The narrator heads to a village dance after calling a girl to care for Madame Hortense. The lively scene comes to a halt when everyone realizes the widow has arrived; villagers surround the disgraced woman, calling her names. She tries to run but is cornered by people and she begs for mercy. The narrator runs to the scene to defend her but hits his foot and falls. A group of men lead by Mavrandoni and Manolakas surround the widow with their knives out, ready to kill her. Suddenly Zorba appears to try to stop the murder, calling them disgraceful. A terrible fight ensues between Zorba and Manolakas. Zorba tries to get the widow to escape with him, but before she can get up, Mavrandoni attacks her and cuts off her head with his knife. Zorba and the narrator flee from the scene. That evening they can’t eat, feeling shock and sorrow.
Zorba speaks passionately about how there is no justice in the world and how God’s ways are unfair. Zorba goes to walk in the mountains to cope while the narrator sits in bed and deals with his emotions through conceptualizing them, convincing himself at last that what happened was all for the best. For the next few days, Zorba is in a dark mood and focuses entirely on his work at the mine. When the narrator tries to bring up the widow, Zorba angrily dismisses him. The narrator informs him that Madame Hortense is still very ill, and Zorba visits her briefly, afterwards nonchalantly telling the narrator that she is going to die. Zorba goes out one night and the narrator follows him and ends up breaking up a fight between him and Manolakas. He convinces the two men to forgive each other and takes them back to their house for a celebratory drink.
The next day, a messenger comes to inform Zorba and the narrator that Madame Hortense is on the verge of dying. The men rush to her hotel, where she is in a bad state, moaning with pain. She exclaims that she doesn’t want to die. Already there are villagers gathered in her yard, waiting for her to die so they can plunder her belongings. The dying woman finds an old cross and prays to Christ. Soon her burdens and fear of dying are lifted as she feels momentarily reprieved from her worldly troubles. When she finally passes, the villagers barge in to pillage what they can while others come to prepare her body for the morgue. The villagers make an entire feast outside the Madame’s house while there is a mad scene of people coming in and trying to steal what items they can. Zorba says a final goodbye to his lady before her body is taken away. He takes Madame’s pet parrot with him. The narrator tries to comfort him by saying that death is something everyone has to experience, but Zorba, still deep in grief, is not consoled by this.
They go home, where they are unable to sleep. Zorba earnestly asks the narrator why people die, but the narrator can’t respond and feels ashamed that he doesn’t know the answer. Zorba asks what the point is of reading so many books if he still doesn’t know the answer to this most important question. Zorba demands to know where humans come from and where they are going; the narrator manages to respond that the point of life is “Sacred Awe.” Zorba reveals that he thinks of death every second, that he doesn’t fear it but that he also doesn’t like it. They stop talking about this and go to sleep; the narrator has a hard time sleeping as he feels a transformation taking place inside of himself.
The next days, Zorba works at the mine and is almost finished installing the cable railway. The men do not talk of the widow, the Madame, or God. In this silence, the narrator again starts pondering philosophical questions about the human soul. The narrator goes to Madame Hortense’s hotel one day, which has been completely emptied out, besides one of her old shoes, still molded to the shape of her foot. The sight of this moves the narrator. Later that night, while making dinner on the beach, the narrator accuses Zorba of forgetting Madame Hortense, to which Zorba passionately explains how he doesn’t like to dwell on the past but lives fully in the present. His full presence is what made him such a great lover to the Madame, he reasons.
Suddenly they are interrupted by a visit from Father Zaharia, who insinuates that he has finally burnt down the monastery. He tells the story of the deed, claiming that he was guided by the Archangel Michael. He also shares that “Joseph,” his devilish alter ego, no longer resides within him. Having purged Joseph, he has no desire to join the men in eating meat and drinking. Zaharia wanders off and the narrator and Zorba talk about how by setting the monastery on fire, Zaharia has expunged this inner demon. When Zorba goes to look for Zaharia, he discovers the monk has died; his heart has stopped. That night, Zorba stays up to figure out what to do with the body.
On the eve of the first of May, the cable railway project is finally finished and unveiled to the rest of the village. Zorba welcomes “village worthies” by speaking about the great feat of the project and how he was assisted by the Holy Virgin. At the scene, six monks from the mountainside monastery appear on horseback. They tell of the burning of the monastery by Zaharia, who they call their “Judas.” The monks say they are astonished to have found the corpse of Zaharia at the foot of the Virgin icon, with blood on Her lance. The narrator stifles his laughter, immediately knowing this is the work of Zorba. The monks have brought the icon with them so that villagers can prostrate before Her and give alms. Zorba is annoyed that they are trying to milk the situation for money.
At the moment the ceremony to unveil the railway is meant to begin, a catastrophe takes place: the entire structure of the railway sways and sparks, catching the first pine tree on fire. Zorba tries to assure the crowd that this is a fluke but the same thing happens to the second and third trunks. The fourth trunk releases a shower of sparks that injure people and send the villagers running for the hills. The narrator and Zorba are the only ones left on the beach. They eat lamb, drink wine, and talk to lighten their mood after this massive failure. Suddenly the narrator asks Zorba to teach him to dance and Zorba happily obliges; he teaches him a military dance and the narrator starts to feel his spirit soar. Watching his friend dance, the narrator feels admiration for his endurance and agility. They are able to laugh about the cable railway and fall asleep on the beach in each other’s arms.
The narrator rises in the dawn and walks on the beach, feeling very happy. He realizes that he has lost pretty much everything—his money and prospects of business—yet he feels more joy than ever. He contemplates this as he walks, passing by various strange scenes of people. He receives a letter from his friend Stavridaki who writes about having found his own happiness through duty. The narrator feels compelled to climb the mountain and when he reaches the top, he sleeps for awhile but is awoken by a disturbing dream of Stavridaki dying. Remembering their pact to inform each other telepathically if one has died, the narrator is sure that something has happened to his friend and runs down the mountain in a panic. However, by the time he reaches the bottom, he has calmed himself, recognizing that his fears are his own inner anxiety trying to encroach on his happiness.
The day comes when Zorba and the narrator separate. The narrator is going abroad to work on his writing. He promises one day they will reunite to build a monastery but Zorba feels that he is lying. This hurts the narrator and Zorba apologizes. They see a shooting star and this prompts Zorba to sing an old melody. The next day the narrator leaves and we learn that he is never to see Zorba again. The narrator finds out shortly after leaving that Stavridaki has died from pneumonia. Zorba and narrator exchange a few letters over the years. At one point Zorba writes to ask the narrator to come on another journey with him; the narrator, listening to human logic rather than divine impulse, declines. He is haunted by the presence of Stavridaki, who visits him at night. Zorba also comes to him in his dreams, and the narrator begins to sense that Zorba is soon to leave this world. He is thus inspired to write a full chronicle of his times with Zorba. As he finishes the manuscript, he receives a letter informing him of the passing of Zorba and Zorba’s request that he inherit his santuri.
In the last chapters of Zorba the Greek, we find the drama heightened and the main characters faced with some challenging situations where they must put their philosophy to the test. Perhaps the most grotesque event is the murder of the widow, who is cornered and decapitated by a mob of villagers desiring revenge. For them, it is fair to murder the woman, as she is a seductress whose loose sexuality has led to the suicide of Pavli. Throughout the story, we see the attitude towards woman as condescending at best and misogynistic at worst, with even the narrator and Zorba frequently speaking and joking about how women are temptations and not to be trusted. The narrator’s own sexual encounter with the widow is seen not as the prelude to a relationship with an equal being, but as a sort of means to satiate his long suppressed desires and revive his own animal nature.
However, in this moment of the murder, the author draws a distinction between the brutality of men like Mavrandoni and Manolakas, who feel justified for killing someone they deem as a threat and a curse on the village, and men like the narrator and Zorba, who still operate under some sort of moral compass despite their own shortcomings. We see how Zorba tries to heroically intervene and prevent the murder, as well as how earlier the narrator defends the name of the widow as the villagers are calling for her ruin. The narrator, from all his studying, has the intellectual awareness that man is not meant to devolve into animal savageness but to have compassion for other beings. Zorba’s conscience comes less from his knowledge but more so a visceral feeling of what is right and wrong.
After being unable to stop the killing, Zorba and the narrator withdraw for a time, feeling somewhat depressed and powerless in a world that feels senselessly cruel. In order to cope, the narrator tries to imagine the widow as a symbol rather than as a living person: “She was encased in wax in my heart; she could no longer spread panic inside me and paralyze my brain.” The reader may notice how after such a trying incident, the narrator reverts into his old ways of conceptualization and abstraction; any inkling of passion he began to feel through his sexual awakening is now dulled in order to shut away the chaos of emotions. Zorba also characteristically funnels his energy more into the physical and tangible things that can give him a sense of meaning, such as working at the mine. With this, Kazantzakis seems to suggest that the direct experience of the terrors of life leaves everyone—no matter how seemingly intelligent or well-adjusted—humbled and even helpless in the face of madness.
The horror continues in the scene of Madame Hortense’s death, where villagers crowd around her home, waiting for her to pass so that they may plunder her every last belonging. Later, the narrator returns to her hotel and observes how the Madame’s old slipper, still bent into the shape of her foot, is one of the few items that have not been stolen; in this moment he is struck with compassion for the simultaneous tenderness and crudeness of the human condition. Again the theme of senselessness arises in the death of Father Zaharia, who while able to expunge his inner demon, dies too soon afterwards to start creating a better life for himself.
Throughout all the chaos, however, we are shown how Zorba and the narrator continually try to uplift and complement each other, so that the other does not get stuck in a self-defeating and dangerous perspective. For example, the narrator intervenes in a potentially deadly altercation between Zorba and Manolakas and encourages the men to reach a truce. Zorba on his own would solely follow his passionate desire to right a wrong, potentially leading to an ugly conclusion; the narrator’s rational approach is needed. On the other hand, Zorba questions the narrator on God and morality in an earnest way that helps the narrator recognize the futility of ideals without the awareness of how to live them. Without Zorba’s realism, the narrator would become more and more isolated in conceptual bubble.
Finally, after the ultimate failure of the cable railway project, Zorba and the narrator seem to get the message that it is time to let go and move on to a new chapter of life. And here the reader will understand what is perhaps one of the central themes of Zorba the Greek: neither material possessions nor lofty concepts have much value if there is no joy for life itself. When forced to surrender their hopes and dreams for the lignite business, we see how Zorba and the narrator are actually the most happy they have been throughout the entire story. One of the last scenes where Zorba teaches the narrator how to dance on the beach conveys that in a senseless world, it makes most sense to stop resisting the present moment, to simply let go and dance.