel, rejecting one’s expected role seemed to be the first step one had to take in the process of discovering his Personal Legend. For example, during his initial explanation the concept of a Personal Legend, the old man frames a nearby baker as an example of someone who has given up his Personal Legend in exchange for a more comfortable life. The boy remarks that the baker should have been a shepherd if his Personal Legend depended on travelling, and the old man replies, “’Well he thought about that…But bakers are more important people than shepherds…Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds” (Coelho 25). This explanation for why the baker chose his lifestyle suggests that his failure to fulfill his Personal Legend is a direct result of his willingness to adhere to others’ expectations instead. Considering that gender roles exist explicitly to enforce cultural expectations for women, deliberately embracing them seems like an unlikely path to Th. 

Still another possible explanation for this absence of women in stories about successful self-fulfillment is that although women aspire to fulfill their Personal Legends just as strongly as men, they cannot plausibly do so due to the circumstances of their birth. While this theory is arguably more plausible than any other, it undermines the central theme of the novel: that anyone can achieve his or her Person Legend through effort and perseverance, along with the conspiracy of the universe to help people obtain their desires. According to this theory, the circumstances of one’s birth does not impact his ability to achieve his Personal Legend. The boy’s life is one such example. His Personal Legend involves travelling, but as his father indicates just before the boy’s departure from his village, families like his ostensibly do not have the financial means to do so. Still, the boy is able to use what resources he has available to achieve his Personal Legend anyway. If this experience were truly universal, however, then women and men would discover and fulfill their Personal Legends at roughly equal rates. Throughout the novel, it is clear that in every society the boy encounters, both men and women are subject to other’s expectations in the societies the boy encounters. Nevertheless, the lack of fulfilled women in the novel suggests that these expectations have a greater negative impact on women. 


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