The narrator, Baroness Karen Blixen, well-educated, artistic, literary, and romantic, decides to marry and move to a coffee farm in Africa. In the preindustrial, pastoral setting of what is now Kenya, she finds a paradise where she can throw off European modernity. She bonds with her new home through the natives, wild animals, and other immigrants. However, she also faces the harsh realities of life when she is left to manage the 6,000-acre farm on her own. Over the course of 17 years, the naive young woman who came to Africa matures. Her world and her life expand. She discovers in herself deep reserves of strength, optimism, and tenacity she can draw on in times of need. She eventually loses paradise when the farm fails, her lover Denys Finch-Hatton dies, and she must return to Denmark.
Finch-Hatton becomes a frequent visitor to the farm. Like the narrator, he is a lifelong nonconformist. Their love affair is unstated, but the farm comes alive with his presence, and he is the inspiration for the narrator's storytelling. She imagines herself as Scheherazade (storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights), which makes him her sultan. They often hunt together. He is a skilled and enthusiastic aviator, and when he takes Blixen flying in his biplane, it opens up a magnificent new world for her. His death in a plane crash is the final devastating blow that she must endure before leaving Africa.
Farah plays a key role throughout the narrator's struggles to manage the farm. However, as control of the farm comes into Blixen's hands, Farah takes on the vital role of the farm's chief steward. He manages the cash flow, helps mediate relations between Blixen and the natives, shares the daily burdens of running the farm, and becomes a trusted friend. The title of the chapter about selling the farm is "Farah and I Sell Out," an indication of the close partnership that has evolved between them.
Kamante grows from a silent, sickly child to a valued, capable member of the narrator's household. Like Blixen, he is something of an outsider and observes his own culture with a critical eye. He also studies European ways, and his questions and observations provide Blixen with fresh perspectives that delight her. Over the course of their relationship, he displays great thoughtfulness, wit, and humor. She perceives in him a greatness of soul.
Chief Kinanjui provides a vital link between the narrator and the natives on the farm. He is a wise adviser when she must oversee the settlement of disputes. When events threaten to spin out of control after the shooting accident, he plays a key role in bringing matters to a successful conclusion. Over the years, working in alliance with Blixen, he comes to respect and trust her. However, in the end, she must betray that trust. When Kinanjui is near death, he asks to be taken to her house to die. Blixen feels she dare not, and the chief mutely accepts her decision. When he dies, an essential, stabilizing force is gone from the farm.