Zorba the Greek Summary

Nikos Kazantzakis

Zorba the Greek

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Zorba the Greek Summary

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Like many novels published in the n1940s, Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis employs graceful prose and beautiful thought-provoking writing that leaves the characters as well as the readers in deep contemplation. It also shares the literary characteristics of a play, where most of the dramatic action takes place between two dissimilar characters with vastly different temperaments, as they navigate across fascinating towns, and interact with their wondrous inhabitants, as well as wreaking certain havoc. The characters in question in this book are The narrator, who is unnamed, and of course, the eponymous Greek himself, Zorba.

The tale begins with the narrator, of course, who is said to be a huge bibliophile, almost to the point of obsession – which prompts a good friend of his, Stavridakis, to comment on how a person who spends their whole life as an intellectual hasn’t really lived. Stavridakis sets off to rescue some fellow Greeks who had been captured and persecuted by foreign invaders, leaving the narrator to ruminate in a café over what has been said. The narrator decides to set sail to Crete, and labor with the working class reopening a coal mine, but before he leaves, he runs into a sixty-year-old man, Alexis Zorba, who had been peering at him – this man approaches the narrator, lists his abilities and past jobs, and then asks for some work. The narrator, fascinated by his stories and his extroverted disposition, hires him to be a foreman and asks him to join him on his way to Crete. On their journey they share stories, and Zorba’s prolonged and enthralling anecdotes become a recurring staple of the narrative.

After landing in Crete, they find a slew of bathing-huts owned by the Madame Hortense, a widow, who Zorba decides to seduce, and in doing so inspires the narrator to woo a widow of his own. Throughout their stay they share stories and opinions about existential topics, however when on the job, one of the mines collapses and almost kills the workers, and such an experience pushes the narrator to rethink some of his ideals and desires, especially about seducing a widow like Zorba had encouraged him to do, which he finally does, bringing the narrator some comfort and pragmatism (and of course romance). However, shortly after, the widow is killed by an angry mob because of her debauchery, leading to the narrator ’s unceasing guilt and regrets of trying to live life as someone else as per Stavridakis’ and Zorba’s suggestion.

Despite all their defeats, the narrator and Zorba decide to build a timber railway to make some money, and as Zorba is busy collecting supplies, the narrator approaches Madame Hortense and proposes to her on behalf of Zorba. Zorba agrees to marry her, but she grows ill and dies before he has a chance to, making her happy that she was chosen to be someone’s wife one more time before she died.

Following all these problems, the narrator has an uneasy feeling that something might have happened to his friend Stavridakis. That and the fact that the villagers have just become a visage of inhumanity to him after what they did to the widow, cause the narrator to pack up and return to the mainland, and knowing that this would be the last time he would see Zorba, they both have a very unemotional goodbye, despite the obvious bond the two of them had made together throughout their journey.

The narrator returns home after learning that there is much to experience outside the confines of books, especially through all the conversations he and Zorba have had, specifically the things he had taught him about God – like that he considered him to be a lascivious debaucher like himself. Zorba also taught him to keep his distance from the workers, and how to treat them, because in his eyes, men are beasts, and they will only respect you if you work them hard and treat them like animals and don’t relent – all of which the narrator did, leaving his socialist tactics behind.

The narrator returns home and discovers that Stavridakis had passed away with pneumonia after defeating his enemies in a military triumph, which pleases him, and apparently pleased Stavridakis, who died a hero. The narrator also learns that Zorba died “howling at the moon,” and had left the narrator his santuri, an instrument that Zorba loved to play and that symbolized his happiness and friendship.

The type of popularity this book has achieved is seldom paralleled, and sixty years later, it is still a very popular read. Zorba the Greek was adapted into multiple forms of visual media including a musical and a very successful film. It is clear that the author has used this novel to intensify and sensationalize philosophical issues by weaving them so expertly through the two diverse points of view of the narrator and the titular character. And setting such conflict with universal questions like these is a great way to dramatize and educate without allowing the writer’s hand to show in a very obvious way.

The book holds conflicting themes such as the body versus the mind or the flesh versus the spirit, being quarreled over through very human worries such as seducing a widow or attaching worth to the lives of low class workers, and in doing so, Kazantzakis, in a very beautiful way, shines a light on how insignificant we are, and how everyone in the world is asking the same questions, and how despite all that we know, nobody really has a straight answer to those questions.