The Prophet, by the Lebanese-American author Khalil Gibran, occupies a peculiar place in 20th-century world literature. The Prophet has been translated into more than 100 languages, making it one of the most translated books in history. By 2012, it had sold more than nine million copies in its American edition alone since its original publication in 1923. Behind this unusual achievement was The Prophet’s ability to appeal equally to the generation of the Great Depression and the baby boomers of post–World War II affluent society. For the former, this book was a source of consolation and optimism against the hardships of life and anxieties of the modern age. For the latter, its message to those after the war was the urgent need to overcome social and individual atomization and to recover the lost wholeness of human existence. The Prophet’s enduring popularity has confirmed Gibran’s lifelong friend Mary Haskell’s perceptive comment on the day it appeared in bookstores: “This book will be held as one of the treasures of English literature. And in our darkness and in our weakness we will open it, to find ourselves again and the heaven and earth within ourselves.”
The narrative takes place in an imaginary city called Orphalese and opens with the coming of a ship to take Almustafa (“the chosen”) to his native island after a 12- year exile. As Almustafa is about to embark, the people of Orphalese gather around him and ask for the truth of life. This prologue is followed by the Prophet’s delivery of his counsels on the essential elements of humanity, from love, friendship, and freedom to law, work, and religion. The narrative ends with the departure of Almustafa and signals a rebirth of humanity in his person.
The Prophet departs from the generic conventions of modern prose in that it does not provide the reader with any details of character, setting, or a fully developed plotline. In this respect, it is much closer to the structure of classical mystical narratives. Furthermore, its main character does not follow the trajectory of the typical modern protagonist who has to bear the contradictions of modern life. On the contrary, Almustafa dissolves the antinomies of the modern age within himself. The assumed polarities between identity and difference, religion and nonreligion, East and West, freedom and responsibility are reconciled in a higher unity.
In terms of its epigrammatic style and visionary diction, The Prophet is reminiscent of the 19th-century German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. Despite the formal similarity, however, the former is in many ways a response to the latter. As opposed to the pessimistic undertones of Nietzsche’s text, The Prophet envisions the salvation of the secular individual from the exilic condition of modernity through love and freedom. Its basic theme—in Gibran’s words—is, “You are far greater than you know, and all is well.”
At a time when Western modernist literature and arts were less sanguine about the future, it is therefore no coincidence that mainstream readers responded positively to The Prophet, along with other non-Western texts such as Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. In The Prophet, Almustafa’s point of arrival is the land of reincarnation—in symbolic terms, a way out of T. S. Eliot’s “waste land” or Thomas Mann’s sanatorium in The Magic Mountain or Marcel Proust’s search for a lost past through consumption of the madeleine in Swann’s Way. What guides Gibran’s narrative is the ideal of transcendence.
It should finally be noted that The Prophet was written by an émigré author while there was a great infl ux of immigrants to the United States. Early immigrants had particularly experienced more difficulties in feeling at home in their new land. For Gibran, this work was a symbolic means of dealing with the complexities of leaving home and starting a new life. It also showed that the immigrant could offer guidance to his new community. The Prophet was a gift of the immigrant for the hospitality of the host country.
Bushrui, Suheil B. Kahlil Gibran of Lebanon: A Re-evaluation of the Life and Works. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghampshire, U.K.: C. Smythe, 1987.
Gibran, Jean. Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1974.
Waterfi eld, Robin. Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1998.