Zorba the Greek

by Nikos Kazantzakis

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Critical Evaluation

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Zorba the Greek is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s own experiences while trying to mine low-grade coal during World War I. He engaged a workman named George Zorba to supervise his operation in Peloponnesus. This experience, as well as an earlier scheme to harvest wood from forests, gave Kazantzakis most of the material for his essentially autobiographical novel, which he wrote between 1941 and 1943. The work, which was dedicated to the memory of George Zorba, established Kazantzakis’s reputation in the English-speaking world.

Zorba the Greek is not an action-packed story, though some episodes have great passion and dramatic intensity. The novel is essentially a long debate between two men of opposite dispositions. One is a scholar-ascetic who prefers to read about life rather than to experience it; the other is a naïve, trusting, and biologically sophisticated man who represents paganism. The two men represent the undying conflict between the two philosophical poles, Dionysian and Apollonian.

To some extent, the novel concerns the transformation of the narrator. Although Zorba is the main character, Kazantzakis focuses attention on Zorba’s effect on the narrator. Nothing changes in Zorba, but he changes everything he touches.

Kazantzakis assigned great importance to Zorba’s character and to his philosophy, which was Kazantzakis’s synthesis of his favorite ancient and modern philosophies, from Plato to Carl Jung. He would have placed Zorba alongside such luminaries as Homer and Plato. Zorba is not a simple phenomenon. He has a dynamism and complexity that can be interpreted in such different contexts as Friedrich Nietzsche’s Dionysian-Apollonian schema or the Buddhist conception of the nothing. Zorba in Nietzschean terms is the Dionysian man, the exuberant extrovert whose sole epistemological meaning is sensual experience and passion. He abhors abstraction and the sterile asceticism of the intellectual life. When words get in the way, he dances to express himself. He is a brute soul, deeply rooted in the earth, with all the astute physical awareness of a wild animal.

The narrator, by contrast, is pallid and book-bound, and he struggles in Platonic and metaphysical valleys of doubt. He is on earth but does not feel it. He is overwhelmed by the titanlike character of Zorba and watches him with delight and envy. The narrator, who represents Kazantzakis in his youth, can feel the conflict of life and death, whereas Zorba sees only the wonder of life.

When asked what he believes in, Zorba summarizes his philosophy by saying that he does not believe in anything or anyone except himself—not because he is better than others, but because Zorba is the only being he has in his power. A rugged individualist, he needs no one to reaffirm his existence and beliefs. He mingles freely with people and departs with no nostalgic sentimentalism. The narrator also believes in individualism, but he soon realizes that his individualism is hollow compared with Zorba’s thrilling dances, delightful indulgences, and childlike fascination with nature. It is Zorba’s primitive joy in living that motivates the narrator to pursue the widow.

Although the plot revolves around the character of Zorba, it is transformed by the narrator’s abstract mentality. The novel sings the praises of paganism and animal vitality but is firmly in the grip of Kazantzakis’s German-educated, analytical mind. It is this underlying methodical analysis that gives the story its dynamism. The intellectual narrator can never be Zorba, who remains a demigod to be observed and admired.

The narrator discovers that Crete is more primitive than the mainland. Because everyone is affected by the environment, even the monks who live in the hilltop monastery, Crete seems to the narrator to be the last bastion of the ancient Greek gods. Perhaps one of them is personified in the person of Zorba, whose passionate dances, playing of the stringed santui, and frenzy of sexual love are all characteristic of a savage god on a savage island.

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Zorba the Greek