Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
The narrator, a bookish man, decides to experience life by going into mining operations on Crete. While the narrator is waiting with his crates of books for the weather to clear so that he can board his ship, Zorba enters the café and starts a conversation with him. Enchanted by Zorba’s dynamic personality, “the boss,” as Zorba calls the narrator, agrees to hire him as personal cook and foreman at the mine. Although he is in his sixties, Zorba possesses tremendous strength and a boundless appetite for physical pleasures.
They arrive at the village near the site of the narrator’s mine, where they were welcomed by an aging woman, Madame Hortense, who reveals to them her colorful past life as a courtesan. She drinks copiously while reminiscing about pleasures and love affairs, and about being the mistress of French, Italian, and Russian admirals and princes. She is now ready, however, to live a life of reflection and repentance.
Zorba’s infectious exuberance revives the broken harlot. As they dance, she regains her old sensuality and flirtatiousness. The night continues with music, dancing, food, wine, and lust. Zorba and Madame Hortense satisfy their sexual desires. The narrator witnesses all with wonder but cannot see himself engaging in such behavior.
He is profoundly moved by Zorba’s physicality but continues his meditations on philosophy and psychology, always searching for analytic explanations. The narrator is amused by Madame Hortense’s reminiscences but is touched at the same time by the power of experience reflected in her memory. He sees the same attachment and sensibility in Zorba, but in him the narrator can see it in concrete action. As Zorba ages, he grows more passionate, not less. The narrator is experiencing a sensual dimension of life that is absent from his abstract speculations.
As the narrator discovers more about Zorba’s past, he realizes that Zorba has had a full life as a lover, husband, father, landlord, and beggar. Zorba, however, has never lost his sense of freedom, which is untouched by conventional or Christian morality. His pure animal pleasure is his guide and his theology.
The narrator and Zorba meet a beautiful young widow in the town’s tavern, where she is being harassed by the young men of the town, as she often is. Zorba rescues her from her predicament, and the encounter triggers a long dialogue between Zorba and the narrator. Zorba theorizes that a man will burn in hell for allowing a woman to sleep alone, and he encourages the narrator to visit the widow, who is being courted by other men. There are indications that the widow is attracted to the narrator; for example, when she returns to him an umbrella that he has lent her, she also gives him a bottle of rose water and dainty Christmas cookies. He tries to hide these gifts, but Zorba discovers them and says that they are conclusive evidence of her interest. The image of the widow comes to haunt the narrator. He feels that the mere thought of her is taking away his freedom. If he had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, he would choose the book.
At the mining site, Zorba works diligently to restore the dilapidated mine, often exposing himself to danger as he does so. Progress with the work is slow and discouraging. They need wood for the mine, and in a series of delightful and humorous encounters with the leaders of a monastery, Zorba reaches an agreement to harvest wood from their forest. He persuades the boss to give him time and money to invent a means to carry the timber down the hill. When the boss agrees to finance his project, Zorba begins dancing to express his emotions.
On Christmas Eve, Zorba gives a passionate lecture about the significance of Christmas and maintains that the Virgin Mary and the widow are one and the same in God’s eyes. The narrator buries his nose in a Buddhist manuscript, refusing to submit to temptation, although Zorba’s tutelage is insidiously affecting his repressed sensuality.
Zorba goes to the city to buy materials for harvesting the trees, and he ends up getting drunk and sleeping with prostitutes. He writes a confession to the boss detailing his experiences, and while the narrator is reading the letter, Madame Hortense arrives and asks if Zorba mentions her in it. Feeling pity for her, the narrator makes up fictitious messages to Hortense from Zorba, messages full of promises of marriage, gifts, and happiness. She leaves full of hope and anticipation.
The narrator, immensely affected by Zorba, Madame Hortense, and the Cretan air, wine, and food, begins to think that Zorba is right, that the young widow is destined for him. Meanwhile, young Pavli presents the widow with a passionate letter, but she spits on it and throws it in his face. That same night the narrator, drunk but resolute, knocks on the widow’s door. Word soon gets around that he has spent the night with her, and, upon hearing this, Pavli drowns himself in the ocean. His body is found the next morning by his distraught father and a band of Pavli’s friends. They blame the widow’s liaison with the narrator for Pavli’s death.
As Pavli’s funeral procession lumbers toward the church, the crowd is stirred into a frenzy by the sight of the widow and the body of the young man. The townspeople stone the widow and finally decapitate her, as Zorba tries unsuccessfully to stop them. The horror-stricken narrator watches the ghastly proceeding.
The narrator later experiences a kind of epiphany, a realization that life has to be lived and not merely studied. He sees that all his books of poetry, philosophy, and religion are mere shadows compared with one moment of Zorbatic living. He accepts the widow’s murder as a new beginning to his life.
When Madame Hortense comes to ask Zorba about all the promises he supposedly made in his letter, Zorba realizes that he will have to go along with her wishes. They get married in the moonlight, with the narrator serving as a witness. Hortense is in ecstasy, but she soon becomes fatally ill and dies in Zorba’s arms. The villagers arrive and loot her home, taking all of her belongings.
Both the narrator and Zorba feel that they have had enough of Crete. They separate, but the narrator continues to hear stories about Zorba. He learns that Zorba traveled through the Balkans, leading a life of pleasure with wine, women, food, and dancing. Finally he settled down in Serbia and died there, leaving behind a young wife and child.