The townspeople are cloistered but intrigued about the arrival of Zorba and Nikos. Wary of outsiders, they still treat Hortense, an older Frenchwoman who has lived on the island for decades, like a stranger. Her house is the only decent lodgings in town (which a song assures us still isn't very good), and still the townspeople try to offer unappealing, primitive-sounding accommodations. They are largely idle and are excited by the prospect of work in a mine. One of the main characters basically lives on his odd jobs - being a messenger, carrying luggage, etc. - and the kindness of people like the widow. Nikos even calls the island a "wild place," and we see the women descend like the "crows" in the song to pluck the widow's fine house clean just moments after her death. In these moments, though - it is Zorba, not Nikos, who is the humanizing force. He appeals to Nikos for calm after he shakes the hand of one of the murdering mob as the mine is opening, and asks him not to judge the scavengers that snatch the widow's belongings - "you can't hurt the dead. Only the living."
As individuals, we see the characters of the townspeople as colorful, curious, and passionate, if rough around the edges. Together, however, they often are a faceless mob, mocking, grabbing, attacking, ravaging. John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, loved to write about how mob mentality could destroy an individual's ability to think as well as human lives. In literature as well as history, mobs are deadly at worst - part of peaceful protest training throughout the years has been to prevent a group of protestors from becoming the mob, from getting aroused to anger as a result of groupthink, because it's very easy to slip into the hypnotic power of the masses. To Steinbeck, a person's ability to think individually and rise above the "phalanx" was key. I'll never forget getting groped and grabbed at Mardi Gras years ago by I'm sure otherwise normally-acting men - somehow given license to do so by the rowdy crowds gathered. I gave them the benefit of the doubt for their awful behavior - blaming it on mob mentality, hurricanes, and hormones, but it doesn't make it right. If anything, it reinforced my belief that we should keep striving to be a voice of reason and rise ABOVE our "animal" instincts - Zorba knows the animal side of human nature and human psychology, but the important part is that he acknowledges that it's a two-sided coin.
|So did Tom Joad.|