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Zorba the Greek Review

zorba 511Zorba the Greek, a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, enlightened the Western world with an exotic interpretation of premodern Greece, illustrating the country’s old-fashioned ideologies and cruel forms of justice through their rough interpretations of the law and moral code.  By focusing on the unforgiving, patriarchal hierarchies of the peasants, Kazantzakis examined the society’s ideologies, strict religious guidelines, and overall way of life.  Through this study, one of the novel’s themes, the application of the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law, clearly presented itself in the novel’s horrifying death scene of the “widow.”  While Kazantzakis’ novel was not written to justify these actions, his description of the people and ideals of Greece successfully managed to educate the reader of their reasoning behind taking matters into their own hands.


As portrayed in the novel, premodern Greek society was much like that of ancient Greece, where men ruled over the family with an iron fist, and women served no other purpose than that of domestic creature, catering to the every whim of their husband.  The common view historically was that women were inferior, sexually dangerous, and vulnerable.  When described by Plato, “…the morals of women were ill reputed throughout Greece” (Jaeger 243).  In fact, women without husbands were viewed as worthless and shameful in the eyes of the entire community, including both men and women alike.  As was the case in Zorba the Greek, a widow in the village refused to remarry and was then scorned by the men that wanted her and the women that wanted to be her.  In describing the widow, a villager commented, “She’s as you might say, the mistress of the whole village: you put out the light and you imagine it’s not the wife you take in your arms, but the widow” (Kazantzakis 97).

Patriarchal hierarchy assumed a large role in the novel, as the motifs of vendetta and jealousy consumed the men of the village, driving them to murder the widow who refused to remarry.  Marriage, in general, was an essential link to honor in the community, faintly explaining why a husbandless widow struck such a damaging cord to the moral codes of society.  In the Journal of the Gender Studies in rural Greece, the moral codes concerning marriage were clearly defined:

All moral communities may have some form of honor and shame.  But in the Mediterranean area these moral twins have been portrayed in a particular light.  First, both honor and disgrace are said to be acquired by men principally through women, specifically through female sexual misconduct.  Second, shame is mainly the property of women.  Third, men achieve honor by taking it from others, leading to “quarrels among equals.”  Achieving honor involves defeating or deceiving other men, often in erotic contests. (Lazaridis 3)

These explanations of the societal roles of men and women matched perfectly with the characters of Zorba the Greek, as the men fought to win the widow, who, if left unmarried, brought only shame to herself.  The Greece that was portrayed by Kazantzakis in the novel was somewhat of a romanticized view of reality.  In Western culture, it has been assumed that Greece was and always would be a masterpiece of archaic beauty and wonderment.  When most people thought of Greece, they imagined the luminous sky, whitewashed walls, crystalline Aegean, and sun-drenched churches, and archaic ideals that we have all seen in movies or read in books.  However, the appearance and moral codes of the Greek society have changed drastically from those once “exotic” stereotypes.  In fact, authors such as Kazantzakis and Alki Zei, who were native to Greece, sought to reinterpret it for themselves and for the rest of the world during their fight for independence (Jusdanis 168).  

The once romantic idea of Greece was based on the assumption that identity was something unitary and essential, uninfluenced by time or space.  The Greece of today, however, does not offer any exoticism or romantic sentiment.  The social roles of men and women have become like those found in the rest of the world, while the religious strictness has remained in the Orthodox Church of Greece.  This unwavering religious loyalty played a major role in Zorba the Greek, as it, along with the other moral codes of honor and marriage, served as viable reasons for the murder of the widow.

In examining the counterpart of the codes, roles, and religion in society, a great deal of focus in the novel was placed on law and politics.  While there may not have been any elections or blatant government references, the impact of not only written law but also unspoken law carried heavily upon the actions of the characters in the novel.  Ironically, the laws and standards of living which played such a major role in this story were originated by the country in which the story took place.  Greece was the birthplace of the “polis,” or city-state, which started the ideas of democratic government (Currie 2).  However, the democratic ideas of equality and due process were lost in the actions of the men in Zorba, as the debate between the application and interpretation of the law had engaged.

The Constitution can be understood only by examining how it has been interpreted and applied in the years since its adoption” (Currie vii).  In the American system of democratic government, the laws, rights, privileges, crimes, and punishments of the country were furnished in the United States Constitution.  No citizen could have taken the power of the law into his or her own hands without the full permission of the Constitution.  However, the laws in this document were not always distinctly marked or written, leaving the discretion to interpret the laws to those that were most capable.  This last disclaimer was exactly the power that the men of Zorba the Greek made use of in their “justified” murder of the widow.

In their eyes, the men of Crete were completely justified in murdering the widow for her shameless behavior.  She had disgraced her community by refusing to remarry and had caused one of the village men to commit suicide, due to her refusal to marry him.  Not only had she committed all of these deplorable acts, she had the nerve to show her face at the village church, and in effect dishonored the Lord.  This insubordination was not to be tolerated and drastic steps were to be taken.  Therefore, the widow was killed and retribution had been achieved.  All of these ideas, ridiculous as they may seem, made complete and perfect sense to the entire village that witnessed and encouraged the widow’s death.        

In considering the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law, the idea to remember was to weigh both sides of the issue.  If studied carefully, both sides of an argument could be won through justifying actions and means.  Therefore, the murderer of the widow must be examined both accusingly and defensively.  The facts of the case must be considered along with the motivation of the accused.  The guilt or innocence of Mavrandoni was not being debated, as the entire town was witness to the murder.  Consequently, the task at hand was to decide whether Mavrandoni was justified in taking the law into his own hands.

The most disturbing factor in reasoning through this murder was to realize that the entire town, excluding Zorba, the Boss, and Mimiko, was for the murder of the widow.  Her marital status disgraced the entire town, making her an outcast with an even greater role of inferiority than that of the average women.  The widow had dishonored her community and her Lord, and had incited the suicide of one of the villagers.  She was constantly met with harsh and foul names as she entered the village, as they shouted, “Wretch!  Slut!  Murderess!” (Kazantzakis 244).  However, although the men of the village were the most spiteful towards the widow due to their jealousy and longing to be her husband, the women of the village were also cheering for her death.  The mob mentality that encompassed the village gave a great deal of justification to Mavrandoni when he killed the widow.  

Taking into consideration that the moral codes of the village dictated their behavior, this was quite comparable to the way that the United States Supreme Court had defined obscenity.  While murder and obscenity were not at all similar, the definition by which each was defined rested on the standards of the community.  Obscenity was, “…to be determined by applying “contemporary community standards” (Mason/ Stephenson 540).  Just as the murder had been accepted by the community standards of the villagers, obscenity was to be judged by like qualifications.  

In essence, perhaps it was possible to justify the murder of the widow based on the standard of living and moral codes that were present in the little village in Crete.  After all, not every country possessed the same system or form of government.  While Greece had a Parliamentary system, the United States had a Democratic system of government.  There have been and still remain to have governments where the punishments for crimes were so severe that even robbery resulted in decapitation.  We are not to judge the political regimes of other countries, but rather accept them as more diverse than our own.  While these points may have validated Mavrandoni’s actions by the spirit of the law, there remained the letter of the law yet to be examined.  

Had this murder been tried in present day American court, there would be no doubt that Mavrandoni would have been convicted of first degree murder.  The mere fact that the entire town witnessed the murder would have been enough to convict him.  The only option left to be considered would be the sentence of his crime.  Simply put, there was no argument necessary to show that the letter of the law in this situation had been blatantly broken.  It was true that there were reasonable motivations that led to the crime, but this fact would only lesson the amount of his prison sentence or possible death penalty.  

Based on the weighing of the facts in the murder of the widow, the letter of the law definitely prevailed in justification over the spirit of the law.  However, this was concluded by American governmental standards and by American law.  In a democratic court room, this trial never would have held a chance of acquittal.  The facts alone were more than enough to convict the murderer.  Most importantly though, it must be remembered that the community standards and moral codes that governed the village in Zorba the Greek favored the spirit of the law over the letter of the law.  This conclusion did not mean that they were incorrect in justifying the murder, since by their standards no foul was committed.  Just as the Supreme Court of the United States had the ability to interpret laws, so did the villagers of Crete.


In conclusion, the antiquated and archaic moral codes of Greece that were ever-present in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Zorba the Greek, strongly illustrated the dangers of interpreting law based on community standards.  As the spirit of the law and the letter of the law were jointly considered, it would appear as though the letter of the law was justified to a greater extent, as community standards will always be changing and written law will forever exist.  While governments may not possess unlimited power, the power of written law and all of its interpretations is more powerful than any other force.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?”  Therefore, it is of the greatest certainty that Nikos Kazantzakis succeeded in educating his reader of the effectiveness of the law.  

Works Cited


Kazantzakis, Nikos. Zorba the Greek. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1981. 97-244.

Mason, Alpheus Thomas and Stephenson, Donald Grier. American Constitutional Law – 13th ed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 2002. 540.

Currie, David P. The Constitution of the United States: A Primer for the People. The University of Chicago P: Chicago, 2000. vii – 2.

Jaeger, Werner. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Oxford University P: New York, 1944. 243.

Lazaridis, Gabriella. “Sexuality and its Cultural Construction in Rural Greece.” Journal of Gender Studies, Nov 95, Vol 4, Issue 3.  Carfax Publishing Co. : New York, 1995. 281.

Jusdanis, Gregory. “Introduction: Modern Greek! Why?” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 15:2. The John Hopkins University P: Baltimore, 1997. 167-174.

Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief




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