Zorba the Greek Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Vios kai politela tou Alexe Zormpa, 1946 (English translation, 1952)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Locale: Crete

Characters DiscussedZorba

Zorba, Zorba the Greekthe central figure of the novel. He is about sixty years old but feels that, ironically, his desires becomes more pronounced as he grows older. When he goes to the city to buy tree-harvesting equipment, he easily becomes sidetracked and spends most of his boss’s money on women and wine. He has a huge appetite for earthly pleasures. He is loud, crude, and larger than life. He believes in the primacy of the senses over moral and intellectual faculties. His pagan theology is rooted in nature and his own senses. He carries his senturi–the Greek counterpart of an American hammer dulcimer–everywhere, but he plays only when he is in the right mood and in the right company. Music is sacred to him. He dances whenever he is so full of emotion that he can no longer contain it. At his own child’s funeral, he was filled with grief and had to express it in dancing. He is a free spirit guided by his senses rather than his intellect. He laughs at his own shortcomings and is honest and open, like a child. Zorba practices his paganism to the last days of his life while wandering in Serbia.

The Narrator

The Narrator, who goes to Crete to experience the world by engaging in a capitalist venture but takes all of his books and bookishness with him. By chance, he and Zorba meet and become friends. The Narrator tells the story and analyzes the incidents. He observes Zorba with fascination. His sterile intellectual sensibility, however, is slowly transformed by his novel experiences. He begins to see the value of sensual pleasures. Zorba guides and encourages him. When the Narrator meets the beautiful, young Widow, he is attracted to her, but Zorba must coax him to pursue the relationship. Zorba’s ecstatic dancing and pagan theology, Madam Hortense’s musings about love, and Crete’s wine and atmosphere transform the Narrator to the point where he wants to partake of the sensual life. The death of the Widow shakes him to his soul and transforms him further. He learns how to dance, drink wine, and worship nature and its promptings. A Zorbatic, pagan theology that celebrates life takes root deep inside him. He eventually leaves the island but is entirely imbued with the spirit of Crete and of Zorba.

Madam Hortense

Madam Hortense, who had a wild and colorful life as a courtesan. She was a mistress to many important men of her time. Now she is an aging, broken woman who has nothing but her memories. Upon meeting Zorba, she comes alive again. She experiences affection and intimacy through Zorba’s vibrant paganism. Her life is brightened by some brief moments of happiness in the company of Zorba, but then, tired of her long and dreary life, she begins to fade away with illness. She dies in Zorba’s arms with a satisfied smile on her face.

The Widow

The Widow, a melancholy woman who prefers a lonely life to a desperate attempt to bring men into her life to fill the void her husband left behind. She is young and beautiful. Men of the village lust after her and wish they could have her, even for one night. She rejects them all with disdain. The men resort to harassing and ostracizing her. When the narrator and Zorba arrive, things begin to change for her. Zorba gives her protection and support, and the Narrator fills her mind and imagination. After much procrastination, the Narrator finally goes to her, and she welcomes him to her bed. This one-night affair marks her. Jealous women whip up stories and instigate a frenzied mob attack in front of the church. She is stoned and beheaded.


Pavli, a sensitive young man who dares to express his love for the Widow. Other young men tease him and laugh at his melancholy, lovesick disposition. Pavli’s father disapproves of his son’s choice of a love object and tries to dissuade him. One night, Pavli writes a love letter and delivers it to the Widow personally. His father finds the letter and punishes Pavli further. Finding no sympathy for his misery and feeling despised by the woman he adores, he drowns himself in the ocean.

BibliographyAnapliotes, Giannes. The Real Zorbas and Nikos Kazantzakis. Translated by Lewis A. Rich-ards. Amsterdam: A. M. Hakker, 1978. A comprehensive history of Kazantzakis’ friendship and adventures with the real Zorba, George Zorba, in 1917, during World War I, when they were engaged in coal-mining and tree-harvesting operations.Bien, Peter. “The Mellowed Nationalism of Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek.” Review of National Literatures 5, no. 2 (Fall, 1974): 113-136. Discusses Zorba’s character as an uncommitted patriot who admires Cretan food, oil, wine, and women but does not want to sacrifice his life for Crete.Elsman, Kenneth R., and John V. Knapp. “Life-Span Development in Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek.” International Fiction Review 11, no. 1 (Winter, 1984): 37-44. Analyzes Kazantzakis’ novel within its social and political contexts and examines the different transformations and developments of the novel’s characters.Givelski, Paskal. “From Homer to Kazantzakis.” Macedonian Review 22, no. 2 (1992): 147-150. A useful review and analysis of the connection between Kazantzakis’ tragic figures. Gives background to aid in understanding characters in Zorba the Greek, such as the village Widow and Pavli, both of whom meet their ends tragically.Levitt, Morton. “The Companion of Kazantzakis: Nietzsche, Bergson and Zorba.” In The Cretan Glance: The World and Art of Kazantzakis. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980. An excellent discussion of Zorba’s philosophy as encompassing elements from Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung.
Categories: Characters