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The classic novel, international sensation, and inspiration for the film starring Anthony Quinn explores the struggle between the aesthetic and the rational, the inner life and the life of the mind.

The classic novel Zorba the Greek is the story of two men, their incredible friendship, and the importance of living life to the fullest. Zorba, a Greek working man, is a larger-than-life character, energetic and unpredictable. He accompanies the unnamed narrator to Crete to work in the narrator’s lignite mine, and the pair develops a singular relationship. The two men couldn’t be further apart: The narrator is cerebral, modest, and reserved; Zorba is unfettered, spirited, and beyond the reins of civility. Over the course of their journey, he becomes the narrator’s greatest friend and inspiration and helps him to appreciate the joy of living.

Zorba has been acclaimed as one of the most remarkable figures in literature; he is a character in the great tradition of Sinbad the Sailor, Falstaff, and Sancho Panza. He responds to all that life offers him with passion, whether he’s supervising laborers at a mine, confronting mad monks in a mountain monastery, embellishing the tales of his past adventures, or making love. Zorba the Greek explores the beauty and pain of existence, inviting readers to reevaluate the most important aspects of their lives and live to the fullest.

This reading group guide for Zorba The Greek includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

“Traveling?” he asked. “Where to, if you don’t mind?”
“Crete. Why do you ask?”
“Are you taking me with you?”


When the bookish, unnamed narrator of Zorba the Greek finds himself waiting for his ship to sail from Piraeus to Crete, he encounters an unremarkable figure who will fundamentally alter the course of his existence: Alexis Zorba, a sixty-something jack of all trades, santouri aficionado, and unapologetic lover of life. Immediately taken with the dynamism of his new companion, the narrator invites Zorba to join him on a journey to Crete to manage a lignite mine.

Once on Crete, Zorba and the narrator rent a shared room from Madame Ortense, an erstwhile courtesan and French emigré, whose romantic entanglement with Zorba serves as a diversion for both men. During breaks in Zorba’s work at the lignite mine and the narrator’s labors on a manuscript about Buddha, the two men engage in a wide-ranging dialogue about the true meaning of life, their theories about God, and the roles of women and men in society.

Zorba’s focus on living life to the fullest compels the narrator to examine his own life choices, and awakens in him a profound appreciation of the great contradictions inherent in human existence. This new English translation of Zorba the Greek brings these contradictions into brilliant relief.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. “This Zorba was precisely the person I had been seeking for such a long time and not finding: a vivacious heart, warm voice, a great unrefined, unsophisticated soul with its umbilical cord not yet severed from the earth.” (I) How would you describe Alexis Zorba’s chance encounter with the narrator in a café? In the course of his conversation with the narrator about his love for santouri, what integral elements of his personality does Zorba reveal?
 
2. To what extent is the narrator’s decision to rent a lignite mine in Crete an effort to escape from his life as a man of letters? What role does his friend, Stavridakis, play in the narrator’s choice to throw himself into “a life of action”? How does Alexis Zorba stand in as a surrogate for Stavridakis in the narrator’s life?
 
3. “I imagined this Madame Ortense to be the island’s queen, a sort of mustachioed, glistening seal that had been stranded half-rotted on this sandy beach thousands of years earlier, perfumed and happy.” (II) How does Madame Ortense in the flesh compare to the narrator’s vision of her? What accounts for Zorba’s attentiveness to Madame Ortense, whom he dubs Bouboulina? What traits do Zorba and Madame Ortense share that might enhance their romantic compatibility?
 
4. “One thing at a time in proper order. Right now we’ve got pilaf in front of us; let our minds be pilaf. Tomorrow we’ll have lignite in front of us, so let our minds, then, be lignite. No half-measures—understand?” (III) To what extent is Zorba’s ability to be fully absorbed in the present moment apparent in his exploits in Zorba the Greek? How might the narrator interpret Zorba’s pragmatism in light of his own focus on asceticism?
 
5. Why does Zorba reject the narrator’s efforts to become better acquainted with the workers at the lignite mine? In what ways are the narrator’s aims at odds with Zorba’s when it comes to the mine? How would each man define success in the context of the lignite mine?
 
6. “I believe in nothing and no one, only in Zorba. Not because Zorba is better than others, not at all—no, not at all! He, too, is a brute. But I believe in Zorba because he is the only person I have under my power, the only one I know.” (IV) What does Zorba’s abundant faith only in himself suggest about his egotism? How does the narrator understand his friend’s faith?
 
7. In the novel, the sixty-something-year-old Alexis Zorba refers to his friend, the narrator, as “Boss,” and the thirty-five-year-old narrator occasionally refers to his employee, Zorba, as Sinbad the Sailor. How significant are their ages in the context of their working relationship? How does the narrator’s control of the purse dictate his position? How does Zorba’s wealth of experience affect his status?
 
8. “I never had my fill of watching the immense care and tenderness with which Zorba undid the cloth that cloaked his santouri, as though he were cleaning a fig or undressing a woman.” (VI) How do Zorba’s attitudes about women compare to his feelings for his santouri? How would you describe the significance of both in Zorba’s life?
 
9. “My life had taken the wrong path; my contact with fellow humans had ended up as an internal monologue. My degeneration was so great that if I were to choose between loving a woman or reading a good book about love, I would choose the book.” (VIII) How does the alluring widow who passes outside the Modesty Café and Meat Market alter the course of the narrator’s life? How would you characterize Zorba’s role in the narrator’s shift from an intellectual being to a sexually-awakened being?
 
10. Until the unexpected collapse of the lignite gallery, Zorba’s work at the mine seems of little consequence. What does the collapse reveal about the courage and cowardice of Zorba, the narrator, and the miners? What role does the collapse play in the narrator’s decision to allow Zorba to travel to Iraklio for supplies when they have no money left to pay their workers?
 
11. What propels the narrator to fabricate a lie about Zorba’s desire to marry Madame Ortense? How is Zorba able to reconcile his cynical views on marriage with his tender feelings for his beloved Bouboulina?
 
12. How are Christians and Christianity portrayed in Zorba the Greek? Consider Zorba’s ambivalence about God and the Devil; the bewildering experiences that befall the narrator and Zorba at the Monastery of the All-Holy; the figure of Father Zacharias; the story of Zorba’s grandfather’s fake relic from the Holy Sepulcher; the widow’s murder on the church’s threshold; and the plunder of Madame Ortense’s home on her deathbed. How does the novel’s subtitle: “The Saint’s Life of Zorba,” hint at some of the book’s spiritual contradictions?
 
13. Zorba’s aerial transport scheme for the lignite mine seems doomed from the start. Why does the narrator take so little interest or concern in his traveling companion’s folly? How might such ignorance call into question the reliability of the narrator’s account of Zorba? What less-appealing qualities of Zorba does the narrator overlook or avert his gaze from in promoting the goodness that Zorba exudes?
 
14. “Boss...I have so many things to tell you. I never loved anyone as much as you.” (XXV) How does Zorba’s affection for the narrator compare to the narrator’s feelings for Zorba? What accounts for the intense bond between these two strangers? Which one is the more emotionally dependent in their relationship?
 
15. In the aftermath of his time living with Zorba, the narrator reflects on Zorba as “a great soul” and “a madman,” (XXVI). To what extent are these identities mutually exclusive? How might Zorba’s character encompass both qualities? How would you characterize Zorba?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Alexis Zorba has been described as “an Everyman with a Greek accent.” Zorba’s unrelenting exuberance for life preoccupies the narrator of the novel. Members of your book group may want to consider the Zorbas in their lives. What family member, friend, or acquaintance has functioned for them as Zorba does for the narrator: as a sounding board, an exemplar of a life well-lived, or as pure inspiration? Members of your group may want to compare their experiences and the phases of their lives when these influential and mesmerizing figures consumed much of their world.
 
2. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator pledges with his friend, Stavridakis, to play a game of psychic communication in which each will think of the other with great intensity when they are in danger of dying, despite the fact that neither believes their efforts will work. By the end of the novel, the narrator senses the passing of both Stavridakis and his dear friend, Alexis Zorba. Have members of your group discuss their feelings about unspoken communication between friends and family, or extra-sensory perception in general. You may want to share and explore the experiences that members of your group have had following the deaths of loved ones.
 
3. As detailed in Zorba the Greek, the island of Crete resembles a small fishing village. At present, Crete is the most populous Greek island, home to some 600,000 people. Members of your book group may want to screen the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, which was filmed on location in Crete and analyze how the version of Crete depicted in the film compares to the one described in the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. Additionally, members of your group may choose to discuss how the cinematic adaptation enhances or impacts their appreciation of the novel.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Crete in 1883. He studied literature and art in Germany and Italy, philosophy under Henri Bergson in Paris and received his law degree from the University of Athens. The Greek Minster of Education in 1945, Kazantzakis was also a dramatist, translator, poet, and travel writer. Among his most famous works are, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Saviors of God.  He died in October 1957.

More books from this author: Nikos Kazantzakis