Book Summaries Literature

Zorba the Greek Summary (7/10)

Zorba the Greek Summary (7/10) 1Zorba the Greek Summary (7/10) 2

Zorba the Greek is about the adventure Nikos Kazantzakis had with George Zorba as they sailed for business. A strong friendship develops between the two men, and what makes it interesting is that they are opposites. Kazantzakis is a scholar, a cerebral-minded man who sees nothing as too simple. He is analytic and calculating, he thinks with his mind, and not with his body. He was writing about the Buddha and contemplating the absence of desire as a pathway towards enlightenment.

Zorba is a hedonist. His decisions are not based on deep thought and introspection, but on responding directly to the animalistic desires within him – that he does not control or want to control. Zorba dances, sings, and plays music when he feels like it. He ravishes every minute of his life. He is more disturbed by thought than enthralled by it. To him, the only injustice is that life is too short, for there is so much to enjoy.

The following are my favorite passages of the book.

The Price of Liberty

What is the price that human beings have paid for liberty? Is it a deserved reward?  

He looked at me with his eyes wide open in amazement.

“It’s a mystery,” he murmured, “a great mystery! So, if we want liberty in this bad world, we’ve got to have all those murders, all those lousy tricks, have we? I tell you, if I began to go over all the bloody villainy and all the murders we did, you’d have your hair stand on end. And yet, the result of all that, what’s it been? Liberty! Instead of wiping us out with a thunderbolt, God gives us liberty! I just don’t understand!”

I tried hard to find for Zorba another, simpler way of explaining it.

“How does a plant sprout and grow into a flower on manure and muck? Say to yourself, Zorba, that the manure and muck is man and the flower liberty.”

“But the seed?” cried Zorba, striking his fist on the table. “For a plant to sprout there must be a seed. Who’s put such a seed in our entrails? Änd why doesn’t this seed produce flowers from kindness and honesty? Why must it have blood and filth?”

I shook my head.

“I don’t know,” I said.


What is freedom? If we have passions, is it possible to be free?

“A great brute and a god. A blackguard of a rebel who’d come from Macedonia with me—Yorga, they called him, a gallows’ bird, a real swine, you know—well, he wept. ‘Why’re you crying, Yorga, you hound?’ I said, and my eyes were streaming too. ‘Why’re you crying, you old swine?’ But he just threw his arms round my neck and blubbered like a kid. And then that miserly bastard pulls out his purse, empties onto his lap the gold coins he’d looted from the Turks and throws them into the air by handfuls! D’you see, boss, that’s what liberty is!”

I rose and went up on deck, to be buffeted by the keen sea breeze.

That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.

Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God? Or does it mean that the higher the model the longer the tether of our slavery? Then we can enjoy ourselves and frolic in a more spacious arena and die without having come to the end of the tether. Is that, then, what we call liberty?


How should we live? How should we perceive time? How much urgency should there be in our lives? And how much importance should we give to the future?

“And why the devil d’you have to go down to the sea to make calculations? Pardon me, boss, for asking this question, but I don’t understand. When I have to wrestle with figures, I feel I’d like to stuff myself into a hole in the ground, so I can’t see anything. If I raise my eyes and see the sea, or a tree, or a woman—even if she’s an old ‘un—damme if all the sums and figures don’t go to blazes. They grow wings and I have to chase ’em…”

“But that’s your fault, Zorba,” I said to tease him. “You don’t concentrate.”

“Maybe you’re right, boss. It all depends on the way you look at it. There are cases even wise old Solomon … Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandad!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned round and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’ Which of us was right, boss?”

Simple Pleasures

What would life be like if we experienced everything for the first time again, like a child? Would we need the same amusements, pleasures? Have we complicated things too much?

“What is that mystery?” he asks. “What is a woman, and why does she turn our heads? Just tell me, I ask you, what’s the meaning of that?”

He interrogates himself with the same amazement when he sees a man, a tree in blossom, a glass of cold water. Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.

Zorba again shows us what life would be like if we suspended reason.

The next morning I went with Zorba as far as the víllage. We talked like serious and practical-minded people about the working of the lignite. While going down a slope, Zorba kícked against a stone, which went rolling downhill. He stopped for a moment in amazement, as if he were seeing this astounding spectacle for the first time in his life. He looked round at me, and in his look I discerned faint consternation.

“Boss, did you see that?” he said at last. “On slopes, stones come to life again.”

The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weighty, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples. He lived the earth, water, the animals and God, without the distorting intervention of reason.

Man is a Brute

What is the nature of man according to someone unpolluted by intellectual ideas, to someone who speaks only from experience?

“Man is a brute,” he said, striking the pebbles with his stick. “A great brute. Your lordship doesn’t realize this. It seems everything’s been too easy for you, but you ask me! A brute, I tell you! If you’re cruel to him, he respects and fears you. If you’re kind to him, he plucks your eyes out.

“Keep your distance, boss! Don’t make men too bold, don’t go telling them we’re all equal, we’ve got the same rights, or they’ll go straight and trample on your rights; they’ll steal your bread and leave you to die of hunger. Keep your distance, boss, by all the good things I wish you!”


Do we get more timid as we get older? Is that the rational thing to do?  

“I’m white on top already, boss, and my teeth are getting loose. í’ve no time to lose. You’re young, you can still afford to be patient. I can’t. But I do declare, the older I get the wilder I become! Don’t let anyone tell me old age steadies a man! Nor that when he sees death coming he stretches out his neck and says: Cut off my head, please, so that I can go to heaven! The longer I live, the more I rebel. ï’m not going to give in; I want to conquer the world!”

Zorba follows his instincts, he doesn’t hesitate or flinch – whereas the cerebral author again, is too calculating. He does not seize the moment. Instead, he postpones it for another life. This is a moment when
Kazantzakis was pursuing the widow.

To enter that gate and bolt it, to run after her, take her by the waist and, without a word, drag her to her large widow’s bed, that was what you would call being a man! That was what my grandfather would have done, and what I hope my grandson will do! But I stood there like a post, weighing things up and reflecting…

“In another life,” I murmured, smiling bitterly, “in some other life I’ll behave better than this!”


Buddha is the last man, that was the revelation made by the author.

All these things which had formerly so fascinated me appeared this morning to be no more than cerebral acrobatics and refined charlatanism! That is how it always is at the decline of a civilization. That is how man’s anguish ends—in masterly conjuring tricks: pure poetry, pure music, pure thought. The last man—who has freed himself from all belief, from all illusions and has nothing more to expect or to fear—sees the clay of which he is made reduced to spirit, and this spirit has no soil left for its roots, from which to draw its sap. The last man has emptied himself; no more seed, no more excrement, no more blood. Everything having turned into words, every set of words into musical jugglery, the last man goes even further: he sits in his utter solitude and decomposes the music into mute, mathematical equations.

I started. “Buddha is that last man!” I cried. That is his secret and terrible significance. Buddha is the “pure” soul which has emptied itself; in him is the void, he is the Void. “Empty your body, empty your spirit, empty your heart!” he cries. Wherever he sets his foot, water no longer flows, no grass can grow, no child be born.

I must mobilize words and their necromantic power, I thought, invoke magic rhythms; lay siege to him, cast a spell over him and drive him out of my entrails! I must throw over him the net of images, catch him and free myself!

Writing Buddha was, in fact, ceasing to be a literary exercise. It was a life-and-death struggle against a tremendous force of destruction lurking within me, a duel with a great NO which was consuming my heart, and on the result of this duel depended the salvation of my soul.

With briskness and determination I seized the manuscript. I had discovered my goal, I knew now where to strike! Buddha was the last man. We are only at the beginning; we have neither eaten, drunk, nor loved enough; we have not yet lived. This delicate old man, scant of breath, has come to us too soon. We must oust him as quickly as possible!

So I spoke to myself and I began to write. But no, this was not writing: it was a real war, a merciless hunt, a siege, a spell to bring the monster out of its hiding place. Art is, in fact, a magic incantation. Obscure homicidal forces lurk in our entrails, deadly impulses to kill, destroy, hate, dishonor. Then art appears with its sweet piping and delivers us.


When does nature speak to you? In which moments do you feel the passing of time the strongest? Is it when you are alone or surrounded by people?

The unfailing rhythm of the seasons, the ever-turning wheel of life, the four facets of the earth which are lit ín turn by the sun, the passing of life—all these filled me once more with a feeling of oppression. Once more there sounded within me, together with the cranes’ cry, the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.

A mind hearing this pitiless warning—a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate—would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever.

Great examples come to your mind and you see clearly that you are a lost soul, your life is being frittered away on petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk. “Shame! Shame!” you cry, and bite your lips.

The cranes had crossed the sky and disappeared to the north, but in my head they continued to fly from one temple to another, uttering their hollow cries.

I came to the sea. I was walking rapidly along the edge of the water. How disquieting it is to walk alone by the sea! Each wave, each bird in the sky calls to you and reminds you of your duty. When walking with company you laugh and talk, and cannot hear what the waves and birds are saying. It may be, of course, that they are saying nothing. They watch you passing in a cloud of chatter and they stop calling.


How do you think? Is it only with your head? How do you Understand?

“I mean, have you ever fought for your country?”

“Couldn’t you talk about something else? All that nonsense is over and done with and best forgotten.”

“Do you call that nonsense, Zorba? Aren’t you ashamed? Is that how you speak of your country?”

Zorba raised his head and looked at me. I was lying on my bed, too, and the oil lamp was burning above my head. He looked at me severely for a time, then, taking a firm hold of his moustache, said:

“That’s a half-baked thing to say; it’s what I expect from a schoolmaster. I might as well be singing, boss, for all the good it is my talking to you, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”

“What?” I protested. “I understand things, Zorba, don’t forget.”

“Yes, you understand with your brain. You say: ‘This is right, and that’s wrong; this is true, and that isn’t; he’s right, the other one’s wrong…’ But where does that lead us? While you are talking I watch your arms and chest. Well, what are they doing? They’re silent. They don’t say a word. As though they hadn’t a drop of blood between them. Well, what do you think you understand with? With your head? Bah!”


What do books tell you? Do they tell you the meaning of life? Or do they just show you how complicated it is?  

“Can you tell me, boss,” he said, and his voice sounded deep and earnest in the warm night, “what all these things mean? Who made them all? And why? And, above all”—here Zorba’s voice trembled with anger and fear—”why do people die?”

“I don’t know, Zorba,” I replied, ashamed, as if I had been asked the simplest thing, the most essential thing, and was unable to explain it.

“You don’t know!” said Zorba in round-eyed astonishment, just like his expression the night I had confessed I could not dance.

He was silent a moment and then suddenly broke out.

“Well, all those damned books you read—what good are they? Why do you read them? If they don’t tell you that, what do they tell you?”

“They tell me about the perplexity of mankind, who can give no answer to the question you’ve just put me, Zorba.”


How do people act when they are on the border between the known and the unknown? How do you act?

He turned back to me.

“I want you to tell me where we come from and where we are going to. During all those years you’ve been burning yourself up consuming their black books of magic, you must have chewed over about fifty tons of paper! What did you get out of them?”

There was so much anguish in his voice that my heart was wrung with distress. Ah! how I would have liked to be able to answer him!

I felt deep within me that 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!

“Can’t you answer?” asked Zorba anxiously.

I tried to make my companion understand what I meant by Sacred Awe.

“We are little grubs, Zorba, minute grubs on the small leaf of a tremendous tree. This small leaf is the earth. The other leaves are the stars that you see moving at night. We make our way on this little leaf examining it anxiously and carefully. We smell it; it smells good or bad to us. We taste it and find it eatable. We beat on it and it cries out like a living thing.

“Some men—the more intrepid ones—reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us. In the distance we can hear the noise of the other leaves of the tremendous tree, we feel the sap rising from the roots to our leaf and our hearts swell. Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins …”

I stopped. I wanted to say “from that moment begins poetry,” but Zorba would not have understood. I stopped.

“What begins?” asked Zorba’s anxious voice. “Why did you stop?”

“… begins the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: ‘God!’ Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say: ‘I like it.'”

A Thousand Years

Do you ravish life in the way Zorba does? Do you think you ought to live a thousand years?  

“Come here, schoolmaster,” he said. “I have a friend in Greece. When I am dead write to him and tell him that right until the very last minute I was in full possession of my senses and was thinking of him. And tell him that whatever I have done, I have no regrets. Tell him I hope he is well and that it’s about time he showed a bit of sense.

“Listen, just another minute. If some priest or other comes to take my confession and give me the sacrament, tell him to clear out, quick, and leave me his curse instead! I’ve done heaps and heaps of things in my life, but I still did not do enough. Men like me ought to live a thousand years. Good night!”

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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