He knew it was shameful not to be able to control one’s feelings. Tears, tender words, unruly gestures, common familiarities, all seemed to him weaknesses unworthy of man. We, who were so fond of each other, never exchanged an affectionate word.
Here, the narrator is thinking about his friend Stavridaki, who appears throughout the novel through his letters. The narrator sees Stavridaki as a dear friend yet also feels the need to show off and convince him of his manliness; his excited anticipation of his letters demonstrate this blend of genuine love and desire to impress. This quote coming in the first few pages of the novel sets up a contrast between this old friend and the narrator’s new friend, Zorba. Zorba embraces his manhood yet also is able to hold close, intimate relationships with other men, and his association will help to open up a new world of love and friendship for the narrator.
Everything seems to have a soul—wood, stones, the wine we drink and the earth we tread on. Everything, boss, absolutely everything!
This exclamation of Zorba underscores the character’s philosophy of life. For him, everything is alive and conscious; spiritual potency is not merely relegated to an idyllic spiritual plane. The narrator, on the other hand, believes he must dig through ancient scripture in order to understand life’s purpose, as it is something far removed from the earthly experience. Zorba knows that there is no deeper wisdom than that which can be encountered through communion with nature and by living fully in the present moment, rather than waiting for an illusory afterlife.
Zorba was the man I had sought so long in vain. A living heart, a large voracious mouth, a great brute soul, not yet severed from mother earth. The meaning of the words, art, love, beauty, purity, passion, all this was made clear to me by the simplest of human words uttered by this workman.
Upon meeting the titular character, the narrator is enchanted by his vivacious and sincere mode of being—a far cry from his own familiar intellectual ways. It is an ironic moment for the narrator to realize that all the clarity and philosophical meaning for which he has been searching in books is plainly embodied in a normal working man. The narrator admires that Zorba, rather than being absorbed in the ethereal world of ideas, is connected firmly to the ground upon which he walks. The capacity for Zorba to inspire the narrator to embrace lived experience rather than conceptualization is a central theme of the novel and the catalyst for the narrator’s inner transformation.
This is all dead, and we’re alive.
A young shepherd speaks this line to the narrator at the site of Minoan ruins. The narrator has come there for some reason unknown to him; perhaps to find meaning in the ancient similar to his predilection for studying old scripture. Once there, however, he realizes the meaninglessness of dwelling on past structures and the shepherd’s line underscores this realization. It is a common trope in the novel for the most ordinary of characters to elucidate deeper points for the narrator, such as the absurdity of surrounding oneself in ruins when there is life to be lived.
The last man—who has freed himself from all belief, from all illusions and has nothing more to expect or to fear—sees the clay of which he is made reduced to spirit, and this spirit has no soil left for its roots, from which to draw its sap. The last man has emptied himself; no more seed, no more excrement, no more blood.
In this moment, the narrator has a point of realization about the uselessness of his Buddhist philosophy. After trying to read from a book of poetry he formerly loved, he recognizes the dryness of the words and connects this to the Buddhist prerogative of emptying oneself out fully of all that is lively and human. Through his relationship with Zorba, the narrator is able to come to a new vision of life, one where man does not have to deny his flesh-and-blood existence in exchange for a “spiritual” life that provides ideals but no true guidance in how to embrace the human experience. It is here that he decides to take the advice of Zorba to follow his sexual impulses, later paying a visit to the widow.
Why must the young die and the old wrecks go on living? Why do little children die?… I shall never, never forgive God for that, do you hear? I tell you, the day I die, if He has the cheek to appear in front of me, and if He is really and truly a God, He’ll be ashamed!
Zorba is bemoaning the cruelty of life after witnessing the horrific murder of the widow. Throughout the story, we learn that Zorba does not put much faith in the religious idea of God, nor the devil, seeing the human experience as the only tangible thing to which one can cling. The narrator, conversely, does see some sort of divine order to things. After this terrible moment, Zorba thus demands to know how any real God can allow such injustice to occur. Rather than fearing God as do many of the other characters, Zorba challenges Him to account for the evil of the world.
I tell jokes and cut capers about the place and make the monks laugh. They all say I’m possessed by the devil and insult me. But I say to myself: It can’t be true; God must like fun and laughter.
Father Zaharia, a crazed monk, tells the narrator and Zorba about his difficulties in assimilating to the ascetic culture of the monastery. He has just described how he has two personalities living within him—the saintly monk and the devilish alter-ego who eats meat, drinks, and dreams of setting the monastery on fire. This inner duality is predicated on his sense that it is wrong to cast spiritual life as a solely pious and serious affair. He feels that God has a sense of humor and that the other monks only judge Zaharia because they can’t recognize this greater truth.
I come and go on earth, visit those who were dear to me, but their hearts are closed. Where can I enter? How can I bring myself to life?… Ah! If only I could live free, and not have to cling like a drowning man to your warm and living bodies!
The narrator’s old friend speaks this quote to him after his death, as a ghostly presence. He is wandering the earth in this disembodied form because he has not yet come to a sense of closure about his life on earth. He asks the narrator for guidance on how to attain freedom and move on from an existence of haunting loved ones whose hearts are closed off to him. Stavridaki’s struggles bring to light a greater lesson encountered by the narrator, especially through his friendship with Zorba: the importance of living one’s life to the fullest and with the heart open to love and friendship.
I don’t want to die! I don’t want to!
On her sickbed, Madame Hortense is finally faced with that most fearsome part of life: death. Throughout the story, we have seen how this old woman desperately clings onto the colorful memories as a cabaret singer and sexual icon during her youth. Her use of thick makeup as well as her strong desire to pursue a romance with Zorba point to her yearning to hold onto life in its full blossoming, despite the reality of her body’s decline. Yet although she protests her own dying, she is also in this scene able to experience a moment of relief as she lets go of her worldly anxieties and surrenders to the new chapter that death brings.
The individual disappeared, the features were obliterated, whether young or senile, beautiful or ugly—those were mere unimportant variations. Behind each woman rises the austere, sacred and mysterious face of Aphrodite.
This quote comes during the scene when Zorba and the narrator first drink and dine with Madame Hortense. Both men feel attracted to the old woman, as the effect of wine is blurring their ability to distinguish her individual appearance. Instead, she is replaced by a sort of archetypal woman, compared to the goddess Aphrodite, who serves the function of inspiring and alluring through beauty. This line is indicative of the general attitude towards the feminine in the novel as a faceless, impersonal force that has the double-edged potential for either enjoyment or utter ruin of men. It is this sort of relating that allows Zorba to connect to women of any age or appearance throughout the story.
Zorba the Greek Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Zorba the Greek is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.