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Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How do the anecdotes "Of the Millennium" and "The Parrot" in Part 4 foreshadow the narrator's losses in Part 5 of Out of Africa?

In Part 5, the narrator tells of the loss of her farm, a friend, her love, and her freedom. The two anecdotes foreshadow these events because both deal with loss. In "Of the Millennium," Christ wishes to revisit his walk from the governor's hall, where he was condemned to death, to Calvary, where he was crucified. This walk represents his darkest hour, but it is also his most significant. It leads to the fulfillment of prophecy and his transformation through death. The narrator, too, faces a new stage of existence in her realization that she must sell the farm and her forced return to Europe, though it is her sojourn in Africa that has transformed her. "The Parrot" evokes feelings of sadness and isolation with its ending verse by Sappho (by Sappho of Lesbos, an ancient Greek woman poet from whose place of origin the term lesbian derives) about being alone in the darkest hours of the night. In the final chapters, the narrator passes through her darkest hour, and like the speaker in the poem, she is alone as she leaves Africa.

What is the narrator's response to the decline of her farm in Part 5 of Out of Africa?

Drought, grasshoppers, poor harvests, and falling coffee prices all conspire against the narrator as she tries to save her farm from bankruptcy. She is a fighter and draws strength from her memories of Old Knudsen, who believed pessimism is a fatal vice. She tries various schemes to salvage the farm, like planting flax or using manure around the coffee trees. Even when these plans fail, she cannot believe that fate will really make her give up the farm or leave Africa. She says, "Nothing was further from my thoughts, and I kept on believing that I should come to lay my bones in Africa." She convinces herself that she will triumph simply because she cannot imagine failure. "I was the last person," she notes ruefully, "to realize that I was going." In a desperate attempt to influence destiny, she decides to "give in on all minor matters" and to sell off her possessions "as a kind of ransom for my own life." When at last she has sold off everything and nothing is left, she sees that she is the "the lightest thing of all, for fate to get rid of." Even then, she looks for a way out, believing that if she can find the key to her misfortune—the central principle at work—it can still save her. Only when she witnesses the fatal encounter between the rooster and the chameleon does she at last accept that Africa is sending her away.

For the narrator, what is especially significant about the death of Chief Kinanjui in Out of Africa?

Chief Kinanjui's death is significant because it leads to an act of cowardice on the narrator's part, one she candidly acknowledges. In a sense, her refusal to help him shows her taking a hand in destroying her own dream, as it reveals that she is no longer the person she has seen herself to be. The chief has been the narrator's trusted friend and ally during her 17 years on the farm. At the time of his dying, she is in the process of selling the farm, and her dream of Africa is collapsing. The chief knows that the doctor from the mission intends to take him to the hospital, and he does not want to die there. He asks the narrator to be taken to her house. However, her courage fails. As she explains, "Things had gone badly with me lately and had made me fear that they would go on worse." The farm and house are no longer hers. Whether Kinanjui dies on the way or in the house, she could be blamed, and she no longer has the strength to defy the authorities. She has suffered too many recent defeats and no longer has her former strength as a self-reliant rebel, but she regrets that she denied him his wish.

How does the narrator in Out of Africa serve as a brass-serpent for the Kikuyu when the farm is sold?

A brass-serpent is a person or thing that relieves people's suffering, despair, or fear by bearing it for them. In the past, during World War I, the Kikuyu looked upon the narrator as a brass-serpent when the native men were taken into the British Carrier Corps. She symbolically bore the fear and grief of those left behind as the men of their tribe died in this service. When the narrator sells the farm, the Kikuyu squatters must move because the land is being divided up and prepared for houses. To be uprooted from the only home some of them have known is frightening. The Kikuyu beg the narrator to intervene with the authorities so that the tribe can stay together when they relocate. While this is their country, they look to her to decide their future. If she fails, the tribe will be dispersed, and they will lose their shared history, their sense of community, and even their identity. By arranging with colonial officials for them to resettle together, she again serves as a brass-serpent for the Kikuyu.

In Out of Africa, how are the narrator and Ingrid Lindstrom alike?

The narrator and Ingrid Lindstrom are alike in culture, gender, attachment to the land, and dedication to making their farms succeed. Lindstrom is a Swedish farmer who, like the narrator, gallantly struggles to keep her farm profitable. As Europeans they are both immigrants to Africa and pioneers of the Colony. Over the years, they have fallen in love with their farms and with the land, feeling more at home here than in their native countries. Both are strong, independent women determined not to fail, and, as the narrator writes in Part 3, "during the bad years, had wept in one another's arms at the thought of losing our land." They try a variety of schemes to help their farms turn profits. They share a deep bond borne in part by their gender. When the narrator must sell, Ingrid comes to comfort her, aware of the deep sadness inherent in the event—"what it is really like, when a woman farmer has to give up her farm, and leave it." When one woman comforts another over a tragedy, she feels at the same time, "thank God it is not me." This unspoken thought is understood by both and is not resented by the one suffering the loss. She would feel the same were the situation reversed. Men, according to the narrator, do not experience envy or triumph "harmoniously," as women do.

What is the significance of the confrontation between a chameleon and a rooster that the narrator witnesses in Part 5 of Out of Africa?

The confrontation between the chameleon and rooster in Part 5 reminds the narrator of her own situation. It occurs when the farm is sold, and she will soon be leaving. While taking a walk, she witnesses a rooster pluck out a chameleon's tongue. Knowing the chameleon will starve without its tongue, she quickly kills it. She has been looking for a sign that will explain her run of bad luck—how she had "in some way, got out of the normal course of human existence, into a maelstrom where I ought never to have been." In this incident, she seems to find what she is looking for. She identifies with the chameleon, which depends for survival on its ability to change color and blend in with its surroundings. As an immigrant, she has tried to blend in with Africa, a country that is not hers. The rooster is a symbol for village life—the foundation for human existence and survival in Africa. The plucking out the chameleon's tongue by the rooster seems to signal that Africa has rejected the narrator because her efforts to blend have been unsuccessful. Her life here is ended. Just as the narrator swiftly kills the chameleon to save it from slow death, she must leave Africa to save herself from a slower, more painful emotional and spiritual parting. The chameleon's loss of a tongue, an organ of speech, also suggests the deep emotion the narrator feels at the prospect of losing Africa. She is speechless with grief—until she can write down her stories.

Why does Isak Dinesen include Farah in the chapter title "Farah and I Sell Out" in Out of Africa?

The narrator includes Farah in the chapter title because for 17 years he played a vital role in the management of the narrator's farm. His inclusion indicates the close relationship that has developed between the two of them and, in a sense, that the farm has become partly his as well as hers. In his role as steward, he managed the cash flow, helped to mediate relations between the narrator and the natives, and shared the daily burdens of running the farm. He becomes the narrator's trusted ally and friend, through good times and bad. When he must tell the narrator that the last coffee harvest has failed to save her, he is nearly overcome with emotion, holding back his head and "swallowing his sorrow." As the two of them sell off her household things and pack up her belongings, he, like the narrator, is watching the life he has known vanish. Though he will remain in Africa, he is losing his home, his friend and partner, and his position of trust and prestige.

How is the theme of loss portrayed in the structure of Out of Africa?

The first part of Out of Africa builds a picture of the paradise the narrator found in Africa. The subsequent parts both present a fuller picture of that paradise and present several episodes of loss that reinforce the theme, culminating in Part 5, dedicated to describing how that paradise is lost. The theme of loss is hinted at in the conclusion of Part 1, as the narrator tells of Lulu's departure from her home and relates Kamante's letters to her after she had to sell the farm and leave Africa. From the start, then, the reader knows that her time in Africa, however much she might cherish it, is finite. The narrator experiences earlier losses during her years on the farm, including the shooting death of young Wamai and the death of Old Knudsen. Her friend Berkeley Cole dies of a heart attack, and she struggles with the slow death of her farm. However, the losses pile up in the final section of the book. Chief Kinanjui dies, and she loses a friend and ally as well as her courage to grant his last wish to die in her home. Then Denys Finch-Hatton, her friend and lover, dies in a plane crash. She is at last forced to sell the farm, losing her home and her dream. When the narrator leaves Africa, leaving her paradise, she says goodbye to her friends and all that she worked for. Her dream of freedom, self-reliance, and autonomy collapses.

What is the significance of the lions coming to Denys Finch-Hatton's grave in Out of Africa?

The lions coming to Finch-Hatton's grave are significant both in terms of the theme of aristocracy and the connection he forged with Africa. Lions are a symbol of nobility, and they rule their territory like kings, dangerous yet splendid. When Denys Finch-Hatton dies in a plane crash, he is buried in the hills above the narrator's farm. After Blixen leaves Africa, she learns that the Masai have seen lions on Finch-Hatton's grave in the Hills. In the narrator's mind, Finch-Hatton is an aristocrat, like the lions. He also knew Africa—the land, the animals, the people—better than any other white man. She says, "He had taken in the country, and in his eyes and his mind, it had been changed, marked by his own individuality, and made part of him. Now Africa received him, and would change him, and make him one with herself." The visiting lions seem to symbolize this. They turn Finch-Hatton into an African monument, representing not only his aristocratic nature but also his oneness with Africa.

What is the significance of dreams in Out of Africa?

To the narrator, dreams signify unlimited freedom. The dream creates itself without the help of the dreamer. Caught in a dream, all one has to do is let it unfold and follow where it leads. The dreamer is "a privileged person, the one who has got nothing to do, but for whom all things are brought together." For the narrator, her life in Africa is a dream, full of freedom and rich with promise. In the African night, she finds a waking dream, vast and full of wild possibility. Life on the farm, like a dream, is threatened by the aftermath of the accidental shooting. She must "call in fresh forces, or the farm will run into ... a nightmare." Nightmares are "the poorest and most vulgar class of dream" in which "one begins to lose the consciousness of freedom. On the day of Denys's death, the narrator feels a sense of nightmare she cannot explain steal upon her. She says it "grew so strong that I wondered if I were beginning to go mad." As she moves through her last day in Africa, she seems gripped by an unhappy dream: "Things are happening to you, and you feel them happening, but except for this one fact, you have no connection with them, and no key to the cause of meaning of them." The dream that is Africa has declined into nightmare, where necessity and strain have destroyed the narrator's life and her freedom. The only way she can recapture it is to gaze back at Africa in memory, like a dream within a dream, and portray it in writing.

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