One question that the world will perhaps never stop asking is “what is the meaning of our life?” Every philosopher in one way or another centers their career around answering this question. Is not literature and art just an attempt at either answering this question or of making the case for one possible answer? One common theme is that the answer is not a static turn of phrase, but one that is found through a journey that endeavors to understand. This essay analyzes how that question becomes answered through the journey’s of protagonists in four contemporary novels: Pauhlo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in The Woods,< Yann Martel’s “The Life of Pie” and Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” Each story’s protagonist(s) are on a mission to find the “meaning of life” and arrive, if not at the answer, at a realization having insight to the key throughout the narrative. In Bill Bryon’s book the journey is a non-fiction account, the journey takes on the nature of a memoir of his hiking the Appalachian Trail. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” the journey is one that that follows of a narrative of a science fiction journey across the galaxy. In the life of Pie and The Alchemist, the journey is a surreal fiction narrative that could be considered coming of age stories in which the protagonists learn about the world and their own destiny through both a forced journey and a voluntary one. “The Alchemist” advances a theme that the secret to the meaning of life is found on the journey, not the destination. “That’s the point at which most people give up,” says The Alchemist, “It’s the point at which one dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.” In his novel The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho stays true to this quotation. All of the titles being discussed are wildly popular. The most commercially successful one in the ground “The Alchemist” has had an unprecedented success. In just 15 years after its publication, it has sold more than 20 million copies and has been translated into over fifty-six languages. As the New York Times aptly put it, “[This] Brazilian wizard makes books disappear from stores.” Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature can be quoted saying, “Paulo Coelho knows the secret of literary alchemy.” Coelho is very successful at propagating a rare sort of wisdom throughout his text. He is able to be proverbial without being preachy, his diction is simple, but with an underlying profundity. The viewpoint is centered on Santiago; a simple shepherd, likable enough to quickly gain the friendship of a reader. This savvy dream seeking shepherd travels the foot hills of Spain searching for meaning and becoming distraught when it seems the lives of the older, presumably wiser, people seem void of it. “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their live, but none about his or her own,” reflects Santiago as he starts to realize that many have gone into their later life without realizing their dreams, or “fulfilling their personal legends.” It was at this point in the novel, when I started recommending the book to friends (even before I had finished!). I was convinced that this book would fulfill all the potential it kept building. The dream Santiago sets out to fulfill, or his personal legend, is a quest for treasure in the far off lands of Egypt. Along the way to achieving it he meets plenty of people to help him both through wise advice, and as models of how-to or how-not-to live. One such old man, who is actually a king in disguise, tells Santiago, “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 worlds’ greatest lie.” Santiago is led to “choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have.” Coelho narrates the quest in a prose style evocative, Hemmingway’s masterpiece The Old Man ad The Sea. Coelho certainly is not lacking in providing philosophical themes to fuel the narrative engine. “The closer one gets to realize his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being.” The amount of character Coelho develops for Santiago is equal to the lessons he learns. This change comes asbout because he has left his life as a shepherd and endeavored to follow a “dream” and travel the world. In the end The Alchemist is a novel ends with Santiago arriving at the start of his journey where he discovers a treasure he never would had he not gone on the journey to begin with. Borrowing the greatest ideals from the greatest philosophies of mankind and then using these philosophies as a means to an end as un-idealistic as the one they are used for in the novel, the pursuance of treasure, undermines the very philosophies being used. Coelho gives us something beautiful, “gold” and into the guiding question of the book, Santiago finding his personal legend. At the start of “A Walk in The Woods,” Bryson says, “That’s the trouble with loosing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get back.” (Bryson, 1). Bryon’s point was that there are things we can lose in life, that are deeper than tangible possession. At the end of the day, all we have is what we carry within us. We do not have the ability to reclaim lost things. The Appalachian Trail was something he had wanted to travel for a long time before actually beginning the journey with a willing friend. What he found is what many people find when they long to be somewhere in life and then get there and find themselves not as taken as they figured they would be. He finds that walking for over twenty-miles a day with a giant backpack of gear on your back is not a “walk in the woods,” to borrow from the idiom that inspires the title. Not only is it not easy, it’s extremely hard, yet it was something that despite it causing pain he opted to do. It is easy to take this and use it as a metaphor for life. How many of us outsource our happiness to the future and work towards arriving somewhere rather than learning to enjoy and maximize the present we find ourselves in. It took time, but eventually Bryson finds his rhythem during his trek through the words and finds a peace in the journey, not in the destination of being able to say, “I hiked the Appalachian Trail.” While they other three books discussed in this essay are more general, and their genre of fiction , their journey’s are no different than Bill Bryson’s account. The point at which what has been a burden and physically exhausting turns into something else, I think there is an insight into the theme of the entire work. Bryson writes, “I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.” (Bryson, Ch. 8). Life, thought it is many things, and we spend much of our human history trying to understand what exactly it is and how we should live, is occurring every second we have breath in our lungs that fuels thoughts in our brains to compel us to understanding. The “this” that Bryson wants to do forever, it seems is life. Every moment he wants to move towards something. On a trail this is a natural state of movement that is necessary for progress to occur. Likewise, within our own lives in order for us to grow, we must be moving towards something, be it a goal, a person or a physical destination. In Douglas Adam’s Science Fiction novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” the journey to answering the question of “what is the meaning of life” is taken into outer space. The premise is that moments before the Earth is going to be destroyed in order to clear the way for a space highway, Author Dent is abducted by a spacecraft by his friend Ford who has been trying for over a decade to write a guide to hitchhiking across the galaxy. Though the premise is much different from the other books, and certainly would not be considered of the same genre, the questions remain earily similar to the others, “He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.” (Douglas, Ch 1). The journey Dent undertakes is one that wakes him from that dream and allows him to, realize that it is the question, rather than the answer, the journey, not the destination, that truly matter. More so than the other works, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, concerns itself with searching for meaning through the religions of the work. Though contrary to many of their doctrines though, the antagonist, Pi, is not content to find truth within one religion but instead becomes a practitioner of many of the world’s major religions, finding truth in wisdom in all of them and unwilling to limit himself to one particular religion. The narrative has a separation in time exchange between the adult Pi and a remembering of a journey that brought him from his native country in India to his adoptive country of the United States. A writer introduced to Pi says something crucial that is at the heart of the story, “It is a lot to take in—to figure out what it all means. Pi responds responds with something interesting, especially considering his involvement with so many religions, “If it happens, it happens, why should it have meaning.” Though I cannot trace it back to who exactly said it or where it comes from, I heard a saying in high school that someone said that has stuck with me that, “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.” In The Life of Pi the story that Pi tells is incredible. It involves training a wild tiger stuck on a life raft with a boy. The journey is unbelievable and at the end of the novel doubt is cast as to weather or not it occurred in the way that it did. Human beings find meaning in a lot of things. Stories are a way to package that meaning in terms that a person could understand. While some of the factual information of Pi’s story might have turned out not to be accurate, it leads to the bigger question of, “Despite that, is the story still true?” Is the story of Adam and Eve still “true” even if the specifics of it’s content did not actually occur. All four novels I think help strengthen the basic idea that it is the question that is important and not the answer. We spend our lives not searching for meaning, but living. Finding meaning is something we must to do in order to justify our existence day in and day out. If the books communally contribute to one thesis statement it could be said that it is there is no silver bullet to meaning in life and no one answer to the question that asks what the meaning of life is. These books, will not necessarily impart meaning, but their wisdom lies more in how to ask the question than what the answer is.
Adams, Douglas. The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. New York: Ballantine Books, 19951980. Print.
Bryson, Bill. A walk in the woods: rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Print.
Coelho, Paulo. The alchemist. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. Print.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi: a novel. New York: Harcourt, 2001. Print.