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Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What does the written word represent to Jogona when he sees and hears his son's adoption report read back to him in Out of Africa?

According to the narrator, Jogona is awed by hearing his words read back to him because the act of recording them seems to immortalize the words—and thereby immortalize him. Jogona is the father of Wamai, the Kikuyu boy killed in the shooting accident on the farm. Jogona must dictate the details of his adoption of Wamai in order to claim the sheep paid as settlement for the boy's death. It is an arduous task for him to reconstruct the details, which the narrator transcribes on her typewriter. He holds his head with both hands, sometimes hitting it "as if to shake out the facts." When the narrator reads the account back to Jogona, he is struck with awe and delight to hear the words repeated just as he had spoken them, and even more so to hear his own name read. The story is "caught, conquered, and pinned down before his eyes." It was so difficult to recall, but now it will always be there in writing, whole and unchanging. His name is there, too, preserved forever; it is immortalized on paper. This "world of the written word" is new to Africans. Jogona guards and treasures the document, "for his soul was in it; it was proof of his existence."

What does the narrator of Out of Africa accomplish in her discussion of daytime and nighttime Ngomas?

In describing the Ngomas, the elaborate dance events, the narrator presents detailed pictures of African native life, preserving these cultural artifacts in the same way that an anthropologist's account would. At the same time, she also conveys other messages. One is her acceptance of the native culture, evidenced by her painstaking effort to preserve it. Another is the natives' acceptance of her; the night Ngoma that ended in the conflict between Kikuyu and Masai was held in her honor before her departure for Europe. That particular episode also gives her an opportunity to establish her opposition to the colonial government, as she agrees to hide the injured Masai man rather than have the government learn of the Masai presence at that event.

How do imagination and reality differ for Old Knudsen in Out of Africa and in the narrator's relationship to him?

Old Knudsen is a blind and frail Danish seaman who spends his last days of life on the narrator's farm. Physically broken by hardship, disease, and drink, he nevertheless has the "wild heart of a small boy" and is a premier storyteller. The tales that he spins construct an odyssey-like narrative of his lifetime spent drifting from Denmark to Africa. In these tales, he is always the hero and always triumphant—a stark contrast with reality. As the narrator says, he "had tried a great many things in his life ... and had done well on none of them." Despite this, he is a mighty figure in his splendid adventures. From these contrasts emerge the picture of a life both glorious and ruined. The narrator, meanwhile, imagines that there was a woman in Knudsen's life, a figure who controlled him and spoiled his pleasures. There is no basis for this invented figure in his stories; this Madame Knudsen is a creature of the narrator's imagination. When the narrator seems to squelch his idea for stocking a pond on the farm with perch, she muses that she has thereby become Madame Knudsen. When she sees to his burial, she thinks that she has left this imagined role for that of another, his "brother." This sense of brotherhood also links the narrator to him as a storyteller.

In Out of Africa, in what ways are the narrator and Old Knudsen alike?

In Old Knudsen, the narrator discovers a kindred spirit. They are both wanderers and storytellers. Old Knudsen spins tales for the narrator, transforming his life into an odyssey-like adventure. Similarly, the narrator delights in telling stories to Denys Finch-Hatton, and later, as Isak Dinesen, she writes the tale of her own odyssey in Africa. Both she and Knudsen are rebels, standing up to authority. Just as "a heroic deed meant to him in itself an act of defiance against the law," the narrator heroically fights authorities for the rights of Kikuyu squatters and for the right to have Old Knudsen buried on the farm. Finally, they are both strong-minded dreamers, following their hopes and desires from Denmark to Africa. Knudsen never gives up seeking the scheme that will make him rich and successful until his death. The narrator, however, after trying for a long time to save her farm and her life in Africa must give them up—a kind of death for her.

In Out of Africa, how does the attitude of the Somali women toward the treatment of European brides differ from the narrator's attitude toward them?

The Somali women are shocked by the treatment of European brides; the narrator, on the other hand, is more accepting of their society's views toward courtship and marriage. The Somali women have a high sense of their own worth as potential brides, knowing their bride price will reflect the respect they have earned. For this reason, they find it shocking and depraved that any parent would give away a daughter for nothing—as if she has no value—or worse, pay the bridegroom to marry her. From their point of view, the daughter has been gravely shamed. The narrator finds "maidenly purity" equally foreign to her, but she has a much more accepting view of the Somali women and their culture's practices. She writes approvingly of the women's grace and intelligence. She views the Somali traditions of arranged marriages and resulting courtship behavior as a "religion, strategy, and ballet" carried out with "devotion, discipline, and dexterity." Just as the narrator is accepting of many Kikuyu and Masai practices, so she accepts the Somali marriage traditions.

What do the chapters about Old Knudsen and Emmanuelson, both visitors to the narrator's home in Out of Africa, convey about the narrator?

The chapters about Old Knudsen and Emmanuelson, which are consecutive, give the narrator a chance to highlight two wanderers and outcasts from society, whom she helps. Knudsen has traveled the world, ending up on the narrator's farm, homeless and broken from disease and drink. Similarly, Emmanuelson has wandered from Sweden to Africa, and for one night pauses on his journey at the farm. The narrator senses that something about him invites trouble, and he had somehow "become unpopular with the other Scandinavians of the country." Both men are down on their luck and looking for the next big break and a chance for a better life. The narrator thinks of their separate journeys in terms of an odyssey, full of adventure and wonders. The only difference is that Knudsen's odyssey is nearing its end, while Emmanuelson succeeds in continuing with his trek to Tanganyika. The narrator helps both of them, not only providing shelter but giving Old Knudsen an audience for his stories and, ultimately, taking responsibility for seeing him properly buried. She gives Emmanuelson a place to stay for the night, loans him some money, and drives him to a beginning point for his trek onto Masai lands. As she does with other visitors, she accepts both men and appreciates the opportunity to know them. With Emmanuelson, in particular, she looks past racial boundaries, seeing in him and the Masai an admirable acceptance of the tragedy of life.

How does Denys Finch-Hatton represent the ideal of the preindustrial age individual in Out of Africa?

The narrator feels Finch-Hatton would be at home in the Elizabethan age because he had the air of "that Antiquity, the Athens, of which they dreamed and wrote." Like Berkeley Cole, he did not belong in the present age. That poor fit with the industrial world is evidenced by the mutual understanding between him and the Africans, for the Industrial Revolution had severed, she believes, Europeans from nature and the past. Finch-Hatton, like Cole, could find refuge in Africa from a world in which he no longer seems to fit. The narrator idealizes him as a dashing and accomplished figure, an athlete, a musician, a lover of art and poetry, and a fine sportsman—characteristics valued by an earlier age. Like the natives, he still has the patience to listen to stories—a patience, she said, most modern Europeans lack—and in fact prefers hearing stories to reading. He is also a true aristocrat, noble in his dealings with people and without regard for economic, social, or cultural divisions. In his love of flight, however, he is selectively modern. There are contemporary conveniences to which he willingly adapts. Finch-Hatton serves as something of a model for the narrator, an exemplar of how to live and relate to others.

What does the death of Berkeley Cole represent to the colony in Out of Africa?

The son of a British lord, Berkeley Cole is a pioneer of the colony and a true aristocrat—noble in his dealings with people, well-liked by members of the colony, and trusted by the Africans. He has the dashing manner of a French cavalier, enjoys the fine things in life, and has the instincts for comfort of a refined cat. Berkeley is drawn to Africa because he no longer feels at home in postwar England. He has a taste and talent for life of an earlier, more gracious age, and "could have walked in and out of the Court of King Charles II." When he dies of heart failure, members of the colony feel the loss deeply, his death seeming to mark the end of a bright era in Africa. His passing suggests the end of some easy-going, graceful period and its replacement by "a business proposition." With his passing, "standards were lowered" and the colony was diminished in wit, gallantry, and humanity. In other words, the colony's romanticized vision of itself fades. The noble, romantic figure of Berkeley is no longer there to mask the conquest and exploitation that is the nature of colonialism.

In Out of Africa, what is the significance of rhythm in "Natives and Verse" and "Pooran Singh"?

For the Kikuyu children of "Natives and Verse," the making up of rhymes holds no charm, but the sound of them, when made up by the narrator, holds the delightful rhythm of rain. They beg her to "speak again. Speak like rain." Similarly, the Kikuyu enjoy watching and listening to the rhythm of the hammer as Pooran Singh, the artisan of all work on the farm, shapes raw, hot iron in his forge. As the narrator describes it, "the treble, sprightly, monotonous, and surprising rhythm of the blacksmith's work has a mythical force." In rhymes, the beating rain, or the striking of the hammer, the natives hear the rhythm of the original and oldest form of music—the drum. It touches and awakens something ancient deep inside them, to which they respond. The narrator recalls that ancient Nordic law recognizes the allure of drums, suggesting that they have the power to connect both European and African back to a primeval beginning.

In Out of Africa, why are the anecdotes "The Wild Comes to the Aid of the Wild" and "The Giraffes Go to Hamburg" significant for the narrator?

The narrator sympathizes with the ox and the giraffes in these anecdotes. Having embraced the natural world of Africa, she appreciates their wild natures and wants to protect them from the tyranny of domestication and captivity. In "The Wild Comes to the Aid of the Wild," the ox rebels against becoming a beast of burden and will not submit. The narrator counts it as a blessing that the leopard saves him from a broken life under the yoke. In "The Giraffes Go to Hamburg," the giraffes face a hopeless future of captivity and misery, torn from their home and freedom. They will be "all alone, in Hamburg, where no one knows of Africa." She feels that escape through death would be better for them than this fate. She also sees the treatment of the giraffes as an outrage, a sin that requires humanity to ask forgiveness.

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