Zorba the Greek  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Zorba the Greek is a novel written by the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, first published in 1946. It is the tale of a young Greek intellectual who ventures to escape his bookish life with the aid of the boisterous and mysterious Alexis Zorbas. The novel was adapted into a successful 1964 film of the same name as well as a 1968 musical, Zorba.


Plot introduction

The narrator, a young Greek intellectual, resolves to set aside his books for a few months after being stung by the parting words of a friend, who has left for the Caucasus in order to help some ethnic Greeks who are undergoing persecution. He sets off for Crete in order to re-open a disused lignite mine and immerse himself in the world of peasants and working-class people. Just before his departure he makes the acquaintance of a mysterious 65-year-old man, Alexis Zorba, who persuades him to take him on as foreman.

On arrival in Crete, they lodge at the ramshackle hotel of Madame Hortense, an old French courtesan, and start work on the mine — although the narrator cannot resist using spare moments to work on an unfinished manuscript about the life and thought of Buddha. Over the next few months Zorba profoundly influences the man he calls "Boss", and he comes to see this book as an exorcism rather than a celebration of the religious figure it describes.

The narrator absorbs a new zest for life from the people around him, but reversal and tragedy mark his stay, and, alienated by their harshness and amorality, he returns to the mainland.

Plot summary

The book opens in a café in Pireus, just before dawn on a gusty autumn morning in the 1930s. As the narrator waits for daybreak, he ponders the train of events that has led to his decision to go to Crete, including the emotional departure some months before of his nationalist friend, Stavridakis, on a humanitarian expedition to the Caucasus.

He is about to dip into his copy of Dante's Divine Comedy when he feels he is being watched; he turns around and sees a man of around sixty peering at him through the glass door. The man enters and immediately approaches him to ask for work. He claims expertise as a chef, a miner, and player of the santuri, or cimbalom, and introduces himself as Alexis Zorba. The narrator is fascinated by Zorba's opinions and expressive manner and decides to employ him as a foreman. On their way to Crete, they talk on a great number of subjects, and Zorba's soliloquies set the tone for a large part of the book.

On arrival, they reject the hospitality of Anagnostis and Kondomanolious the café-owner, and on Zorba's suggestion make their way to Madame Hortense's hotel, which is nothing more than a row of old bathing-huts. The narrator spends Sunday roaming the island, the landscape of which reminds him of "good prose, carefully ordered, sober… powerful and restrained" and reads Dante. On returning to the hotel for dinner, the pair invite Madame Hortense to their table and get her to talk about her past as a courtesan. Zorba gives her the pet-name "Bouboulina" and, with the help of his cimbalom, seduces her.

The next day, the mine opens and work begins. The narrator, who has socialist ideals, attempts to get to know the workers, but Zorba warns him to keep his distance: "Man is a brute.... If you're cruel to him, he respects and fears you. If you're kind to him, he plucks your eyes out."


Zorba is described as "a living heart, a large voracious mouth, a great brute soul, not yet severed from mother earth." The novel can be perceived as a vaccine against metaphysical thinking and it describes the contrast introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche between the Apollonian and the Dionysian outlook on life. Apollo/the narrator represents the spirit of order and rationality, while Dionysus/Zorba represents the spirit of ecstatic, spontaneous will to live. It could be argued that the narrator does not make much of a struggle against the Dionysian spirit; however, the book is a tribute to life in this world, as was the philosophy of Nietzsche.

The narrator sets off on a journey to overcome his life as a "bookworm" and though he passes a night of Dionysian ecstasy in the bed of the widow, he is not converted to a life of Dionysian self-abandonment. Just as Nietzsche recognized that the healthy human must balance its Dionysian and Apollonian impulses, so the narrator returns to his Apollonian life of calm scholarship, only now with a Dionysian passion toward his life of the mind. He no longer sees scholarship as a bookworm's evasion of life. Instead, he returns to books with the same exuberance that Zorba shows toward all of the objects of his desire. Speaking to Zorba, the boss says, "I am going to do with my books what you did with the cherries. I'm going to eat so much paper it'll make me sick. I shall spew it all up and then be rid of it forever" (298).

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The story was later turned into a film as well as a ballet and a musical, Zorba.


  • The meaning of the words, art, love, beauty, purity, passion, all this was made clear to me by the simplest of human words uttered by this workman.
  • We must both have been hungry because we constantly led the conversation round to food.
"What is your favorite dish, grandad?"
"All of them, my son. It's a great sin to say this is good and that is bad."
"Why? Can't we make a choice?"
"No, of course we can't."
"Why not?"
"Because there are people who are hungry." I was silent, ashamed. My heart had never been able to reach that height of nobility and compassion.
  • The aim of man and matter is to create joy, according to Zorba – others would say ‘to create spirit,’ but that comes to the same thing on another plane. But why? With what object? And when the body dissolves, does anything at all remain of what we have called the soul? Or does nothing remain, and does our unquenchable desire for immortality spring, not from the fact that we are immortal, but from the fact that during the short span of our life we are in the service of something immortal?
  • "the highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!"
  • How simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple heart.

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