The narrator recalls the first time he met Zorba in a cafe near the port in Piraeus, Greece. It is early morning and the narrator is waiting to embark on a ship to Crete, where he is leaving behind his writerly life to live in Crete among workers and peasants and run a lignite mine. He thinks of the time he parted ways with an old friend, when they had an emotional exchange and promised to try to communicate telepathically if either one was in danger of death. As he departed, the friend called him a “bookworm,” something that bothered the narrator in the moment.
While trying to read Dante, the narrator is interrupted by an older man who asks if he can accompany the narrator to Crete, offering to cook for him. The man is named Alexis Zorba and he is very charming and forthcoming. Zorba tells the narrator passionately of his love of playing the santuri, a type of stringed instrument. When the narrator suggests Zorba play it on their journey, he emphasizes that he can only play when he desires to, not through obligation. They board the ship and on the ride, Zorba tells the narrator about his life, which he has lead in a very free-spirited and adventurous way. He notices Zorba is missing a part of his index finger—he explains that he willingly cut it off himself. The two have a philosophical conversation about the real meaning of freedom.
Arriving at Crete, the narrator and Zorba walk through the richly described landscape, interacting with beggars and other colorful characters. They have a drink at a café and someone recommends they stay at the lodge of a widow named Madame Hortense. The lively people at the café argue over where the friends should stay. They decide on Madame Hortense’s, and arrive at her inn to meet the plump and eccentric-looking hostess. The narrator describes the dingy and strange hotel. The men retire for the night and the narrator wakes up feeling fresh the next morning. He takes a walk by the sea. He observes some girls who initially appear frightened by the sight of him. He sits down and becomes absorbed in his Dante book.
The narrator’s reading is interrupted when he hears Zorba behind him, laughing. Zorba encourages him to come eat and not neglect his body. The men return to the hotel, where Madame Hortense has made them a big meal. They insist she dine with them. The three eat and drink wine heartily. Becoming drunk, they talk more and more openly and the men start to see the Madame as extremely beautiful, with Zorba acting flirtatiously. She recounts her adventures as a young woman on a ship with Cretan revolutionaries and her past as a cabaret singer. The day wears on and they continue to talk. When evening comes, the narrator excuses himself. Zorba and Madame Hortense go to bed with each other that night.
The men wake up the next morning and talk about the Madame; Zorba says she is “weak and fretful” and that they must be careful not to hurt her self-esteem. Zorba admits that even at 65, he is still crazy after women and won’t stop pursuing them anytime soon. The narrator thinks back to a time he was at an art gallery and bonded over a Rodin sculpture, “The Hand of God,” with a young woman. When the narrator became too philosophical in his discussion, the woman walked away abruptly, which he still regrets to this day. Back in the present, the men go to work for the day at the mine.
Over the next days, Zorba takes the lead in directing the work at the mine while the narrator pays him. He is reminded of the way his Cretan grandfather would take in strangers and feed them dinner in exchange for hearing their colorful stories. It is a similar setup with Zorba, who entertains the narrator each night over his dinner with his life tales. The narrator spends his time visiting the worksite and talking with the workmen there, which comes to annoy Zorba, who feels he is distracting their progress. The narrator has a romantic idea of trying to unite the practical project with his vision of a spiritual community of the workers, supported by the mine; this dream is not something he has revealed to Zorba yet.
They continue to dine each Sunday with Dame Hortense. On one such occasion, the narrator decides to tell Zorba about his plan. Zorba finds it ridiculous and mocks him, suggesting his brain is not “quite formed yet.” He warns the narrator to not encourage too much equality amongst the workers, as they will take advantage of him. He declares he believes in nothing, not men nor God. This offends the narrator, and it makes him think about how he must distance himself from his metaphysical concerns and become more engaged in the world of men.
One autumn day, Zorba and the narrator go visit Uncle Anagnosti, an old peasant man, and his family. Anagnosti tells them a story about his mother calling on Mother Mary to help her in a difficult childbirth. Crying out with pain, his father goes to a relic of the Virgin Mary and curses her; the relic shakes, indicating something immense has been done. He returns home to see his wife has delivered her child, Anagnosti. According to the old man, he was born half deaf as punishment from the Virgin for his parents’ disrespect. Zorba, the narrator, and the Anagnostis eat and drink wine. Zorba is horrified to see they are castrating pigs in order to eat the testicles as a “delicacy.”
After they leave, Zorba rants to the narrator about the condescending way Anagnosti treated his wife and how they were harming an animal to satiate themselves. He uses this as an example to prove that it is fruitless to try opening people’s eyes, as the narrator often talks about. To Zorba, people are set in their ways and can’t change. Zorba ponders about it more and then suggests perhaps it is possible to change others if you can offer them a better way of life than the darkness to which they are accustomed. The narrator insists he can show them a better world, but can’t articulate how. They go back to their hut in silence and watch the stars. The narrator thinks how Zorba is wise because he is so in tune with the Earth and bodily experience.
Zorba goes to sleep while the narrator meditates by the sea. He feels he hears the voice of the Buddha, which sounds scolding and angry. He feels his time on Earth is up and that he must get off the wheel of karma. He returns to his hut and starts writing about his philosophical revelations from the Buddha. He writes passionately until he can’t anymore and falls asleep on his own manuscript.
The first five chapters of Zorba the Greek introduce us to the strange and lively world of two Greek men who seem, on the surface, to be quite different characters. Author Nikos Kazantzakis fleshes out these two main protagonists from the first few pages and their distinction is instantly made clear. We have the narrator, who remains unnamed—a bookish, introverted man in his 30s who is a follower of Buddhism and a philosopher of life. He finds friendship with Alexis Zorba, a outspoken and wild man in his 60s who delights in all things earthly and sensual. When the narrator encounters Zorba as he is about to board a ship to Crete and start a new chapter of his life, they spontaneously decide to make the journey together. In these chapters the reader starts to see why and how the friends have bonded and how they mutually open each other’s eyes to a new way of life.
There are a slew of details included that illustrate the lively character of Zorba, from his awe at seeing dolphins on the ship, to his ecstatic dancing, to his frequent allusions to the non-existence of both God and the Devil. For Zorba, life is one big party, meant to be relished to its last moment. Yet his attitude is not merely one of nihilism and disregard of moral concerns; this is made clear in the way he takes great offense with the way the old Anagnosti treats his wife and castrates a pig. Rather, Zorba is more of the philosophy that the afterlife and anything which takes one out of the immediacy of lived experience goes against the greatest fruits of existence, including food, wine, women, and hard work.
The narrator, on the other hand, views the world through a different lens. He is somewhat of an ascetic, following the Buddhist tenet of detachment from worldly desires. He derives the greatest happiness from simple and silent pursuits: sitting by the sea, writing, reading. Yet there is something in Zorba that draws the narrator in, demonstrating to the reader how he is not totally orthodox, nor closed off to other possibilities in life. We see repeatedly how he is a man who is searching for something, for a deeper meaning than he can glean from the pages of books. This point is somewhat tender for him, as shown in the way he still feels bruised from an old friend calling him a “bookworm.” The narrator’s decision to “abandon his papers” for a more down-to-earth life in Crete also signals at his longing for new experiences beyond metaphysical musings.
Behind the narrator’s seeking, we can understand that he wants, above all, a life of liberty. Many times throughout these pages the men think about and discuss the true nature of freedom. This is underscored when Zorba explains how he can’t play his santuri at any given moment but only when the timing is right; any forced performance would go against the freedom of the instrument, which he sees as alive, a “wild animal.” Both characters are bent on achieving their own sense of freedom. For Zorba, this means living the spontaneous and unstructured way of a nomad. For the narrator it is more about refusing to be bound to anything, whether that is a family or an ideology. Perhaps what brings the men together is their common sentiment that the “old world,” as represented by Uncle Anagnosti, offers them nothing of value.
Something is certainly brewing as the narrator and Zorba begin their lignite mine operation. While a clearly mundane project on the outside, the narrator has other plans beyond just making a living. We see through his inner monologue that he has big dreams of creating a community, an ideal type of space that might offer the Greek people spiritual, rather than solely material, sustenance. While Zorba occupies himself with most of the physical labor, the narrator acts as the brains behind the mission, studying and overseeing the work while envisioning a greater scheme. The presence of Zorba is like a muse to the narrator, who feels in his company as if the world has “recovered its pristine freshness.”
Stylistically, we will note the rich imagery peppered throughout; Kazantzakis truly brings the Cretan setting alive with poetic descriptions. The cafe scene where the protagonists first hear of Madame Hortense, for instance, fleshes out the Cretan people, both their quirkiness and their hospitality. There are also many paragraphs dedicated to elucidating the beautiful landscape of the island, as seen through the nature-loving eyes of the narrator; in Chapter 5, he is comforted by the “volley of shooting stars,” the “dead calm” of the sea, and the “stealthy, dangerous” silence, which bring him into an inspired, almost transcendent state.