Zorba the Greek

Zorba the Greek Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-21


After 12 days in Candia, Zorba finally returns. The narrator tries to put on an angry face to scold Zorba for his carelessness, yet underneath he is elated to see him. Zorba has with him the tools and gifts for the narrator and Madame Hortense. The narrator tells him about the trick he played on Madame Hortense about Zorba marrying her, and Zorba disapproves, saying he must be careful of toying with women’s emotions; inwardly the narrator knows he’s right and feels regret. Zorba is motivated to get to work in the mine. He reveals that he has dyed his hair black, after feeling ashamed of looking so old with his younger girlfriend. Zorba plays his santuri for them out under the stars.

The next day at the mine, Zorba’s renewed enthusiasm brings a lively spirit to the rest of the workers. The narrator meanwhile gets lost in a book about powerful Tibetan monks and afterwards again feels like he is being consumed by the phantoms of ideas. He remarks to Zorba at the end of the day how he should try to better focus his attention, like the monks do, on his work. Zorba is angered by this, feeling he is being judged for his recent behavior. They quarrel a bit and then make dinner together. The narrator hears Madame Hortense approaching to see Zorba and slips out before she enters. The next morning Zorba makes the narrator wake up early to go to a monastery up the mountain. They must obtain authorization from the monastery to use their land for building the cable railway.

On the way to the monastery, they encounter a monk named Zaharia, who tells them that he is being haunted by the voice of Christ. Zorba convinces Zaharia to bring them to the monastery and asks him if he has a devil inside of him, to which Zaharia replies that he does and that its name is Joseph. They stop to eat and Zaharia reveals more of his split personality, alternately eating vegetarian food as Zaharia and meat and alcohol as Joseph. He says he became a monk because of poverty not saintliness. They continue on to the monastery, which is situated in a serene, fertile plateau; the narrator sees it as an excellent spot for meditation. Upon entering the monastery, they meet the monks, who eagerly ask if they have brought a newspaper; the narrator is taken aback by their interest in such worldly things.

They meet Father Demetrios, who shows them a small figurine of a half-naked nun that he has been obsessing over; he believes there might be a diamond hidden inside of it. Zorba tells him it is of the devil. Zorba and the narrator step into the courtyard and speak about how strange the monks are. Zorba posits that their abstinence from the world is the very thing making them so crazed and obsessed by it. Observing the monks around them, Zorba expresses his disgust with how seemingly competitive they are. They decide they must get their papers signed by the abbot and leave as soon as possible; Zorba tells the narrator he has a scheme for getting the land at half price.

The narrator spends time in the chapel and reflects on the things that move him most deeply. Zorba returns to tell him that he is still trying to coax the abbot for a good price; he wants the lower price to make up for his careless spending in Candia. They spend the night at the monastery. After being woken by the sound of a revolver shot, they chat with the startled bishop, an old man who tells them of three theories he has concocted about flowers, ideas, and eternity. Zaharia finds the narrator and Zorba and takes them to the cemetery, where he shows them the young monk who has been shot, supposedly by Father Demetrios. Zaharia speaks of his desire to burn down the monastery. Shaken up, the narrator and Zorba get their papers signed and escape from the monastery and the monks who are like “wolves.” They leave as the sun is coming up.

Returning home, they are met with a sorrowful Madame Hortense who demands to know when Zorba will marry her. Zorba lies about having made wedding preparations to appease her. She presents him with wedding rings, and in a split second Zorba must decide what to do; feeling pity for her, he agrees to their engagement. Elated, she tries to get Zorba to spend the night with her, but Zorba is not in the mood and begs the narrator to stick around. The Madame feels she is finally achieving what she had always wanted in life. They walk her home and after she leaves Zorba asks the narrator for advice; the narrator doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Zorba jokes about being like the god Zeus in his refusal to let any woman be disappointed and imagines setting up a marriage service for undesirable women.

As the friends settle in for the night, Zorba says he is satisfied with the day’s events. He tells the narrator a story about his grandfather tricking a friend into thinking he gave him a piece of wood from the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. The friend, once a goat thief, began prostrating to this piece of wood and found new strength of character. The moral of the story, says Zorba, is that it is solely one’s belief that brings transformation, not magical relics. The narrator asks Zorba if he ever fought in a war for his country; the question annoys Zorba, who prefers not to talk about such subjects. After being prodded, Zorba shows him battle scars from when he fought in the mountains of Macedonia. He gets into a rage reminiscing about those days, denouncing the animal behavior of his fellow men.

He expresses his regret for his days fighting in battle and the cruelty he inflicted on others, simply for belonging to a different country. Listening, the narrator realizes that Zorba has directly grappled with all the questions that the narrator has merely contemplated passively. They go to bed, but the narrator can’t sleep. He goes outside in the early morning to admire the coming of spring and Zorba joins him in an elated mood. Zorba speaks of the magic in the sea and earth. They get themselves prepared for the ceremony happening later that day; the priest, workers, and local “notables” are coming for a ritual to bless the new cable railway project. Afterwards, Zorba spends his day working intently without a break.

On Easter day, the narrator and Zorba dress up for a celebration with Dame Hortense. They prepare a grand reception for her on the beach. It turns out the Madame has a cold so the men eat and drink without her. Zorba gets into a frenzied state, and full of wine and lamb desires to go to town for dancing. The narrator is not in the mood to go and Zorba leaves without him. Later, however, the narrator feels his body carrying him somewhere, with Zorba’s words about not fearing God nor the devil echoing in his mind. He bring himself to the widow’s house. Seeing her, he is overcome with lust for the woman. She lets him in and we can infer that they spend the night together.

The narrator returns at dawn to his hut and Zorba, sensing what has occurred, congratulates him. He goes to sleep and dreams of a giant goddess whose “cave” he tries to enter. Upon waking, he recounts the pleasures of the night before, concluding that perhaps the soul is also made of flesh. He goes for a swim in the sea. After, he opens his Buddhist manuscript and finishes it decisively, feeling as if he is closing this chapter of life and “dissolving” the Buddha within him. On the way to go visit Madame Hortense, he greets various townspeople and tells them Christ is reborn. The madame is more ill than before, and the narrator orders Mimiko to call her a doctor.


One of the central dichotomies explored in Zorba the Greek is that between God and the Devil. It is Zorba who frequently likes to declare that these seemingly oppositional figures are actually one and the same. This is a perspective that shakes up the narrator, who has long absorbed himself by the pursuit of godliness through the exploration of various idealistic philosophies. Slowly this obsession with purity and virtue become unraveled as he comes to know someone who has grappled with philosophical questions viscerally through life experience rather than merely pontificating in intellectual bubbles. This stands out most prominently when Zorba tells the narrator of his time spent in battle; here, the narrator recognizes that Zorba, through witnessing utter death and destruction, has been gifted with a deeper appreciation for life.

The God/Devil polarity is also milked for humor in many moments of the story, such as in the visit to the mountaintop monastery, where an expectation of devoted monks leading a quiet life of reverence is shattered and the narrator and Zorba realize that it is often those most professing their holiness who are actually the most vice-ridden. This confusion of values is best embodied in the character of Father Zaharia, whose extreme split personality of sinner/saint is meant to demonstrate the impossibility of adhering to a fixed doctrine. As Zorba points out to the narrator, each of these monks has a devil inside of them; the difference between them and him is that Zorba is willing to acknowledge it, and thus is able to tame it. The suppression of this devil is what leads to the compulsion, competition, and even murder that we see on display at the monastery.

Where does morality fit into this vibrant way of life? This question is sure to haunt the reader throughout these chapters, as there are certain instances that provoke a doubt of Zorba and the narrator’s moral character. There is the moment where the two friends somewhat encourage—or at least fail to dissuade—the crazed Zaharia to burn down the monastery. There is also the example of Madame Hortense, who is lead to believe by the narrator that she is equally pined for by Zorba. This may seem to some as a cruel joke played on a desperate and insecure woman who simply wants genuine love in her older years. Yet, when perhaps the narrator goes too far, such as his tricking of the Madame, Zorba is there to reign him back in, reminding him to consider the feelings of others. In this way, Zorba shows that being a free spirit doesn’t mean becoming heartless; in fact, Zorba feels so much compassion for the Madame that he agrees to marry her rather than let her down.

It is not so much moral relativism that Zorba advocates; rather his equivocation of God and Satan can more be seen as the undoing of an old schism, leftover from religion, that sees those things of earth instead of eternity as having a devilish nature. What the narrator discovers with the help of Zorba is not that morals matter not, but rather that it is erroneous to judge those temporal things such as sexual pleasure, food and wine, and the cycle of seasons as less than the so-called higher pursuits of intellectualizing, meditation, or religious worship. This theme is underscored especially in the dream of the narrator after his night with the widow; the vision of the great, dark-skinned goddess whose cave he tries to enter can be understood as a metaphor for the mysterious, fecund force of Mother Nature herself that the narrator has now decided to embrace rather than escape.

The moment the narrator decides, against the doubts of his mind, to approach the widow and succumb to the cravings of the body marks a certain climatic moment in his life. It is no coincidence that this incident occurs on the night of Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The acknowledgement of his own sexual and animalistic nature serves to reacquaint the narrator with a greater version of himself; one that is not still plagued by imaginary splits between virtue and vice. In this sense, we come to understand the Zorban philosophy as the total experience of life beyond relative classifications of good and evil. His completion of his Buddhist manuscript further shows the narrator is ready to step away from his focus on purity to embrace all that the human condition has to offer. The rebirth symbolism is further emphasized when the narrator swims in the ocean after his affair, baptizing himself in the revitalizing waters of life.