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Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Context


Colonialism, War, and Economic Depression

The setting for Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa is British East Africa, the area known today as the Republic of Kenya. For centuries, trade had existed between East Africa's coastal settlements and Arabia, India, and China. In 1498, however, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama brought East Africa to the attention of Europe and other powers, who began a long struggle for control of the region. By the 1840s, Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian missionaries from outside Africa were making their way into the interior. These activities were followed by other philanthropic, commercial, and imperialist ventures, and the European dash to colonize Africa accelerated. In 1886, European claims to territory in Africa were formalized, and most of modern Kenya fell under British control. It was during this period of British colonialism that Karen Blixen lived on her coffee farm in Kenya (from 1914 to 1931).

For several decades, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Western Europe enjoyed a period of relative peace at home, while the British and other colonial powers engaged in various conflicts with rival colonizers in order to extend or solidify their colonies in Africa and Asia. Peace in Europe, which nurtured economic prosperity and technological, scientific, and cultural innovation, ended with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914. A month later, World War I broke out, entangling the continent's major powers in four long years of conflict. By August 1914, the fighting had come to Africa. Approximately one million Africans were forced into the war effort, mostly filling the roles of porters and laborers. Those who worked for the British served in the Carrier Corps. It is estimated that 95,000 of these Africans died. While the battles were waged far from Karen Blixen's farm, men from the settlements were conscripted.

War drastically changed the trade and economy of Africa. During the war, severe drought in Africa added to a shortage of food, and a worldwide influenza pandemic from 1918 to 1919 killed 2 percent of the population in Africa. Still, Blixen struggled on, unwilling to give up on her farm. A final blow was dealt by the Great Depression, which began in the United States in 1929 but spread around the world. Prices for the 1930 Kenyan coffee crop fell to less than half its earlier prices, but eventually recovered. However, unable to hold on any longer, Blixen sold her much-loved farm in 1931. Blixen's memoir of her life in Africa was written retrospectively from her home in Denmark.

Blixen's View of Africa and Africans

Imperialism is a practice of domination, the subjugation of one people to another. Blixen has been criticized for participating in British imperialism in Africa. Seen through postcolonial eyes, she was a white European running a farm worked by natives, and her book Out of Africa has been condemned by some as a racist, imperialistic text. Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o, in his Writers in Politics, argues that her attitude toward Africans reflects racism in her equation of Africans with animals. Others argue that Blixen's view of the hybrid nature of people's life experiences (male/female, European/African, etc.) gives value to her work.

There are, moreover, aspects of Out of Africa that defy the description of Blixen as a colonial oppressor. As an outsider, because she was Danish and a woman, she brought a unique viewpoint to the British colonial experience. According to literary scholar Susan Brantly, Blixen negotiated "the cultural expectations of Denmark, Africa, and Britain." She was never entirely comfortable with the expected role of a colonial overlord. She often rebelled by attempting to understand native culture, allowing the Africans on her farm generous use of the land, and holding in check her opinions on the justice of tribal laws. She makes many distinctions between African and Western ways of viewing and thinking about the world, and distinguishes among ways of being in the world without privileging whiteness. In fact, she often does the opposite, admiring African innocence or authenticity in contrast to the ulterior motives of Western social habits and the complex machinations of Western justice.

Other critics argue that, while elements of racial bias are found in her narrative, she is clearly aware of social inequalities and frequently shines a harsh light on unjust colonial practices. In this view, she makes no outright statement condemning these practices, but aims for readers "to perceive and share her indignation over the facts related" in her stories. Her intent is to undermine the prestige of European culture, while simultaneously reaching out to its members. According to scholars Brenda Cooper and David Descutner, "Her affirmative depictions of the Kenyans and their ways of life, juxtaposed with her negative depictions of the Europeans, work in combination to fracture the imperialist hierarchy on which rests the justification for colonialism."

Nonbiographical Elements

Autobiography and memoir are genres that are often highly selective; authors choose to reveal some things and not others. Blixen's account omits many significant facts, particularly many painful ones. She mentions her husband but does not name him or discuss their separation or divorce. She also does not cover his mismanagement of the farm, which puts the whole enterprise in jeopardy. She mentions some trips away from Africa but does not divulge the reason for them, including the one she undertook to obtain treatment for syphilis—a disease that she also does not discuss. She is wary about her relationship with Fitch-Hatton. Much of the pleasure a reader gains from her text is rooted in her resignation and her grace, her dismissal of these burdens, and her embrace of the positive aspects she found in her life in Africa. In a 1957 interview, she distinguished between novelists and storytellers, denying the former label, which she associated with a sociological or psychological point of view. She went on to say, "To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy." What she puts into the book and what she leaves out can be viewed in that context.

Finally, the book is more reflection than narrative. The work does not have a conventional structure; it is in part retrospective narration, interspersed with anecdotes that often achieve the effects of morality tales, poetic meanderings, or philosophical reflections. While the narrative is not necessarily in chronological order, the first part generally covers her introduction to Africa and the fifth focuses on her last years there and her departure.

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