The narrator wakes up on New Year’s Day feeling happy. Yet as he walks to the village that morning he begins to feel somewhat troubled. He suddenly spots the widow. He is taken by her alluring appearance and contemplates speaking to her, but feels frozen with fear. He thinks to himself how a real man would try to bed her, but that he is unable to do so, and puts it off to another life. As she disappears, he considers the spring that is being “quietly prepared” behind the scenes of winter and suddenly feels a burst of joy, as if his oppressive feelings have been released. He sits under a tree, feeling blissful, until Zorba interrupts him to invite him for lunch. On their way to Madame Hortense’s, they chat about the widow.
Zorba presents the Madame with a gift: a drawing of her as a beautiful siren, surrounded by four battleships. They sit down to eat, but Madame Hortense is in a dark mood as she always is at the new year, reflecting on her life’s ups and downs. Zorba encourages her to eat and she softens up. Zorba makes a toast to Madame Hortense’s good health. Zorba tells her of a doctor who can provide a medicine that returns one’s youth and she is intrigued; she drunkenly starts reminiscing about her earlier days in cosmopolitan cities of the world, and drifts off into sleep. Zorba and the narrator leave and walk into the moonlit night, talking about God and how woman was created as a devilish temptation in the Garden of Eden. They return to their hut at dawn and go to sleep.
When the narrator wakes up, Zorba is gone. He tries to read from a book of poetry by Mallarmé but finds the words cold and lifeless for the first time. He finds it curious that these poems once touched him so deeply; now they seem akin to hollow religious icons that have lost their creative spark. He muses on how much of the art of this age is overly intellectual and lacking the human, earthly aspect; he sees this as a sign of a civilization in its decline. He realizes the Buddha, who he has followed so closely, is actually the emblem of this pure but lifeless “last man” who is leading people into a void of being. Animated by this discovery, the narrator spends the day writing with warlike aggression. Zorba returns that evening and happily announces he has found a new angle in the mine; this is good news, as their funds have been reaching a low point. He sets off the next morning to Candia where he will buy supplies. The narrator tells Zorba to not be gone for more than three days. As he rides off on a mule, Madame Hortense wistfully asks him to not forget about her.
Later that day, the narrator receives several pieces of mail. The first letter he opens is from his old student, Karayannis. Karayannis had moved to northern Africa after leaving his role as a theology teacher on Crete. In the letter, he admonishes the narrator for not yet having come to visit him in Africa and for becoming a typical café intellectual and a “lousy Greek.” He rants about his disdain for Greeks and how he has been working like a slave making rope. Reading it, the narrator feels a flicker of desire to leave Crete to see Karayannis; he has always wanted to visit as much of the Earth as possible. He quickly forgets this as he goes home and turns to the next letter, which he opens with great excitement; it is from his friend exiled in the Caucasus. He writes about his busy time trying to help the refugees there. It is harrowing situation, but he is grateful to be occupied with action. He laments that their fellow Greek brethren are being harmed. He says because of the perilous scene there, this may be his last letter and that he loves the narrator.
The days go by and Zorba still has not returned from his mission in Candia. On the sixth day, the narrator receives a sloppily written letter from him, where he speaks about his carefree attitude and how the only thing that matters to him is that he is alive. He fears old age but not death. He describes the inner battle going on between him and the devilish side of him who doesn’t want to grow old. Next Zorba goes into a lengthy anecdote about how he has met a younger woman at a bar in Candia, which is why he is taking so long to return. Zorba has spent a large amount of the narrator’s money on wining and dining his new lover, but he promises to make it up to him. He assures the narrator that he will still take care of business.
Upon reading this letter, the narrator feels a mixture of anger, amusement, and admiration for Zorba’s relentless pursuit of the “very substance” of life. He sends a telegram to him to return immediately. Then he goes to Madame Hortense, who is becoming quite sorrowful and desperate at Zorba’s absence and is demanding to hear news from him. The narrator concocts a false message from Zorba about how much he misses the Madame and how he wants to marry her, even though in reality Zorba is with another woman. Madame Hortense is placated by this and starts planning the wedding. The narrator thinks back to his family’s housemaid, an older woman, who was constantly trying to get a local grocer boy to wed her. Both that situation and the one now with the Dame Hortense make the narrator feel pity.
Suddenly they hear a commotion going on somewhere in the village; there has been some sort of accident. Madame Hortense becomes quite frightened, telling the narrator she fears death. The narrator goes to check the scene. Mimiko informs him that Pavli, the son of Mavrandoni, has drowned himself. People of the village are gathered around the corpse. Apparently Pavli committed suicide because of the widow, who broke his heart. The people are cursing the widow and the narrator interjects to ask how could it be her responsibility for Pavli’s own choice to take his life—no one answers. He speaks with Uncle Anagnosti, who believes that Pavli’s death is actually fortunate, as it saves him from a miserable life with the widow. The narrator is taken aback by his callous lack of grief. The narrator goes home to eat and Mimiko appears at his window to bring him some oranges from the widow, who wants to express her gratitude for defending her. The narrator can’t help but feel joyful.
One day in the early spring, the narrator feels restless and decides to visit the ruins of a Minoan city that takes four hours to reach by walking. He gets to the city by midday and feels spellbound to see the ruins, including a shrine of the Great Goddess and old workshops. He contemplates on the work that went into this ruined city and for what purpose. He is approached by a young shepherd. The shepherd asks what the narrator is doing at the ruins and he responds that he’s studying antiquity, which he admits doesn’t bring much good. The narrator walks towards the coast and thinks about the cycle of seasons and how they fill him with a sense of oppression, as he is reminded that he must enjoy life here and now rather than wait for something better in eternity.
At the sea, the narrator runs into an old couple and their daughter on their way to church. The old man asks him if he is going to the convent and the narrator says yes; he is going to hear the chants to the Holy Virgin. He and the old man speak about the lignite business. He advises the narrator not to worry about his profits, as his soul will go to paradise no matter what. He speaks of the “Great Pearl,” a Biblical metaphor for the salvation of the soul that stands above any material rewards. The old man tells the narrator about how the virgin icon at the covenant is known to bleed real blood once a year and how he almost decided to become a monk in service to her. Instead, he was approached by his wife, who he says is the devil disguised as a woman.
They reach the church and the narrator listens to hymns and speaks with some nuns about the miracles of the Virgin Mary. Afterwards, the narrator walks around in the darkness and ponders the temporality of life on Earth. He comes to the realization of the importance in embracing his worldly life as all other concepts and philosophies are distractions and empty promises. He recalls a story he read as a schoolboy about a beautiful world that exists inside a well. After reading this, he tries to go face-first into a well but is caught just in time by his mother. He compares this incident to his other forays into ideologies where he was on the verge of being destroyed by false promises of utopia, each time “escaping the danger” of a faulty belief system. He sees his most recent interest in Buddhism as the last time he will be tricked in this way, thanks to meeting Zorba.
This section of Zorba the Greek finds the narrator coming to strong epiphanies as he reevaluates his purpose and the greater meaning of life. From the start of the novel, we have known the narrator to be a bookish fellow and a scholar of Eastern philosophies like Buddhism. At the same time, it has been made evident that his intellectualism is one of his greatest insecurities, as demonstrated in his fierce refutation of being a “bookworm” and his efforts to open himself up to the wild and Dionysian lifestyle of his friend Zorba. It is Zorba’s presence that has undoubtedly been the trigger for the narrator to realize a new vision of life, one that goes beyond mere ideological musing but instead affirms the primacy of pure, lived experience as the greatest teacher one can encounter.
When the narrator peruses through an old book of Mallarmé poetry—a work he once dearly loved—he experiences a moment of reckoning, recognizing in an instant that the “bloodless” quality of the verses bring no greater wisdom or feeling but rather are characteristic of the cold, mental, and deadening art of a “civilization in decline.” From here on, he decides to disavow the teachings of the Buddha, which he now sees as a trap to make men deny their own humanity in pursuit of an unreachable spiritual ideal. The narrator’s new commitment to a more sensualist mode of being is further echoed in the scene when he visits old Minoan ruins, where he again feels a sense of repulsion at the structures of the past, relics which offer no vitality nor inspiration to go forward in a rapidly changing world. The chaos of modern life is something that must be confronted directly; not approached through dead philosophies.
Throughout these pages we see examples of how various characters choose to deal with this chaos. Madame Hortense is frightened of the temporality of life and comforts herself by reminiscing of her younger days and living out girlish fantasies, such as a somewhat imaginary romance with Zorba. The old man who the narrator meets at the beach finds order through adhering to a structured devotional life. His idealizes the Virgin Mary, whose purity is a welcomed reprieve from the fallible quality of mortal women. The son of Mavrandoni, struck by heartbreak, cannot deal with the chaos and decides to take his own life. It doesn’t seem as if anyone has the slightest idea of how to handle the challenges of human existence. Immersed in this more down-to-earth setting—rather than hidden away in intellectual havens—the narrator receives a dose of realism that forces him to question the true utility of spirituality without acknowledgment of the human condition.
Nikos Kazantizakis creates a landscape of diverse people and personal histories where it is clear that no one has it figured it out completely. In the midst of this, the narrator looks to Zorba, someone who has disavowed the entire societal game to embrace visceral experience as the only true religion, the only thing that matters—and it is here that the narrator begins to find a path of substance rather than one of more false hope, as symbolized by the childhood story of the well and its subterranean utopia. Yet the outlook of Zorba does not guarantee a comfortable and fearless existence; we see in these chapters how even he, at 65, fears old age and death. Like everybody else, he is ignorant of what unfolds after the body shrivels and loses its youthful spark. Despite his capacity to uplift the narrator, it is also obvious that Zorba just as much as anyone is seeking for deeper meaning to his life, often losing himself in love affairs as a distraction from confronting his own impermanence.
The author’s rich language of metaphor and characterization serve to reflect this theme of primal experience. On page 134, for instance, the description of the near-blossoming trees and their “buds full of sap” mirror the narrator’s own sensations of new possibility and vitality. Frequently he observes the living world and receives much inspiration and deep feeling, as if in a communion with nature as an intelligent form. For example, while strolling by the sea, the mere sight of ocean waves and birds flying overhead remind the narrator of his “duty.” His reading into the symbolism and cues of nature is indicative of his growing regard for the wisdom of experience over analysis of ideas. Whereas once he felt oppressed by the temporal nature of life—as described in his dread at the turning of the seasons—he is becoming more and more open to the beauty of the ephemeral.