Fate Versus Free Will: A Case Study on Literary Themes

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

Do we decide what to do with our lives? Is something destined to happen, or a result of our choices? These questions have puzzled us for generations. Yet their mystery hasn’t prevented authors from exploring the concept of “fate versus free will” in their stories. If anything, it prompts writers and readers alike to try to unravel it.

So let’s do some thematic “unravelling” today with Theme: A Story’s Soul. Using two novels from different genres, we’ll examine fate versus free will as a literary theme and determine any common elements that both examples share.

Examples of Fate vs Free Will as a Theme in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (Fiction)

the-alchemist-coverIn Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a Spanish shepherd boy named Santiago travels to Africa in search of a mythical treasure. His faith in his dreams is tested along the way, leading him to reflect on the differences between exercising free will and letting destiny take the reins.

Many of Santiago’s acquaintances prompt this reflection due to their beliefs about fate. Before Santiago leaves home, the biblical king Melchizedek tells him, “‘[W]hen you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’” (22) The king also discusses the importance of omens, and how the right omens will lead Santiago to his treasure (29). This advice echoes with Santiago as he meets people who encourage him or help him financially, or who try to dissuade him from his journey. Yet he pushes on, knowing that he “would fail to see the signs and omens left by God along his path” if he’s not patient (89). In this manner, he realizes that maybe things do happen for a reason.

Destiny applies to more than just Santiago’s quest, though. In Morocco, a crystal merchant hires Santiago after his cleaning results in increased profits. When the shop draws more success due to Santiago’s work, the merchant thanks him for being “a real blessing” and helping him reach once-impossible business dreams (58). Later, at a Saharan oasis community, Santiago falls in love with a woman named Fatima and is convinced that fate brought them together (“‘[T]he entire universe conspired to help me find you.’” [122]). It’s true, in a way. Had Santiago never gone to Africa, he likely wouldn’t have met Fatima or helped the crystal merchant improve his career.

Where does free will come in, then? From Santiago, oddly enough. Before the events of The Alchemist, he left seminary school against his parents’ wishes so he could pursue his dream of traveling (8). King Melchizedek later validates Santiago’s decision: “‘[A]t 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.’” (18) Melchizedek isn’t contradicting his earlier advice about fate here. Rather, he’s warning against letting outside forces, including others’ expectations, determine one’s path. It reminds Santiago – and the reader – that life should be a balance between making one’s own choices and accepting fate’s help occasionally.

Examples of Fate vs Free Will as a Theme in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (Fantasy)

night-circus-coverErin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus whisks readers away to a traveling circus where acrobats, psychics, and illusionists perform breathtaking feats at night. And behind the scenes, two young magicians named Marco and Celia compete in a duel that soon threatens the circus and their colleagues – and illustrates the clash between fate and free will.

For starters, Marco and Celia never choose to compete. Their guardians arrange the duel, thus forcing the young magicians to spell-cast to the death. So it’s no surprise when Celia is hired as the “perfect” illusionist for Le Cirque des Rêves (99), where Marco also works as the proprietor’s assistant, or when they fall in love. It’s also not shocking when Celia tells her overbearing father “You do not get to dictate how I spend every moment of my time” (174), or when Marco confronts his benefactor about why he never had a say in the challenge (427 – 8). Then again, who wouldn’t be frustrated if they were denied their right to free will?

Bailey Clarke faces a similar struggle. When he’s a boy, Bailey’s parents tell him and his sister Caroline that they won’t attend college, and that Bailey will inherit the family farm. Caroline quietly accepts this future, but Bailey questions his – and receives this answer from his father every time: “[L]ectures at first… [and then] loudly voiced decrees and slammed doors.” (110) Later, when Bailey feels resigned to his fate, Le Cirque appears in his hometown; and through a drastic turn of events, Marco and Celia offer Bailey the chance to save the circus. But as Celia says, “‘I want you to have something neither of us truly had. I want you to have a choice.’” (479) By saying this, she gives Bailey the most magical power he could ask for: the power to choose his own path.

And let’s not overlook The Night Circus’s “prophets.” Isobel, Le Cirque’s fortune teller, offers consistently accurate tarot card readings. During separate sessions, her cards predict Marco and Celia’s eventual romance (103), their competition’s impact on the circus (104), and their internal struggles throughout the story. Poppet, on the other hand, is gifted with precognition. She catches glimpses of characters’ deaths and pivotal events, sometimes days or weeks in advance. But as Celia and Marco’s challenge threatens Le Cirque’s balance, Poppet finds the future increasingly difficult to read (“‘I can’t see anything as clearly as I used to. It’s all bits and pieces that don’t make sense.’” [432]). Thus, no matter how correct or clear a psychic’s vision might be, a psychic is rarely completely certain of how fate will unfold.

Keys to Exploring Fate vs Free Will as a Literary Theme

Notice any similarities in these examples from The Alchemist and The Night Circus? Here’s what I found in terms of how these books explore the theme of fate versus free will:

Choice & the Lack Thereof:

Showing both sides of the choice “coin” is crucial for examining this theme. Characters can take control of their lives (Santiago, Bailey), resign to family or societal expectations (Bailey’s sister Caroline, the crystal merchant), rebel against their forced paths (Marco and Celia), or offer choices to one another (Celia and Bailey).

Authority Figures as an External Force:

In both books, authority figures such as parents, legal guardians, and employers try to direct other characters’ lives through persuasion, expectation-setting, and discouragement or rejection of dream pursuits and other perceived distractions.

Dialogue About Fate & the Future:

Character interactions are a great way of tackling enigmatic subjects such as destiny, especially with psychics, sages, or mentors. Santiago discusses fate at length with King Melchizedek and the titular alchemist, among other people; while numerous Night Circus characters have similar conversations.

“Prophetic” Symbols & Characters:

The many omens in The Alchemist, Isobel’s tarot cards, Poppet’s visions – these uses of symbolism demonstrate the many facets of destiny, from the accuracy of signs and apparent coincidences, to their openness to interpretation and at-times muddled meanings. Stories with “chosen one” characters often explore this theme, too.

Multiple Examples:

Notice how many characters in each book are dealing with the fate-free will conflict in some way? The more examples of a literary theme, the more likely its lessons will sink in with characters and readers. It’s one of the reasons why repetition is part of our working definition for “theme.”

What’s funny about the theme of “fate versus free will” is that it remains a mystery no matter how long or often you examine it. Maybe it’s because people’s beliefs about luck and destiny differ. Therefore, your angle on this theme will be unique depending on your story’s plot and characters as well as your own views on the idea. But if there’s one common thread that The Alchemist and The Night Circus share on fate and free will, it’s this: In the end, we may be the only ones holding ourselves back from what we want most.

It’s Your Turn!

  • What books have you read that explore the theme of fate versus free will? How did they accomplish this?
  • Have you written stories where this theme comes into play? How do your characters struggle with being on a predetermined path and/or fight to make their own choices in life?
  • What are some of your personal experiences with fate and free will? Have other people discouraged you from important choices, or tried to pressure you toward an unwanted direction? What has convinced you that you’re on the right path regardless?

What topics would you like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #DIYMFA.

Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blogTwitter, and Goodreads.

  • I like to try to avoid fate in my fiction and hope to have the characters determine their own action. That is unless, they are trying to run from fate. Either way, you gave me a lot to think about in this post, so thanks.

    • Sara Letourneau

      We all want our characters to make their choices, don’t we? 😉 But it’s funny, because like you mentioned, sometimes they try to escape fate, or a life that other people want them to live. And by doing so, they create their own fate. Not every book / story emphasizes this theme, but it happens more often than we might think.

      Thanks very much for reading and commenting, Jason!

  • Leanne Sowul

    Sara, I love that even when I haven’t read the books you’re referencing, I can still take away the lesson you’re teaching. You put so much into each post- it’s amazing!

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks very much, Leanne! 🙂

  • sjhigbee

    Another storming post, Sara. And on a subject close to my heart… I happen to believe quite strongly that no matter how much we want and try to have agency over our lives – there are events and circumstances that can stack up either for us or against us, nudging us elsewhere. While I don’t believe in Thomas Hardy’s rather bleak message that Fate is almost invariablely against our striving to better ourselves, there are times when it can certainly seem that way. Way back, when I was teaching a special needs class and really enjoying it, we had an OFSTED inspection. I had been swithering whether to hand in my notice and spend more time writing – when the inspectors arrived, like every other member of staff I worked hard to ensure my classroom was the best it could be and waited for the inevitable arrival through the door… only it didn’t happen. I was virtually the only member of staff who wasn’t visited and inspected. Several colleagues congratulated me on my luck – but I felt incredibly let down and very isolated. No feedback, no sense of whether I was on the right track, no tips as to how to improve my craft. I took it as a sign that my days in the classroom should now end and handed in my notice. As it happens, I do still teach but if I hadn’t left when I did, I think my life would be very different right now.
    So yes, I do feel that fate often has a hand in our lives. Thank you for highlighting this particular aspect of plotting that is often implicitly embedding within the narrative, but can and should be further examined to ensure the balance rings true, either way…

    • Sara Letourneau

      It’s a theme that’s close to my heart, too, Sarah. I’d actually planned to do a whole other topic for this week’s post, but was struggling with it. So I decided to switch to “fate versus free will”… and as I was drafting this post and research examples in The Alchemist and The Night Circus, I received word that I’d been turned down on a scholarship for a writer’s retreat next year. It was disappointing (defeating, actually), but as one of my real-life friends put it, “You should still find a way to go. It’s not that often that you base your story world on Iceland and then find out about a writing retreat there. You’re meant to do this, one way or another.” She was right. How often does a “coincidence” like that happen?

      So I’m going ahead with the trip, using a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the expenses… and while most people have been supportive, other people (my parents, for example) have tried to persuade me not to go. But there’s too much synchronicity at work here, and if I don’t go next year, I know I’ll regret it. And all of that was going on as I was drafting this article… and all I could think was, “Wow. I needed to write this piece right now.” It gave me the opportunity to reflect on things and to “be more like Santiago” and follow the path I choose, not what others choose for me.

      And your story – talk about luck and signs. That’s definitely an example of fate (or the Universe, as it’s called in The Alchemist) giving us an answer to an important life question and helping us find the right track. Thanks very much for sharing. 🙂

      • sjhigbee

        Ah… it’s always difficult when those close to us feel very differently about the way we choose to lead our lives. For what it’s worth – I think you should go for it. I’m glad your GoFundMe campaign is extending till after Christmas… My husband is embroiled in a long-running industrial dispute that has now escalated into strike action through Christmas and afterwards – so we are running tight. There are many joys to being part of a large family, but it does mean that Christmas is very expensive:(. Hopefully I’ll be able to contribute something in the new year once we know where we stand…

        • Sara Letourneau

          The plan was always to run it until early February. 😉 I started it last week to give myself as much time as possible – but trust me, I understand wanting to wait to see how your finances are after the holidays. Thanks for your support and encouragement (it means the world to me), and I hope your husband’s work strike gets resolved soon. That must be making things uneasy in general for you right now…

  • Faith Rivens

    I love this post Sara! Fate vs. Free Will is one of the major themes in Pirate Eyes and tends to make an appearance in most of my novels (though not so much in Eléonore). It’s also a topic I tend to pursue constantly in my own life. Rereading the Alchemist proved a turning point for me this year. It helped to reinvigorate my intentions and sent me off on the path to achieving a long-standing goal: publishing 🙂

    Your examples are so spot on and well thought out. I am always in awe of how well you express yourself & the insight you lend. Amazing as always. 😀

    “But if there’s one common thread that The Alchemist and The Night Circus share on fate and free will, it’s this: In the end, we may be the only ones holding ourselves back from what we want most.”
    This ending thought is so poignant, and something I have come to believe in more and more with every passing year. May we never stop ourselves from pursuing that which makes us happy! May we never create obstacles for ourselves in a world that is already set on creating them for us!

    • Sara Letourneau

      I think I remember you saying that before, about “fate vs free will” in Pirate Eyes. Maybe you mentioned it at your blog, or on Twitter? Either way, I’m glad you enjoyed this post and find this theme so inspiring and worthwhile to pursue. 🙂

      Plus, as I was telling Sarah Higbee above, writing this post happened at the right time. I was re-reading The Alchemist, not even knowing that I would need its messages just then – and I’d originally planned to do a totally different topic, but this one came to me much more easily. Maybe it’s another example of fate and its interventions?

  • I finished reading The Night Circus, and what a lovely tale it is! It’s a perfect example of fate and free will, and how each person chooses their future: whether they let fate decide and go with the flow, or break away and make their own desired choice (as Marco and Celia did).
    The perfect book to use as an example for this post! (I’ve yet to read The Alchemist still.)
    Great post, Sara, so well written!

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