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Literature Study GuidesOut Of AfricaPart 3 Chapter 4 Summary

Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Part 3, Chapter 4 : Visitors to the Farm (Old Knudsen) | Summary



When Old Knudsen, the Dane, comes to the farm, he stays until he dies. In the meantime, he contributes what he can to the farm's success. He advises the narrator to burn and sell charcoal—a craft he learned in Sweden. The venture takes them into woods where, with the help of the natives, they cut down the undergrowth, which then is burned in scattered kilns.

The stillness and shade of the African forest along with the scent of the burning kilns provide a dreamlike setting for telling stories. Knudsen talks freely about his wandering past and wondrous adventures. In these stories, he is a rebel, heroically defying all laws. He mentions no women by name, and the narrator suspects that he may have fled from Denmark to escape an unknown woman who embodies law and order, one who "ruins the pleasure of man." In her mind, she calls her Madam Knudsen.

To remedy a water shortage on the farm, Knudsen helps build a pond. It becomes the heart of the farm, drawing birds, cattle, and children. Once, a crocodile makes a surprise appearance and has to be shot. Next, Knudsen devises an elaborate, secretive plan to stock the pond with stolen fish. When the narrator disapproves, Knudsen gives it up, a beaten man. As the cause of his defeat, she becomes Madam Knudsen.

In death, Old Knudsen has the last word. The narrator must fight the law over his funeral arrangements. Successfully operating on his behalf, she is no longer Madam Knudsen, but a comrade.


One of Dinesen's admirers, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, quoted Dinesen to introduce the chapter on "action" in The Human Condition (1958) : "All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them." It is the job of the storyteller to weave together a series of events in such a way as to give them meaning. Old Knudsen embodies this ideal of the storyteller. Within the magical setting of the forest, he creates an Odyssian narrative of his life. Blixen seasons her own account of this event with language distinctive to Knudsen—expressions such as "the devil take him" and "seven thousand devils in Hell." It is as if she has conjured his ghost and hears him speaking as she writes. In The Odyssey, it is Elpenor, Odysseus's dead friend, who speaks, appealing for a proper burial.

From her blend of anecdotal snapshots of Knudsen emerges the picture of a life both grand and wrecked. Showing him within the context of her story, she frames and reveals the deeper meaning of his life. At the same time, she explores how their mingled lives enrich one another. To him, she is a friend, a fellow rebel, and, in her disapproval of the plot to steal fish, a stand-in for the imagined Madam Knudsen. She is also the repository of his stories. In turn, he provides her with inspiration and is her model teller of tales. For both parties, the work of the story is healing.

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