Zorba the Greek

by Nikos Kazantzakis

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What are the themes in Zorba the Greek?

One of the main themes of Zorba the Greek is the importance of actively living in the world instead of retreating from it. Zorba enthusiastically engages in the world by indulging in wine, women, and song. This marks a stark contrast with the Boss, who is so deeply intellectual than he cannot deal with other people.

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Elsewhere in his work, Kazantzakis appears to endorse the abandonment of sensuality and self-indulgence in favor of spiritual fulfillment. Yet in Zorba the Greek, he reverses that position with a vengeance. It’s perfectly clear that the reader is meant to sympathize with the eponymous Zorba as he indulges in the sensual life to the full, a life revolving around wine, women, song, and mining.

At once anti-intellectual and anti-religious, Zorba has no time for thinking or for contemplating the eternal verities. For him, life is to be lived to the full, and that involves drinking, womanizing, and dancing. For Zorba, life is to be lived, not understood.

Compare this attitude about life with that of the Boss, an intellectual ascetic who has chosen to follow the way of the Buddha. Whereas Zorba enthusiastically embraces the world and everything in it, the Boss rejects it. He has long since died to the world. And whereas Zorba is very much a people person, a man to whom men and women alike are instinctively drawn, the Boss lives in the world of ideas and as such finds it difficult if not downright impossible to interact with his fellow man on anything close to a meaningful level.

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In Zorba the Greek, a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis and published in 1946, I believe there are three significant themes: existentialism, morality, and happiness. The most important of these, in my opinion, is existentialism.


Existentialism is the theory that man is free and in charge of his own development. The thirty-five-year-old narrator, Boss, is an intellectual and a Buddhist. His companion, Zorba, however, is a sixty-year-old uneducated hedonist. Throughout the novel, they are involved in an almost constant conversation—including what it means to exist in a world where we will all die. This theory of existentialism is examined through their discussions, their opposing characters, and their opposing views.


The narrator and Zorba also have different ideas about morality. While the narrator, a religious man, believes that morality and religion come hand-in-hand, the hedonistic Zorba believes he can do as he pleases.


The educated, religious narrator is in a constant struggle as he tries to find happiness, whereas Zorba, who is poor and uneducated, is constantly happy. Kazantzakis highlights that it is the narrator's introspection, his over-thinking, his self-consciousness, and his reliance on his faith that makes him unhappy, whilst Zorba, who looks for answers from the world around him, is happy.

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Zorba the Greek explores where and how to find meaning in life in a world where we are all fated to die. The novel questions how it is we should live, knowing we will all end up in the grave.

The intellectual narrator, the thirty-five-year-old Boss, goes to reopen a mine he owns in Crete and to understand more directly the life of the common, working-class person (though he takes his Dante with him and continues to view life through an intellectual prism). He falls in with Zorba the Greek, in...

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many ways his opposite, an older man who lives pragmatically and largely unthinkingly in the world. Zorba is of a lower class than the narrator, has worked with his hands and been all over, and the narrator hires him as foreman for the mine. Zorba is hardworking and absorbed in living with gusto in the moment, while the narrator tries to attain a Buddhist detachment.

Thus, Zorba is a hedonist, very different from the Boss. He says to the Boss, “To live—Do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble!”

As he ages and grows older to death, Zorba throws himself ever more fully into living. Unlike the Boss, he does not look for answers in religion or God, but in this world.

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The major theme throughout Zorba the Greek is the exploration of the existentialist predicament. Existentialism is a philosophical school of thought that believes that there is no order or meaning in the universe. Thus, humans either have to create meaning in their lives through their choices or wander aimlessly through a meaningless existence. Kazantakis looks at this predicament through the opposing characters of the narrator, "the Boss"—a Buddhist ascetic—and Alexis Zorba, a worldly hedonist.

A second theme is the classic contrast between an Apollonian and Dionysian worldview. The first is cerebral, based more in thought; the second is more visceral, based on our physical bodies. According to Kazantakis, both are necessary if we are to make any meaning out of life.

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