If there is a general philosophy emphasized in the story, it is that of existentialism, the theory that man directs his life as an individual and that there is no set, inherent meaning that must be obeyed. Throughout the book, the narrator and Zorba have a near constant dialogue about the nature of life, God, and morality. The narrator, being an educated Buddhist, dedicates most of his days to studying ideas and abstaining from his vices, while Zorba, an uneducated and unreligious man, chooses to spend his time exuberantly savoring the present moment; he revels in dance, singing, playing the santuri, sleeping with women, and drinking wine. The seeming immoralities that Zorba indulges in are initially shocking to the narrator, yet as the story unfolds, he comes to discover Zorba's spirit to be even stronger than his own. It is shown that through Zorba's focus on bodily experience and earthly things, he receives the requisite wisdom for leading a highly fulfilling existence, without the need for seeking guidance outside of himself.
Zorba often questions the authenticity of the narrator's dedication to his morals, encouraging him to let go of his tightly held beliefs and live more in reality. In this sense, Zorba thinks that man's power lies in his own hands; that he is not beholden to a higher power nor religious institution. The fallibility of belief systems is emphasized especially in the scenes at the monastery, where it is shown how those most trying to live a pure and holy life are also those most confused and divided from within. Repeatedly we see how no one has the complete, perfect answer for how to navigate the tragedy and chaos of modern life. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, one might as well enjoy themselves, and this is exactly the lesson that Zorba demonstrates to the narrator.
The Nature of Happiness
One of the more prominent themes throughout the book is the narrator's constant struggle with his desire to be happy. He is astonished by Zorba's persistent and seemingly effortless happiness. There is a continual comparison being made between the narrator and Zorba, two fundamentally opposing characters. The narrator is a well-read and spiritual young man, yet finds himself in a state of unhappiness more often than not. Zorba, on the other hand, is uneducated, old, penniless, and intellectually ignorant; he claims the only book he's ever read is Sinbad the Sailor. Yet Zorba has a joy and enthusiasm for life that astounds the narrator. Zorba, on several occasions, acknowledges himself as an average and unremarkable man, yet he somehow has formed a profound connection to the world that eludes the narrator, a traditionally smart man. The counterplay between these two characters emphasizes the human tendency to become trapped by one's own thoughts and worries, and how only by getting out of one's head and living in the moment one may become truly free.
The author drives home the message that happiness is not conditioned by one's possession nor one's knowledge. This is especially apparent after the catastrophic failure of the characters' entire business venture. Zorba and the narrator, after losing everything, actually spend one of their most happy evenings together, with the narrator finally asking Zorba to teach him how to dance. Their elation even in the face of material loss suggests that happiness is a choice rather than the product of fortunate circumstances.
Aging and Death
The transience of life is a topic most directly explored through the character of Madame Hortense. A former mistress and sex symbol, she now, in her old age, is coming to terms with the reality of aging. In her conversations with Zorba and the narrator, she often alludes to her fear of death and her desire to return her youthful and adventurous days. The New Year celebration prompts a sour mood in her, as the passage of a new cycle only reminds her of her own mortality. On her deathbed, she finally surrenders her terror and experiences a moment of relief from mundane concerns as she transitions into the mystery of death.
Throughout the story, we see how many of the characters struggle to define and give meaning to their lives within the reality of impermanence. The narrator has become an aficionado of Buddhist philosophy, which encourages detachment from one's humanity in order to prepare oneself for departure from this world. Yet, this philosophy leaves something to be desired. Zorba, despite his characteristic exuberance, also grapples with the unknown of death and feels despair at the notion of growing old and losing the one thing most dear to him: his sexual drive. Humorously, he dyes his mustache and hair black after an affair with a younger woman leaves him feeling inadequate.
No matter the loftiness of one's ideals, we see how no one has an answer to what lies after death, and how this common incomprehension is what also brings them closer together. After the deaths of the widow as well as the Madame, Zorba and the narrator must admit to each other that neither one knows in the slightest how to approach death. It is a destination they both will meet, and thus they resolve to live their lives to the fullest while they can.
The friendship between men is the centerpiece of Zorba the Greek. Over months of working and living together on Crete, a close bond develops between Zorba and the narrator. The narrator, a closed-off intellectual, is transformed by this relationship, coming to realize that his overly cerebral approach to life is what bars him from genuine human connection. By the end of the story, Zorba and the narrator are like brothers, and despite losing their lignite enterprise, they are happy because they have shared this time together. Although Kazantzakis emphasizes the transience of worldly pleasures—sex, money, beauty—the joy of friendship is portrayed as one of the few things which have a lasting impact on the lives of his characters.
The friendship shared by the narrator and Zorba is contrasted with that of the narrator and Stavridaki, which is introduced from the start of the novel as a one that is loving yet lacking in true intimacy. Stavridaki’s idea that a man must be stoic and not reveal his more vulnerable feelings is what prevents a deeper bond from forming, and it is not until after Stavridaki dies and visits the narrator as a ghost that he can express his regret of not fully opening his heart during his life.
The Relationship between Men and Women
Women are seen as the greatest temptation in Zorba the Greek. There are frequent instances of dialogue between the narrator and one of the many people he meets on Crete about the devilish nature of the female, who is regarded less as a companion to man than as a seductress who binds him to the earthly world of suffering. For instance, the narrator converses with an old religious man on the beach who speaks of his former interest in becoming a monk and worshipping the Virgin Mary, a desire which was shattered when he met his wife, a demon who enticed him out of his piousness. The recurring appearance of Mother Mary iconography in the story also points to a dichotomy of the virgin and whore: woman in her archetypal, saintly and superhuman form is non-threatening and even desirable to man, but real women in the flesh are inherently bad and not to be trusted. The reference to the story of Adam and Eve early on in the story also points to the origin of this derogatory attitude towards women; it is in this parable where woman is blamed for man’s fall from Paradise and thus classified as a sort of lesser species.
The supposedly mature and intelligent narrator falls for this trap just as much as the backwards villagers; he has no ability to relate to women as equals but instead sees them as an alluring yet threatening other. This is best demonstrated as he obsessively fantasizes about the widow while simultaneously regarding her as a temptation that will ruin his spiritual practice. Zorba is more confident and forthcoming in approaching women, but still views them as inferior and more as a means to an end (pleasure). He has no qualms about jumping from affair to affair and explains at one point to the narrator how “honest marriages” are boring and cannot possibly satiate his endless sexual desire.
The inability for the men of the novel to acknowledge both their sexual and spiritual natures—instead seeing the two as somehow contradictory—is precisely why healthy relationships with women cannot be integrated. Women must either be avoided in order to preserve an imaginary piety, or they are shamelessly exploited for their bodies without regard for their intelligence and feelings.
Tradition versus Modernity
The narrator, an educated and savvy fellow, chooses to move to Crete and immerse himself in one of the traditional communities, where he can fulfill a fantasy of living amongst peasants and leaving behind his intellectual pursuits for a more raw, authentic sort of lifestyle. Through the narrator’s inner monologue, he often decries modernity as an empty and dying civilization that has lost its connection with higher values. We can infer that his relentless search for the ultimate philosophy comes, in part, from his feeling of estrangement from his contemporary culture. Thus, his romantic idea of traditional life on a Greek isle seems like the best option to get away from the madness of the cities and live out an ascetic existence.
This dream collapses once the narrator comes face to face with some of the more prominent village elders. While perhaps more simple and connected to the earth than the narrator’s former peers, they are also quite prone to misogyny, outrageous superstition, and barbaric cruelty. For instance, when Zorba and the narrator visit Uncle Anagnosti for dinner, they are horrified to see him castrate a pig and eat its testicles as a “delicacy”; this sort of backwardness is a wakeup call for the narrator to realize that perhaps the peasant life is not all he imagined it to be and that it is futile trying to convert people away from their traditions, however absurd.
The true meaning of freedom is a topic that Zorba and the narrator often like to discuss. For Zorba, freedom means following his passion and having no commitments that might weigh him down or restrict his movement. For the narrator, freedom is more elusive, something that he tries to understand through his surveying of ancient philosophies. In the Buddhist texts he so loves, freedom can only be found by detaching from the world and transcending into a more pure level of existence. Yet at some point in the story, the narrator realizes that perhaps the transcendentalist philosophies, with their lack of feeling and concern for the human experience, are not leading men to freedom but to an impossible and non-existent utopia. He sees through his own personal example how his intense study of ideas has not lead to a more liberated and rich life but an isolated one, where he fears to leave his own intellectual bubble. Inspired by Zorba, the narrator comes to a new definition of freedom which incorporates earthly living, the full range of emotion, and even sexuality.
Zorba the Greek Questions and Answers
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