Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

Out of Africa partakes of history, autobiography, and pastoral romance. It is a highly personal account of a period in the author’s life (roughly 1913 to 1931). Unlike authors of many memoirs or autobiographies, Dinesen is largely uninterested in facts, figures, dates, historical background, or politics. World War I and the Great Depression occur within the time frame of this book, but there is little direct mention of them although Dinesen occasionally discusses their effect on people’s lives. Although she spent nearly twenty years in Africa and knew hundreds of people, only a dozen or so names emerge in the narrative. The narrative itself tends to be a rather casual affair, for Dinesen tends to tell her story in episodes, rather than in lengthy sequences. Some episodes clearly overlap, like the accidental shooting of an African child, the subsequent trial, and the appearance of Chief Kinanjui, a Kikuyu tribesman, whose death is described in some detail later. The exact sequence and linkage of these events remains unclear, or rather unimportant from Dinesen’s point of view.

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What does matter to Dinesen is the large tapestry of events; in fact, she uses the word “tapestry” many times to describe the dappled colors of greenery and sunlight under the canopy of the African forest. In short, she sees this African interlude with the eyes of a painter; characters and events tend to be grouped into episodes or pictorial clusters. The reader goes from one cluster to another, in the manner of a tourist looking at a huge tapestry, inspecting one portion at a time.

One may simplify Out of Africa into three large clusters, the first being the coffee farm, its native inhabitants, and servants. In this cluster belong Farah, Dinesen’s overseer and general manager, the Danish jack-of-all-trades Old Knudsen, and the beautiful blue Ngong Hills that border her property. She omits most of the technical details about growing and harvesting coffee beans.

Another distinct cluster belongs to Lulu, the wild female bushbuck that Dinesen tamed. She devotes many pages to the habits and appearance of this lovely creature. Despite her nearness to two large game reserves, Dinesen does not generally describe other wild creatures, with the exception of giraffes and lions. The lions actually belong to the third cluster, which is presided over by Denys Finch Hatton and his friend Berkeley Cole (who dies shortly before Hatton’s plane crash). In the end, lions come to sleep over Hatton’s grave, providing one of the most moving and poignant passages in the book. This brings closure to this complex and unforgettable story, which, by itself, would have permanently established the reputation of Dinesen for readers worldwide.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1304

Karen Blixen once owned a coffee farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. As she sits at home in Rungsted, Denmark, many years later, she remembers her seventeen years in Kenya. Captivated by the beauty of the African landscape and its people, she is struck by the feeling of having lived for a time up in the air.

When Karen and her husband, Bror, first arrive in Africa, there are no cars. Nairobi, the town closest to their farm, is twelve miles away, and Karen travels to and from the farm, Mbogani House, by mule cart. Her able overseer, Farah Aden, helps her make the adjustment to her new life. From her first weeks in Africa, she feels a great affection for the East African tribes: the Somali, the Kikuyu, and the Masai.

Karen meets Kamante Gatura when he comes to the small medical clinic she operates for the people who live and work on the farm. The nine-year-old boy looks as if he is dying. Open sores cover his legs, and he seems to face death with passionless resignation. In spite of her best efforts, Karen’s treatment fails; arresting the disease is beyond her capabilities. She decides to send Kamante to the Scotch Mission hospital, where he remains for three months. He returns to the farm on Easter Sunday, his legs completely healed. He says to Karen, “I am like you,” meaning that now he, too, is a Christian.

In time, Kamante is trained to be Karen’s chef. A genius in the kitchen, he can pick out the plumpest hen in the poultry yard, and his whipped egg whites tower up like clouds. He rarely tastes the dishes he prepares for Karen, preferring the food of his fathers, yet he grows famous preparing meals for Karen’s friends and guests, including the Prince of Wales.

Following a yearlong drought, when it seems the universe is turning away from her, Karen begins to write. When her workers ask what she is doing, she tells them that she is trying to write a book, and they view this as an attempt to save the farm. Comparing her scattered loose-leaf pages to a bound book he has pulled from her library shelves, Kamante expresses doubt that she will ever be able to write a book. He asks what she will write about, and she replies that she might write of him. He looks down at himself and asks, in a low voice, “Which part?” Many years will pass before she publishes her reflections of Africa, but when she finally does, Kamante is an important part of her story.

Karen does not understand the various African dialects, but the regal and intelligent Farah serves as interpreter throughout her sojourn in Kenya. Many of the tribes look to Karen to settle their disputes. On one occasion, when she is asked to judge who is to blame in a shooting accident, she turns to her friend Chief Kinanjui, who rules over more than one hundred thousand Kikuyu. By this time, the automobile has come to Africa, and when Chief Kinanjui arrives in his new car, he does not want to get out until she has seen him sitting in it. Finally alighting, he takes his seat next to Karen and Farah, and together they agree on fair restitution for the parties in the case: One man must give the other a cow with a heifer calf. Karen never shies away from becoming involved in such disputes. Eventually she advocates for the rights of all East Africans to each successive governor of the colony and to any wealthy or influential settlers who will listen.

After Karen and Bror divorce, the farm has many visitors, from large groups of Africans who come for the Ngomas (social dances) to European friends. Berkeley Cole calls Mbogani House his sylvan retreat; he brings leopard and cheetah skins to be made into fur coats and fine wines to serve with dinner. He reminds Karen of a cat, a constant source of heat and fun. His stories of the old days can make even the Masai chiefs laugh, and they are prepared to travel many miles to hear them. When Berkeley dies young, Karen feels a tremendous sense of loss.

Karen’s friend Ingrid Lindstrom comes to Africa with her husband and children to operate a flax farm. Like Karen, Ingrid works passionately to save her farm during the hard times. The two women weep together at the thought of losing their land. As the years pass and one bad harvest follows another, Karen’s chances of keeping her farm grow slimmer.

Denys Finch-Hatton gives Karen a powerful reason to stay in Africa, and, thanks to his love and encouragement, she fights to stay as long as she can. Although he owns land in another part of the continent, Denys makes Karen’s farm his home. He lives there between safaris, returning unexpectedly after weeks or months away. His visits are like sparkling jewels. Denys teaches Karen Latin and introduces her to the Greek poets; he brings her a gramophone and records with classical music. In the evenings, he spreads cushions on the floor, and she sits on them and spins for him the long tales she has made up while he has been away.

Karen and Denys have great luck hunting lions together. One spring, two lions come to the farm and kill two of Karen’s oxen. That night, Denys is determined to get the pair before they can strike again. With Karen holding a torch, they track the lions and kill them near the edge of the property.

One of Karen’s greatest pleasures is flying in Denys’s airplane. His moth machine, as she calls it, can land on her farm only a few minutes from the house, and the two often make short flights over the Ngong Hills at sunset. Other times, they travel farther to find huge herds of buffalo or to soar with the eagles. These happy days do not last, however, because the coffee plantation is rapidly failing. Too little rain produces poor yields, and when the price of coffee falls, Karen’s investors tell her that she will have to sell.

Karen is making plans to dispose of her belongings and to find suitable land for her workers when the news comes that Denys has been killed in the crash of his plane. Heartbroken, Karen searches in the rain to find an appropriate burial site for him. Finally she chooses a narrow, natural terrace in the hillside behind the farm. At the grave, she and Farah erect a tall white flag so that from her window she can look to the hills and see a small white star. After she leaves Africa, the Masai report to the district commissioner that many times at sunrise and sunset they have seen a lion and lioness standing on the grave.

In the dark days following Denys’s funeral, Ingrid stays with Karen. They do not talk of the past or the future. They walk together on the farm, taking stock of Karen’s losses, naming each item and lingering fondly at the animal pens and the beautiful flower gardens. Karen’s last months in Africa take her on a beggar’s journey from one government official to the next. Her goal is to find enough land for her workers to settle on together, so that they can preserve their community. Finally, the government agrees to give them a piece of the Dagoretti Forest Reserve. In the end, Farah drives Karen to the train station. She can see the Ngong Hills to the southwest, but as the train moves farther from her home, the hand of distance slowly smooths and levels the outline of the mountain.

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Themes