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Out of Africa | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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How do the narrator's experiences recounted in Out of Africa shape the author Isak Dinesen?

The narrator arrives in Africa as a bride, with no other family or friends. She is surrounded by a foreign culture and is facing all the challenges of farming without prior experience. Yet she sets out with great hope and aspirations. Left to manage the farm on her own, she tirelessly struggles to keep it going. For 17 years, she embraces life in Africa and takes in all it shows her with the eye and heart of an artist. The dream ends in wreckage, and she must sell the farm and leave Africa. Yet she is no longer the naive young woman who first arrived. She has been tested and shaped by blessings, hardships, wonders, and heartaches. Out of the final wreckage emerges the author Isak Dinesen. Gazing back at her vanished life, she captures it once more—conquers and pins it down with words, to become history. As in the parable of the stork in Part 4, by tracing her life path, Dinesen sees the pattern which gives it meaning. While in Africa, the narrator is released from traditional gender expectations. Free to construct her own identity, she assumes a male role as she manages the farm. She guards and celebrates her independence, and mourns its ultimate loss upon returning to Denmark. As author of her memoir about that life in Africa, she adopts a masculine nom de plume, perhaps to reflect the spiritual freedom that permits her to tolerate and transcend the loss.

What is the significance of the title of Isak Dinesen's memoir Out of Africa?

The title of the memoir is significant because everything in the book comes out of Africa, from the stories to the author herself. Though a memoir, it follows a hero's journey, beginning with a call to adventure by leaving the ordinary world. The narrator emigrates from Denmark to Africa full of raw vitality and romantic expectations. As in a hero's journey, she is met with enormous challenges, yet she finds the pastoral paradise—the treasure—that she seeks and falls in love with her life. She fully expects, in the end, to "come to lay my bones in Africa." It is a crushing blow when she is forced to declare bankruptcy and return to Denmark. In the course of this ordeal, she loses paradise, and her dreams are smashed. However, heroically, the narrator finds a way back to complete her adventure. Out of apparent defeat is born the author Isak Dinesen. She is the product of all that has gone before and so is figuratively born in and emerges out of Africa. As the hero returns home bearing some treasure, Dinesen returns home filled with creative fire. Her book is born of her experiences as are all the memories of people, places, and events that it contains. In this way, her life in Africa is transformed into words as she has been transformed into an author.

How do the narrator's views of other cultures in Out of Africa compare or contrast with modern ideas of multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism is the belief that different cultures within a society should all be given importance. The narrator understands that "the African Native has not handed over his country to the white man in a magnificent gesture." Rather, "the Natives of the country had held their land undisputed, and had never heard of the white men and their laws" until their land was taken from them. Though she is part of the colonial system, she opposes racism and criticizes the injustice and brutality of colonial practices. She is keenly aware that the native people have been displaced and ill-treated, and she accuses her reading audience of the racist view that Europeans should have the power to dominate the Africans. Identifying herself with what she sees as the values of the aristocrat, the narrator believes that she is obliged to treat others with respect and dignity. In Out of Africa, she features people of other races, such as Farah, Kamante, and Jogona, as distinct individuals, not part of some mass of natives without individual identities. Her perspective on other cultures is open-minded and compassionate. These characteristics are in line with modern multiculturalism.

In Out of Africa, what evidence is there that the narrator detests the injustice of the colonial system?

The narrator sympathizes with the native people and understands what they have lost under colonial rule. She says, "It is more than their land that you take away from the people. ... It is their past as well, their roots and their identity." She recognizes that she is part of the colonial system that took these things, and she is sternly critical of the cruelty and injustice permitted by that system. Her clearest protest is found in the anecdote "Kitosch," about a native boy flogged by a white settler and then tied up and left to die in the settler's store. A trial follows, and the settler is let off with the lightest possible sentence. The narrator's frank report of the case paints a raw picture of the incident. She decries the system that permits the settler to beat Kitosch for insolence when he does not answer despite being badgered and says that the settler's damnation begins at that point. Finally, she asserts that colonials, despite abuses of power, will not win. Africa will always belong to the African people.

How does author Isak Dinesen use cultural differences to create shifts in the reader's perspective in Out of Africa?

Isak Dinesen's implied audience is the white European reader. She enjoys introducing shifts in perspective that call into question what Europeans take for granted. The purpose of these shifts is to dismantle accepted notions and offer intriguing alternatives. As an artist, she understands the impact of viewpoint and the richness that can result from viewing an object or idea from different perspectives. She accomplishes her goal by showing a familiar idea from another cultural perspective. An example is Farah's interpretation of "The Merchant of Venice." He disapproves of the happy outcome for the young lovers. Instead, he concludes that Shylock could have gotten his pound of flesh—legally his if he had managed more carefully. This reading of the situation stems from the Somali's high regard for legal justice. The Somali people "will waste much time and blood over their tribal moral system," and they "have a keen sense of money and values." By contrasting the time-honored viewpoint on the play's outcome with a differing cultural understanding, Dinesen creates a shift that offers another possibility.

How does the narrator's statement in Out of Africa that the Africans' "lack of prejudice" was "striking" set her apart from other Europeans of her era?

In this analysis, Karen Blixen expresses the contrast between the provincial prejudices that grow from limited experience with others different from oneself, and the more accepting view of the Kikuyu who lived on her farm. The Kikuyu, she argues, have long experience with a mix of peoples from different cultures who have come over the centuries to East Africa. As a result, they are more open to ideas. Kamante can accept Christianity, and he is curious to learn about books; the houseboys are fascinated by the German cuckoo clock. Kitau wants to learn the ways of Christians and of Muslims by living with the narrator and with a sheikh; then he will decide which religion to accept. Europeans, on the other hand, show animosity toward other religions; this is even true of the attitudes of those from one Christian church toward another Christian church. This early in the text, Blixen already fights the binary thinking that is common in Western culture and favors the range of possibilities that exemplify fairness and close attention to others. This is the introduction to her revolutionary, for her time, theory of difference.

What are three examples of literary allusions in Out of Africa, and what is the significance of each?

The narrator of Out of Africa frequently alludes to The Odyssey. The epic is first mentioned when Kamante questions the narrator's attempt to write a book. He pulls a copy of it from her library as an example of a "real" book. When he asks, "What is there in books," the narrator tells him the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, Polyphemus. Kamante wonders if Polyphemus was black, like the Kikuyu, and if Odysseus belonged to the narrator's tribe. His thoughts suggest a distance Kamante feels between himself and the narrator, a sense that he can be victimized by her. Later, in stories of Old Knudsen and the Swede Emmanuelson, the narrator compares each of their life journeys to an odyssey. These comparisons suggest that she sees their wanderings as having a destination, of there being a home that they head toward. Alternatively, her own longing to find a home in Africa might color her presentation of their lives. Another allusion is to the poem by Sappho repeated by the parrot in Part 4. The poem is a sad verse about being alone in the darkest hours of the night. It expresses feelings of isolation and loneliness, and it foreshadows the narrator's loss of the farm, a friend, her love, and her freedom. Like the speaker in the poem, she will be left alone. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem that Denys Finch-Hatton greatly admired. On the obelisk marking his grave, his brother places a plaque with an inscription from the poem. The narrator cannot say what passage is found there as the obelisk was set up after she left Africa, but the allusion to the wandering mariner seems to fit Finch-Hatton's wandering life.

In Out of Africa, why does the narrator use animal imagery to describe the people of Africa?

The narrator, as author, is making use of a literary device called synecdoche in which a part of something represents the whole or, in turn, a whole represents a part. In Part 1 of the memoir, the narrator calls the African natives "Africa in flesh and blood." In her vision, they are as much Africa as the land and animals, and Africa is as much human as the land and sky. She reflects that the native people are "within their own element, such as we can never be" and compares them to "fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning." That is, they live in another plane of existence that Europeans cannot fathom. In their attitudes toward Europeans, the people of Africa are like animals in the wild; they are shy of Europeans, uncertain of their intentions, and so require patience to deal with. However, like a spurfowl that feigns a broken wing to distract a predator from her chicks, the natives may mimic fear to mask "some deeper dread" Europeans cannot understand. Elsewhere in the book, the narrator uses animal imagery to describe specific people and tribes. She describes Masai warriors in terms of a leopard or a fighting bull; these are warrior images. The young wives of Chief Kinanjui are lovely, gazelle-eyed wenches, suggesting gracefulness and some of the wariness of the hunted. In anecdotes, such as "The Oxen" and "Some African Birds," parallels can be drawn between the animals and the African people. In the story of Kitosch, she compares the native people to any wild thing that, when desperate, can find "refuge" by "go[ing] when they like," making it impossible for humans to capture or hold them. By creating a synecdoche of the African landscape, people, and animals, the narrator supports her belief that Africa belongs to the indigenous people and not to the European invaders. The people are part of the whole that is Africa and tied as closely to the land as the animals. Inversely, the whole of Africa, including the animals, represents her people.

In what ways does Out of Africa resemble an elegy?

An elegy is an expression of grief; a reflection on loss. Usually in the form of a poem or song, it is a literary vehicle for words of mourning, praise, and comfort. In contrast, Out of Africa is pure storytelling, yet Isak Dinesen articulates her memories with poetic, reflective words of love and nostalgia mixed with profound sadness. The pictures of Africa that the author paints are vivid and grand, filled with memorable people and moments. Yet, like an elegy, they are a lament for a place that has vanished. She cannot return to Africa to recover her past; she can only remember and mourn. As she reflects in the last chapter of Part 1, within a year of her departure, the Africa she knew had changed dramatically. Her farm land "had been given out to farmers and the forest had been cleared here, and houses built. Tractors were heaving up and down where glades had been." The forest where the gazelle Lulu lived was gone. Moreover, the people she knew and loved best, like Berkeley Cole and Denys Finch-Hatton, are dead. Even the pioneering colony is gone. There is a new colony now, where Kamante cannot find work. The people there hunt insatiably, without weighing the cost, and the game has moved off. The author herself says that so much has changed, her account "may have a sort of historical interest" but hold no other relevance. Therefore, she pays homage to the past and preserves her memories in a vibrant portrait of her life that praises and mourns it, and ultimately provides comfort and closure.

What is the effect of the narrator's limited presence in Out of Africa?

The narrator gives out little information about herself in Out of Africa. This piques readers' curiosity and keeps the baroness in the background. She begins the book referring to herself in the very first sentence, but she quickly turns the focus to the farm. Later in Part 1, Kamante refers to her as "Msabu," a word used by the Kikuyu to address a white woman, and further in readers learn that she is Danish because she calls Knudsen, a Dane, a "countryman." Not until the end of Part 2 does the narrator identify herself by name in signing a legal document concerning the shooting on the farm. The narrator is not interested in being the focus point of the stories she relates. She is Scheherazade (storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights), the keeper of memories and teller of tales which, perhaps like Scheherazade's, are designed to save her life. By remaining in the background, she allows Africa—the land, people, and events—to take center stage and stand in the spotlight.

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