Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Symbols


The main symbols in Out of Africa reflect the ideas and values of the narrator in that Africa is a kind of Eden where she can forge her own unique identity.


Lions, the proverbial kings of all African beasts, rule their territory and do not fear or give way to humans. They represent strength, self-reliance, and independence. The narrator finds in the nature of the lion the aristocracy—the inborn sense of dignity—that she admires, though it is wild and dangerous in its expression; lions are majestic and murderous. As she says, "I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill ... his face still red up to the ears." In the silence of the African night, she has heard the distant roar of a lion that is afoot and hunting. With that roar, the vastness of the landscape opens up, and his hunting ground draws nearer.

The hunting of lions plays a significant role in Blixen's relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton. She says, "Denys and I, whenever we were together, had great luck with lions." There is a sense of equally shared danger in their hunts together, reflecting Blixen's determination to be seen as independent and self-reliant—not unlike the animals being hunted. The fact that she hunts also provides an example of her mix of both revolutionary and imperialistic tendencies. She, like other Europeans, accepts the right to make the wildness of Africa her sport.

After Denys dies in a plane crash, lions add their significance to his grave site. In a letter from a friend that Blixen receives after leaving Africa, she learns that official reports say that the Masai "have seen lions on Finch-Hatton's grave in the Hills. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood or lain on the grave for a long time." Blixen feels that it is a fitting gesture from one noble creature to another and that the lions have made of Denys an African monument.

Pastoral Landscape

As a European and pioneering immigrant, Karen Blixen brings certain romantic expectations to Africa. Although she is a daughter of privilege, she comes from the industrialized world, where most live in crowded urban centers, some working and living in miserable conditions. Fast-paced city life has replaced the natural rhythms of country living. In transforming the civilized world, the Industrial Revolution has cut people off from nature and the past. However, Africa remains untamed, and it offers the possibility of recovering a more wholesome existence. Living in closer unity to nature, one's life can be expressed more fully and authentically, as it was meant to be.

In Africa, Blixen finds the pastoral paradise she is seeking. Despite the harsh realities and challenges that in time overwhelm her, she is able to immerse herself in the beauty of the landscape and come to know nature's perfect order. In this sense, she lives the Romantic moment, human nature in unity with the natural world. Throughout the memoir, she describes these moments of perfection. In the African night, she discovers a waking dream that engages all the senses: "The Cicada sing an endless song in the long grass, smells run along the earth and falling stars run over the sky, like tears over a cheek. You are the privileged person to whom everything is taken." In stories such as "Lulu," in which a gazelle comes to live in her home, she perceives gestures of friendship from Africa. In the diversity of people, she finds examples of greatness and nobility. It becomes her dream to live and die in Africa.

Old Knudsen

Old Knudsen is the narrator's ideal of the storyteller. Through the art of storytelling, the history of his life becomes as he wishes it to be, and he essentially transforms himself into a myth. As a symbol of the storyteller, Old Knudsen foreshadows who and what Blixen will become.

He is a wanderer like Blixen, far from his home of Denmark, and takes refuge on the farm where he spends his last days. Blind, battered by life, and beaten down by disappointments, he is nevertheless defiantly unbroken. He has "the simple, fierce, irascible, wild heart of a small boy." He is also a supreme storyteller. In the Odyssey-like tales he weaves, he is the hero of every adventure—a powerful, triumphant figure, in stark contrast to the reality of the man.

In Old Knudsen, Blixen discovers a guiding kindred spirit. She, too, is a storyteller. When times are hard on the farm, she escapes into writing stories. When Denys is away, she plans the stories she will tell him. When he comes to stay, evenings become story time. Then she sits on the floor "cross-legged like Scheherazade [storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights] herself" spinning tales, as if he were the sultan. Often an old painted screen featuring fanciful figures from distant lands is placed by the fire. The illuminated figures "come out, and serve as illustrations to the tales."

As the farm and her dream are slipping away, Blixen remembers the undaunted storyteller, now dead, who believed that pessimism was a fatal vice. She determines not to give up easily. Later, she is forced to leave Africa, having lost everything. Yet, defiant as the old Dane, she refuses to be broken. Instead, she transforms herself into the author, Isak Dinesen, to reclaim and immortalize in story her life and her dream.

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