Analysis of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Novels

The reader interested in understanding any of the works of Nikos Kazantzakis would do well to begin by reading Salvatores Dei: Asketike (1927; The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960). In this short philosophical expostulation, Kazantzakis expresses succinctly his strange mixture of Nietzschean nihilism and Bergsonian optimism. For Kazantzakis, God is not dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed; rather, God is waiting to be created by people who think they need him. The search for God becomes one of the ways in which existential people seek to create meaning for their lives. Hence Kazantzakis’s heroes are often dramatizations of existential people trying to face up to the fact that God, as he has traditionally been conceived, does not exist. Rather than being overwhelmed by such knowledge, however, the hero simply posits the existence of God—one created more in his own image than in the traditional Judeo-Christian image. For example, in The Odyssey, Kazantzakis’s Odysseus carves a harsh-looking mask that serves as the image of God, which the people who follow Odysseus revere. Odysseus, of course, knows who created the image, and he lives with the knowledge that this “god” is merely representative of his own imagination; yet he acts as if God is real, and this God is both friend and antagonist to the hero as he struggles to assert his identity and stake his claim to fame.


The actions of Odysseus in Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey are repeated in a variety of ways by the heroes of his novels and plays. Indeed, the heavy emphasis on philosophy, and especially metaphysics, is often cause for artistic heavy-handedness in terms of plot and narration: The story is sometimes lost in the symbology, to the point where the reader not familiar with the whole of Kazantzakis’s work, and especially with his nonfiction, may come away confused about the author’s use of the techniques of realism to explore highly abstract philosophical issues. Indeed, his early works are often thinly disguised attempts to cloak philosophical discussion in the garb of imaginative literature.

Zorba the Greek

What is surprising is that Kazantzakis’s most famous novel, Zorba the Greek, represents an apparent reversal of the author’s position that people must abandon pleasures of the flesh to achieve spiritual self-fulfillment. In this novel, the reader is forced to recognize the attractiveness of the hero Alexis Zorba, whose whole life is devoted to sensual gratification. Zorba is anti-intellectual and antireligious, having thrown off the shackles of paralyzing intellectualism that have bound the narrator, the Boss, within himself and caused him to be ineffectual in dealing with others except as “intelligences.” The Boss is the consummate ascetic, a follower of Buddha who renounces the pleasures of the flesh because he believes that closeness to others only leads to pain. Zorba, on the other hand, is the epitome of Bergsonian élan vital. The Boss withdraws from commitment; Zorba seeks it.

The mining venture in which the two men engage is Kazantzakis’s way of representing symbolically the vast differences between them and hence between the lifestyles they represent. Mining, the act of taking from the earth the materials one needs to survive, is hard work, but Zorba relishes it, getting dirty along with his fellow workers, taking chances with them, even risking his life when necessary; the Boss’s involvement is that of the dilettante who occasionally pokes his nose in to see how things are going but who actually remains aloof from the work itself. Their different approaches to the mining operation characterize their approaches to other forms of involvement as well: Zorba is a great womanizer because he believes that only through such lovemaking can man be fulfilled (and besides, he tells the Boss, all women want a man to love them); the Boss is paralyzed by contact with women. The Boss’s affection for books is paralleled by Zorba’s penchant for dancing, playing the santiri, and womanizing; where one learns of life secondhand through the writings of others, the other experiences it fully and directly.

Zorba’s power to act, even in the face of overwhelming odds and with the knowledge that his actions will be of little real value, marks him as the kind of hero whom Kazantzakis admires. Failure does not deter him from action. When his elaborate scheme to bring down timber from the top of the mountain collapses (literally as well as figuratively), he shrugs off the experience and goes on to another venture. The death of the old whore Hortense, whom Zorba has promised to marry, disturbs him only momentarily: Death is the way of the world, and Zorba understands it. By the end of the novel, the Boss, too, has come to understand the inevitability of death and the need to live vigorously in the face of that knowledge. When he receives word that his good friend Stavridakis is dead, he accepts the information stoically; when he learns that Zorba, too, has died, he chooses not to mourn but instead to turn his own talent for writing to good use by composing the story of his experiences with Zorba. In the novels following Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis moves from studying the contrast of opposing lifestyles to concentrating on the figure of the hero himself. Freedom or Death, based on the Cretan revolt of the 1880’s, focuses on Captain Mihalis, who is torn between self-satisfaction and service to country. Kazantzakis was always fascinated by the heroes of history and literature; often his novels and plays are attempts to retell the stories of heroes whom he has met in other works, to reinterpret their struggles in the light of his own theory of positive nihilism. It is not surprising, then, to find that he chooses for his subjects Odysseus, Faust, Christopher Columbus, Saint Francis, and even Jesus Christ.

The Christ story held a special fascination for Kazantzakis. In the early 1950’s, he recast the account of Christ’s Passion in a contemporary setting in Christ Recrucified, a novel in which the hero, a Greek peasant named Manolios, is invested with Christlike characteristics. That particular rendition apparently did not satisfy him, however, for in 1955, he returned to the subject and this time confronted the hero in his own milieu. The result is a novel that surely ranks as Kazantzakis’s most controversial, The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Last Temptation of Christ

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Kazantzakis deals with the Gospel accounts directly, combining elements of mysticism with an extremely realistic treatment of the biblical characters to turn the Christ story upside down. The actors in the Gospel are humanized to a degree considered by some to be blasphemous; all are given human motives, not all of which are the highest, and the familiar characters of the Evangelists’ accounts—Peter, Christ’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and especially Judas— are presented in a new light. The major episodes of the novel are based on biblical accounts, but these take on the particular philosophical cast that characterizes all of Kazantzakis’s work: In the novel, each temptation that Jesus encounters is presented as a struggle in which the hero must choose between “flesh” and “spirit,” between acquiescence to the tendencies to rest from the futile pursuit of human perfection and the drive toward selffulfillment.

The plot of The Last Temptation of Christ loosely follows the Gospel stories. Structurally, the action is centered on a series of temptations, most of them drawn from the Gospels. The last temptation, which Jesus undergoes as he hangs on the cross, is the ultimate test of his commitment to “spirit” over “flesh”: For an instant, he imagines himself rescued from his fate, given the opportunity to live as other men, with a wife and children, and only through a heroic act of will does he overcome the temptation and accept his own death as part of his fate as Savior. The women in the novel, even Christ’s mother, become temptations of the flesh. Mary wants her son first to disassociate himself from the Romans and later to give up the messianic folly that seems to be leading only to confrontation with the foreign powers; she constantly yearns for him to settle down to carpentry and fatherhood. When Jesus’ special nature is reported to her, she says: “I don’t want my son to be a saint. . . . I want him to be a man like all the rest. I want him to marry and give me grandchildren.

That is God’s way.” Kazantzakis also expands the meaning of and challenges the accepted responses to the parables of the Gospels. For example, in recounting the story of the wise and foolish virgins, he remains close to his source until the end of the story. In Saint Matthew’s account, the foolish virgins, who were out buying oil when the bridegroom arrived, return saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” to which the bridegroom replies, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not.” Jesus then provides a moral for the tale: “Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh” (Matthew 25:11- 13). In Kazantzakis’s version, Jesus tells essentially the same story, up to the point at which the virgins return and beg entrance, dramatizing the plea of the maidens: “‘Open the door! Open the door! Open the door!’ and then . . . Jesus stopped. . . . He smiled. ‘And then?’ said Nathanael . . . ‘And then, Rabbi? What was the outcome?’” Kazantzakis’s Jesus provides no “moral.” Instead, he asks his disciples to supply the answer. “‘What would you have done, Nathanael?’ Jesus asked, pinning his large, bewitching eyes on him, ‘What would you have done if you had been the bridegroom?’” Jesus repeats the question, persisting in his stare, until Nathanael finally says, “I would have opened the door.” Jesus replies, “Congratulations, friend Nathanael. . . . This moment, though you are alive you enter Paradise. The bridegroom did exactly as you said.” Jesus is immediately challenged by the village chief, who screeches out, “You’re going contrary to the Law, Son of Mary.” Jesus answers him, “The Law goes contrary to my heart.”

For the reader who knows the source of the story in Matthew, this scene functions in a manner similar to the original Gospel accounts, but with an ironic twist: Now it is the traditional Gospels themselves that represent the “Old Law,” which Kazantzakis’s hero comes to challenge with a new gospel, founded even more firmly on human interaction and human sympathy than the message of Jesus as recorded by the Evangelists. In this approach, Kazantzakis is at his most daring theologically, and the captivating power of his art has prepared the reader to side with his hero and accept the new message of salvation: People must help people if anyone is to attain paradise.

Nowhere is God’s need of humanity made more apparent than in Kazantzakis’s portrayal of Judas Iscariot. Where the Evangelists have portrayed Judas as a weak, self-serving cowardwhose disillusionment with the Messiah led him to commit the crime of betrayal, Kazantzakis depicts Judas as a strong-willed zealot, filled first with the hope that Jesus will establish a political kingdom, then infused with faith that through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus will accomplish his messianic role. Kazantzakis’s Judas is the strongest of the Apostles and the only one towhomJesus directly reveals the way that salvation will be accomplished. Shortly before Christ’s confrontation with the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, he takes Judas aside and tells him, “I am the one who is going to die.” When Judas appears confused and sees his dream of political rebellion slipping away, Jesus tells him, “Take courage. . . . There is no other way; this is the road.” To Judas, Jesus reveals the mystery of the Resurrection, because Judas is to play a key role in bringing it about. What Kazantzakis has seen in the Gospel story is a point that reinforces his own belief that God needs humanity: In order for Christ to be crucified and resurrected, he must first be betrayed. The betrayer, therefore, plays an all-important role in bringing about salvation, a role as important as that of the Messiah himself. At first reading, such a reversal of character seems heretical, and in fact, Kazantzakis was seriously criticized by the Greek Orthodox bishops, who contemplated excommunicating him.

If one is able to approach this novel without prejudice, however, the author’s achievements in characterization and exploration of theme will appear most remarkable. Kazantzakis’s beliefs about the natures of humanity and of God are made most evident in the struggle of his hero, who is both God and man. His Christ is an unwilling savior. Presented first in a fantastical dream in which he sees himself pursued by a “tempter,” Jesus is no heroic Messiah but rather a poor carpenter whose “mission” haunts him and prevents him from indulging in the pleasures of the flesh. One of his first acts is to build a cross upon which the Romans crucify a Zealot, a member of the radical Jewish group working to overthrow Roman rule. At this crucifixion, Jesus is reviled by the crowd for assisting the occupation forces in their dirty work; even his mother is disturbed by his participation and wants to rescue him from his association with the Romans. On the other hand, Kazantzakis’s view of God as pure spirit is expressed by Jesus himself in his encounter with the woman at the well. “Where is God found? Enlighten me,” she says; Jesus replies, “God is spirit.” Jesus’ own ambivalence is highlighted in this scene, as the woman continues to question him: “‘Can you be the One we’re waiting for?’ . . . Jesus leaned his head against his breast. He seemed to be listening to his heart, as though he expected it to give him the answer.”

The ambivalence of the Savior toward his own mission is made evident in other places as well. For half the novel, Christ is a man pursued by a demon, a man whose every waking moment is a struggle between the flesh and the spirit. The drama of this pursuit is heightened for the reader by the constant confusion of the demon in Christ’s mind with both God and the Devil; God and Christ seem to be at war with each other. He runs away from his home to escape the Tempter, only to find himself followed and harassed wherever he goes. He seeks refuge in a monastery but is recognized by the dying abbot as the Savior and is thrust forward as the new abbot, a position he does not want. Always attracted by the prostitute Mary Magdalene, he seeks comfort at her home, but instead of losing himself in sensual gratification, he ends up leaving her, too, after engaging her in a discussion of his mission. Though others, notably the Apostles, flock to him because they recognize something in this young carpenter, Jesus himself only reluctantly accepts his role as Savior and even then is not free from the temptations of the world. Throughout his life, even when on the cross, the lures of “the flesh” are present to divert him from his redemptive mission.

The hero of The Last Temptation of Christ is both God and man, but throughout the novel, Kazantzakis emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, often at the expense of the reader’s preconceived concept of Christ’s divine nature. Jesus feels the temptations of both the flesh and the intellect as fully as any character in a novel by Fyodor Dostoevski or D. H. Lawrence. He wrestles with a strong animal attraction for Mary Magdalene, desiring her body as much as he desires to save her soul. He runs from his mission as Savior because he recognizes the pain it will cause him; he wants to be like other men. In the end, however, he accepts his mission, gives in to God, and fulfills himself; spirit has won over flesh, and humankind is redeemed through the act of the hero. This is the ultimate message that Kazantzakis has for the reader in all of his novels.

Other major works
Plays: Xemeronei, pr. 1907; Melissa, pr. 1939; Kouros, pr. 1955; Christophoros Kolomvos, pr. 1956; Three Plays, 1969.
Poetry: Odysseia, 1938 (The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 1958); Iliad, 1955 (modern version; with Ioannis Kakridis); Odysseia, 1965 (modern version; with Kakridis).
Nonfiction: Salvatores Dei: Asketike, 1927 (The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960); Ispania, 1937 (Spain, 1963); Ho Morias, 1937 (serial), 1961 (book; Journey to theMorea, 1965); Iaponia-Kina, 1938 (Japan/China, 1963); Anghlia, 1941 (England, 1965); Anaphora ston Greko: Mythistorema, 1961 (autobiography; Report to Greco, 1965).

Bien, Peter. Kazantzakis: Politics of Spirit. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989- 2007.
_______. Nikos Kazantzakis.NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1972.
_______. Nikos Kazantzakis, Novelist. Bristol, England: Bristol Classical Press, 1989.
Dillistone, F. W. The Novelist and the Passion Story. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960.
Dombrowski, Daniel A. Kazantzakis and God. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Dossor, Howard F. The Existential Theology of Nikos Kazantzakis. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill, 2001.
Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Suffering God: Selected Letters to Galatea and to Papastephanou. Edited by Katerina Anghelaki Rooke. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Caratzas Brothers, 1979.
Lea, James F. Kazantzakis: The Politics of Salvation. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979.
Middleton, Darren J. N., ed. Scandalizing Jesus? Kazantzakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” Fifty Years On. New York: Continuum, 2005.
Middleton, Darren J. N., and Peter Bien, eds. God’s Struggler: Religion in the Writings of Nikos Kazantzakis. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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1 reply

  1. I do not believe your conclusion about “Last Temptation” is correct. To me, The Sacrifice is essentially a tragedy of the psychological irresolution In Christ’s psyche to conjoin the flesh AS spirit, and the spirit AS flesh; hence the profound critique of both The Gospels and of institutionalized Christianity as a corrupt and false salvation that the book really wishes to imply, not a resolved struggle that “saves” mankind, but as a searing portrayal of a deeply tormented and confused human being whose needless and ultimately self-glorifying martyrdom allows mankind to illuminate HIMSELF to his own divinity AS flesh, AS imperfect, AS flawed, AS a sensual and sexual creature, and not to consider himself as stained with eternal sin because of it. Therein lies the real dynamic and irony of a true existential salvation, and therein lies the absolute and definitive basis of the controversy of the book, and especially, Martin Scorsese’s film, a historic firestorm that to this very day remains unprecedented and unsurpassed by any other single motion picture in cinema history.

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