Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Themes

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Isak Dinesen carefully builds her memories in the fashion of Homer, the ancient Greek poet credited with writing The Iliad and The Odyssey, creating a setting before any action can occur. In the final chapters, she steps away from the action and returns to the familiar setting, significantly revised with the destruction of the farm. Through it all, she weaves themes that reflect her dreams and nightmares, her discoveries, and her deeply held beliefs.

Loss

The theme of loss runs through Out of Africa, as the narrator experiences a string of losses during her years on the farm. Early on, there is the death of Old Knudsen, the old Dane storyteller, and the shooting death of Wamai, the Kikuyu child. Later, the "noble pioneer" Berkeley Cole dies of a heart attack, signaling the departure of something fine from the colony, the loss of a standard of graciousness and gallantry, and a cherished friend. Over the next few years, she struggles with the slow death of the farm. Eventually, she is forced to sell, losing her home and her dream. With Chief Kinanjui's death, Blixen experiences the collapse of her own courage. As he is dying, the chief asks to die in her home, but she has no strength left to take the risk, knowing the authorities might blame her for his death. When Kinanjui's "great vitality and power of enjoyment" ends, a new void in her life opens. Another devastating hurt occurs when Denys Finch-Hatton dies in a plane crash. Shortly after, Blixen leaves Africa, losing life in her paradise.

The sense of loss is counterbalanced by the fact of the narrative, however. The loss she feels is inextricably tied to the gains she experiences while living there. Loss is a tragedy and also can be a gift to the human spirit. Out of her loss comes this text and all she gains—and transmits to the reader—in writing it.

Cultural Differences

Blixen brings an open mind to Africa. She is a keen observer with a passionate interest in the native people and their culture. She attempts to understand the diverse social structures, traditions, and points of view on life that she encounters—a rarity among the European colonists. As a product of her era and upbringing, she inevitably struggles with inherited attitudes, and as storyteller, she tends to romanticize the Africans. Nevertheless, she genuinely appreciates what she discovers and objectively evaluates the contrasts between African and European ways of life. In fact, a key intent of her memoir is to provide an enduring picture of native culture before it is forever altered by colonial rule.

One cultural difference she highlights is the Kikuyu view of God and the Devil as one and indivisible, a clear contrast to European views of God and the Devil as separate beings in eternal conflict. To the Kikuyu, the Lord—representing the unified being—is as likely to send rain or drought, illness or health, good fortune or bad. The Kikuyu see evidence of the Lord's presence in destructive swarms of grasshoppers as well as in bountiful crops.

Other cultural differences emerge from the nature of tribal life and tribal values. This is seen most clearly in the aftermath of the shooting on the farm. There is grief for the maiming of one child and the death of another; however, tribal law focuses on the compensation their families should receive. The motive behind the shooting is not weighed as it would be by European law. Whether it was deliberate or accidental does not matter; the result is the same. The families have suffered injury, and someone must pay for the damages. There are no tribal prisons. These foundational customs and laws have evolved over time, out of the needs of the tribe and the conditions of tribal life.

Finally, there are cultural differences apparent in simple shifts in perception. They call into question ideas taken for granted by Europeans. An example early in the book is an old German cuckoo clock that hangs in Blixen's house. It is useless in Africa where time is measured by the sun and moon. However, to Blixen—a European—it remains a fine old clock. In contrast, Kikuyu children perceive it as a mystery. They gather to hear it call the hour, and their visits to see it take on a ceremonial air. Some of the herdboys believe the cuckoo is alive. In this way, the assumed significance and function of the clock shifts. No longer a practical item for telling time, it becomes a delightful source of entertainment and wonder. Blixen presents a number of such anecdotes with the goal of shaking loose familiar interpretations and offering engaging alternatives.

Justice and Judgment

There is overlap in the themes of cultural differences and justice and judgment. In the European culture, justice is the legal process of judging and punishing people. In addition to establishing guilt or innocence, courts assess the degree of guilt and the motive behind the crime. The severity of punishment depends on these, and punishment is often imprisonment. In contrast, the African system emphasizes compensation for the loss that has occurred. Justice is not concerned with motives, degree of guilt, or imprisonment. Of these differing ideas of justice, Blixen says, "Those of the one world are unbearable to the other." Yet she must mediate legal matters on the farm involving the Kikuyu according to tribal law.

The conflict between the two systems is illustrated in the story of a Kikuyu girl who falls off a farm wagon and is killed. She had been "joy riding"—something strictly forbidden. Yet, from the standpoint of the girl's parents, Blixen is obligated to reimburse them for the child's death—the wagon belongs to her, they have lost a child, and someone must pay. The amount will be determined by a tribal council. Blixen rebels and refuses to pay. Naively, the parents seek justice under European law and are bewildered when the court rules that Blixen is not responsible for the girl's death and thus owes them nothing. In this case, justice for a European appears deeply unjust to the African.

True injustice is explored in the story of Kitosch, a native boy who dies from a severe beating by a settler. Here again, European law concentrates on establishing the degree of guilt based on the settler's motives: Did he intend to kill the boy? The law is stretched even further to protect the settler with the question: Did the boy will himself to die? Blixen describes the trial and its outcome with cool, suppressed anger. In relating the circumstance that led to the beating, she describes the injustice of a system that allows a man to "shriek the same question fifty times over" at a child and then beat the child for insolence when he does not answer. She further points an accusatory finger at her audience, which she assumes to favor the Europeans view, saying, "It seems to you, as you read the case through, a strange, a humiliating fact that the European should not, in Africa, have power to throw the African out of existence." Despite her cultural background, Blixen is clearly outraged by the injustice she has witnessed. She includes the story as a shameful example of colonial abuses.

Aristocracy

Karen Blixen's marriage to Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke made her a baroness and brought her into the aristocracy. In her view, aristocracy is not a snobbish social class. It is a lifestyle, a way of being, that cuts across economic, social, or cultural divisions. At the core of its nature is an inborn sense of dignity that allows the true aristocrat to act nobly toward others—to respect others' dignity, keep one's word, and take responsibility for personal actions. Unbound by restraints of class distinction, the aristocrat is free to connect honestly and meaningfully with others.

Throughout her time in Africa, Blixen discovers aristocratic qualities—as she expects to—in a diversity of people. These individuals include the Kikuyu youth Kamante, who endures his early suffering with stoic dignity and moves through life with thoughtful self-assurance. Chief Kinanjui is another such figure, noble in his leadership of the Kikuyu living on the farm and a reliable adviser and friend to Blixen. The farm's chief steward, Farah, who works in partnership with Blixen, shares many of the burdens and hardships of managing a farm, and projects a stately, noble air. His relationship with Blixen is built on equality, mutual trust, and respect.

Blixen's closest European friends include Berkeley Cole and Denys Finch-Hatton. In her eyes, they embody the best qualities of the true aristocrat. Although for the contemporary reader, these two men also exhibit the lifestyle excesses of a privileged colonialist class; yet they have, in key ways, bridged the social and cultural gaps between Europeans and Africans. They are on good terms with both, recognizing and respecting the dignity of others without class distinction. Blixen herself strives to reflect this aristocratic nobility in her treatment of natives and others who enter her life. The focus of the memoir itself displays her attitude. As she paints the portrait of her life in Africa, she keeps to the background; in the foreground, the people and the land remain indelibly fixed by Dinesen's reverence for Romantic values and the noble practice she found in the African lives, which so deeply touched her own.

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