Zorba’s dancing is a symbolic expression of the life spirit. It is an activity he returns to again and again as a means of catharsis and expression of feeling beyond words. The narrator is portrayed as being trapped by language; his reliance on books and study is a reflection of his inability to truly live in the present moment. Zorba, conversely, has no interest or even capacity to conceptualize. He prefers to surrender to dancing in order to process his emotions. We see this in the instance when Zorba jumps into an ecstatic dance following a heavy conversation between he and the narrator. By the end of the novel, the narrator becomes open to the therapeutic power of dancing; he asks Zorba to teach him his moves right after their business has met a catastrophic failure.
Zorba’s Dionysian approach to life comes at a price, however; he does not possess the Apollonian ability to transform passion into lasting ventures, and this is why he has never quite manifested a stable or structured life for himself. He can only express his sensuality through the momentary pleasure of the dance or song; afterwards he is always left with the same problems.
Motif: The Sea
The author sets the action of Zorba the Greek on the island of Crete and thus the surrounding sea is a constant presence in the narrative. Zorba and the narrator frequently eat dinner and engage in deep conversation on the beach. The narrator sits by the water often to read and meditate. The sea represents the mystery of the unknown and the primordial force of life which is embodied by Zorba and which is becoming awakened in the narrator. Its depth and fluidity help to soften the rigid ways of the narrator. Most significantly, the narrator swims in the sea after his night with the widow; this moment evokes the sense of baptism and being reborn into a new sense of self, one in which sexuality and spirituality are integrated.
Symbol: The Monastery
When Zorba and the narrator first encounter the mountainside monastery, it seems like an ideal holy place. It is situated beautifully amidst the natural landscape and upon seeing it, the narrator feels it is the perfect spot for meditation and spiritual practice. However, with great irony, the protagonists come to discover that the monks who occupy this seemingly sacred spot are just as vice-ridden as anyone else, if not more so. The narrator is shocked to find devotees clamoring for newspapers and speaking of worldly topics; it is not the vision of paradise he so imagined. They finally flee from the monastery after one monk is shot to death. This contradiction serves to illustrate one of the main themes of the novel: the image of purity, found in religions and philosophies, is often concealing a deeper confusion and a schism between spiritual and human identity.
The narrator often receives and sends letters throughout the novel, mainly with his friend Stavridaki, who is exiled in the Caucasus. The frequent writing of letters is a demonstration of how the narrator and his intellectual friends use verbal language as their prime means of expression. The author presents a contrast between the careful and calculated way of crafting a letter and the wild emotions that are felt when composing or reading it. For example, we see how excited the narrator is when a letter from Stavridaki is delivered, as well as how he struggles to adequately communicate his love for his friend through words. Zorba's letter to the narrator while in Candia, on the other hand, lacks any pretenses; it is long, sloppily written, and reflective of his passionate mode of being. As the story progresses, the narrator finds it easier and easier to start channeling more raw feeling into his writing rather than merely using his mind.
Symbol: The Butterfly
Early in the story, the narrator recounts a moment when he tried to assist a butterfly to break free from its cocoon. The butterfly died almost immediately as a result of the narrator’s interference. The regret he felt from this incident has haunted him ever since and he evokes this memory in order to make a point about patience and obedience to the "eternal rhythm" of nature. The narrator's intellectualism has made him feel isolated from the forces of earth and his deep shame in killing the butterfly reflects this sense of separation. His fear of forcing his own will upon nature is also connected to his resistance to pursuing relationships with women and acknowledging his own sexuality; he sees his own humanity as something brute and destructive.
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.