Out of Africa Summary
by Isak Dinesen

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,750 words.)