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Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | 10 Things You Didn't Know


When Karen Blixen moved to the Ngong Hills in what is now Kenya, few other European women had ever experienced the life she faced. She married her cousin, the Baron von Blixen-Finecke, and started a coffee plantation. Africa challenged and enthralled her at every turn. Then, when she separated from her husband but remained in Africa to run the farm herself, she found a deep passion for the people and landscape of the Ngong Hills. She wrote about this passion on her return to Denmark after the coffee plantation failed.

Writing as Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen perfectly captured the brutality and beauty of her life in Africa in her memoir. Though some critics consider her writings racist for its animalistic depictions of natives, many readers find compassion and a fierce insistence on equality in her writing. The world depicted in Out of Africa, published in 1937, is long gone, but the memoir is beloved for its lyrical language and evocation of time and place.

1. Dinesen's household members defended her against accusations of racism.

Because Out of Africa was written when Kenya was a British colony, modern literary criticism often views Dinesen's memoir as racist. One Kenyan critic blasted her use of animal imagery in describing Kenyans. However, other critics think her descriptions are aesthetic interpretations of a particular time and place. One member of her household insisted, "The Baroness felt that all were equal."

2. The ancient phrase from which the book borrows its title originates from a proverb.

The 4th-century BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle used the phrase "out of Africa" when he referred to a proverb that was old even at that time. In a book about natural history, he wrote, "There is always something new coming out of Africa." He was referring to the animals of the continent, which he thought were strange and unique. Today the phrase has evolved to describe Africa as the cradle of humanity from which so many things have originated.

3. The 1985 film version of Out of Africa won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Out of Africa, released in 1985 and starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, was awarded seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Though critically acclaimed, some reviewers thought the film was too long and too stately. The New York Daily News described it as an "extraordinary visual treat," but others felt that it focused more on the romance between Dinesen and Finch-Hatton than on her love affair with the plantation and its native peoples.

4. Some actors in the film version of Out of Africa were descendants of workers from Dinesen's plantation.

Dinesen employed many Kikuyu workers on her coffee plantation during the years she lived there. As the movie was filmed in and around the places where the events of the book actually took place, many of the descendants of those workers still lived nearby. The filmmakers hired some of these people to act in the roles of Dinesen's employees.

5. Dinesen's medical treatment for syphilis may have poisoned her to death.

In 1914, only months after marrying Blixen-Finecke, Isak Dinesen was diagnosed with second-stage syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease for which, at that time, there was no cure. Over the years, she was treated with arsenic and mercury, and she developed a stomach ulcer, possibly as a result of treatments with these poisons. She died in 1962 of malnutrition; she could eat almost nothing at that point.

6. Readers can live a day in the life of Karen Blixen at an African camp that bears her name.

Readers who are intrigued by the life Blixen led in Africa can mimic some of her experiences by visiting the Karen Blixen Camp. Visitors stay in luxury tents situated along the banks of the Mara River, where they can view the wildlife of the Oloololo Escarpment, including hippos, elephants, and buffalo. Some may even be inspired to write about their experiences!

7. Some incidents were not included in the film version because they were too cute.

Dinesen wrote about a bushbuck (a kind of antelope) that she considered a pet, but director Sidney Pollack decided to leave scenes with the bushbuck out of the film. "You would have had a Disney episode," he explained.

8. There is a museum dedicated to the author near the site of her house.

The Karen Blixen Museum is located on the farm Dinesen once owned at the foot of the Ngong Hills in Kenya. The land was broken up and developed and is now known as the suburb of Karen. The house itself was opened as a museum in 1986 and includes many of Dinesen's belongings. It's surrounded by a garden and forest, giving it the peaceful feel that the plantation had for the author when she lived there.

9. Many critics view the memoir, but not the film, as strongly feminist.

In her memoir, Dinesen describes her life in Africa as unfettered by the rules and mores of society, especially those that applied to women. She experienced unusual freedom and power on her coffee plantation, and she used them to help the Kikuyu people who lived near and worked for her. This empowered condition has led critics to call the book feminist. The film, however, shows Dinesen as subservient to her lover, while her book presents them as equals.

10. Dinesen never intended to be a writer.

Dinesen wrote a little before she went to Africa, mostly essays, and she also studied painting in Paris. "I never once wanted to be a writer," she said to an interviewer for the Paris Review. It wasn't until she knew she would have to sell the farm in Africa that she began to write. She wrote two of the stories that appeared in her volume Seven Gothic Tales while still in Africa, but she didn't begin writing her memoir until she was back in Denmark.

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