Alexis Zorba, the titular character, is the Greek personification of the spirit of life. He dances and plays the santuri, he indulges in sensual pleasures, and he has no qualms in his exuberant enjoyment of life. Originally from Macedonia, Zorba has traveled all over the world and accrued an array of rich experiences that have become the fodder for his constant storytelling. Now in his 60s, Zorba wrestles with issues of aging and the temporality of life throughout the book. Yet even as an older man, Zorba embodies the Dionysian passion for living as seen in his enthusiasm for wine, women, and hard work.
Initially Zorba is hired by the narrator to help manage a lignite mine project on the island of Crete, yet as the story unfolds, he becomes not just a business partner but also a confidante and intimate friend for the narrator. The presence of Zorba helps to shift the narrator's vision of life, encouraging him to shed his intellectual pursuits to embrace a more visceral way of being, one that is connected to the earth below rather than floating in the ethers above. Zorba is no fan of conceptualizing about God and the purpose of life; he would rather discover meaning directly through living it. His full spectrum of experiences—including fighting in wars and losing a child—has made him averse to the sort of detached philosophizing of the narrator. Even with their differences, Zorba still treats the narrator with an open heart and often encourages him to break out of his uptight ways, such as how he pushes the narrator to go after the widow.
Throughout the story, Zorba shows himself to be an agnostic, seeing the traditional image of God as the dispenser of judgment and righteousness as absurd in the face of the world's injustices. Yet although he doubts the heavenly realm, Zorba is not painted as a man who is lacking morals or compassion for his fellow humans; this is most obvious in the way he scolds the narrator for playing a trick on Madame Hortense and agreeing to marry the old woman in order to not break her heart. It is also clear following the deaths of the widow and the Madame, when Zorba is profoundly touched by grief. Despite his renunciation of spiritual ideals, Zorba is not at all immune to falling deeply into issues of life and death; what differentiates him from the narrator is that he does not try to rationalize his emotions through mental concepts.
The story of Zorba and the adventures on Crete is told by the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story. He serves as somewhat of a foil to the boisterous and confident Zorba. The narrator is a young man, a writer, and a student of spiritual literature, especially Buddhism. Trying to branch out and make a living for himself, he has initiated a coal mine project on Crete, for which he hires Zorba as the main architect. While Zorba works, the narrator has the time to enjoy the island landscape and get lost in his books.
Through his deep friendship with Zorba, the narrator is transformed; he comes to realize that his intellectual ways are not truly bringing him more happiness nor clarity but rather isolating him further in his own mind. For much of the story, the narrator is working on a lengthy manuscript about the life of the Buddha, until a moment of epiphany reveals to him the deadening quality of such idealistic philosophies; by advocating for transcendence of earthly life, the narrator feels that the human condition is being negated. Zorba teaches the narrator that life is meant to be lived with passion and courage; he most pivotally fulfills this guidance in his decision to sleep with the widow, despite his fear and judgment of sexuality. By the end of the novel, however, it is not evident that the narrator has truly committed to this change of philosophy; after separating from Zorba, he returns to his scholarly pursuits, as if not knowing how else to occupy his days.
It could be said that the narrator constitutes less a fleshed out character and more of a narrative device for relating the trials and tribulations of Zorba. This is evident in how he is not given a name as well as in the way that he remains on the sidelines, staying passive, for many pivotal events of the story, such as in the brutal murder of the widow, the failure of the cable railway, and the chaotic scene of Madame Hortense's passing.
Madame Hortense is an older woman who owns a hotel on Crete and who provides housing for Zorba and the narrator when they arrive. The Madame is a Frenchwoman with a slew of colorful experiences as a traveling cabaret singer and a mistress to many important men. Now in old age, she finds comfort mostly in reminiscing about her past. The character of Madame Hortense brings out many themes of death, as she is constantly talking about her fear of aging and the loss of the beauty that gave her a sense of identity. This clinging onto her youth is most obvious in her thick makeup and garish attire, as well as her romantic pursuit of Zorba as a husband. Zorba gives the Madame the affectionate pet name of "Bouboulina."
We see, ultimately, how Madame Hortense's life as a courtesan has not brought her true happiness, but rather insecurity about her own worth beyond her status as a sex symbol. It is only the contagious spark of life within Zorba that ignites her own passion for living and allows her to die with a smile dancing on her lips.
Beautiful and pursued ravenously by all the men on the island, the widow is known as a heartbreaker, as she ends up rejecting each one. This rejection naturally leads to an animosity directed towards her; she is demonized after Pavli, a local man who was in love with her, takes his own life. With a push from Zorba, the narrator pursues the widow for a one-night stand. Soon after this, she is cruelly cornered by a mob of local men and killed by Mavrandoni. Though she drives many of the main events in the story, her character is left mostly undeveloped, remaining more as an archetype of seduction and reflecting the book's general view of women as faceless forces of temptation.
Stavridaki is an old friend of the narrator who we mostly meet through their exchange of letters. While the narrator is in Crete, Stavridaki is in the Russian Caucasus to help Greek refugees who are being persecuted. In this way, we are shown Stavridaki to be an idealistic and hardworking man who desires to do good in the world. At the same time, he struggles with a similar rigidity as does the narrator; despite their years of friendship, he still finds it hard to express his emotions and his appreciation for his friend. Stavridaki's comment to the narrator calling him a "bookworm" makes a great impact and is a driving force for the narrator to move to Crete and start a more grounded business venture.
Zaharia is a monk that the narrator and Zorba meet at the mountainside monastery. He embodies the religious schism of good versus evil through his strange and humorous split personality. As Zaharia, he is a saintly devotee, but as his alter-ego Joseph, he is a devilish and vengeful man who indulges in meat and alcohol. It is not until he burns down the monastery that he satiates his inner demon and can come back to some degree of sanity.
Anagnosti is a village elder who the narrator and Zorba spend some time with during their stay on Crete. He is a representation of the traditional, small town way of life that is equal parts charming and repulsive. He is not shy about his disdain for women nor his religious superstition. Through conversing with him, the narrator and Zorba come to understand the futility of trying to change people's minds.
Mavrandoni is another village elder. His son, Pavli, takes his own life after having his heart broken by the widow. As a result, Mavrandoni takes revenge and murders the widow in a brutal way.
Karayannis is a friend and former student of the narrator. He lives in northern Africa and has disowned his Greek identity. He writes a letter to the narrator urging him to visit him in Africa and to leave behind his intellectual ways.
Mimiko is a young, single man who lives in the village and is regarded as the "village simpleton." He hangs around the widow and does many of her errands. He often serves as a messenger on the island, informing others of urgent situations.
Zorba the Greek Questions and Answers
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