Out of Africa Out of Africa
by Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

OUT OF AFRICA is not a conventional autobiography but rather a selective collection of the author’s impressions of her life in Africa that have been turned into a pastoral idyll through her art. The book focuses on the land and people of Africa and on the significance they had for her. Though Dinesen is present throughout the work, the real protagonist of the autobiography is Africa itself.

For Dinesen, Africa is separated from the everyday Western world by more than geographical distance. It is a world untouched by various social and scientific changes. The land, not yet domesticated by technology, is the shaper of human destiny. As a consequence, the people, whether native or immigrant, must be courageous, imaginative, and capable of dealing with the unknown.

Dinesen describes at great length these people, filling the book with such portraits as the destitute but vivacious Old Knudsen, the Englishmen Berkeley Cole and Denys Finch-Hatton, her servant Kamante, and Masai chief Kinanjui, the actor Emmanuelson, even the gazelle Lulu. These figures, Dinesen explains, are aristocrats who live outside of rigid systems but have a keenly developed sense of ritual that grows from their imaginative response to life.

The book ends with the failure of Dinesen’s farm and, with it, the passing away of the old Africa, symbolized by the deaths of Kinanjui and Finch-Hatton. Yet this Africa would live on in the stories that Dinesen had begun to write on her farm. The values of Africa form an integral part of Dinesen’s writing, of which OUT OF AFRICA itself is one of the finest examples.


Dinesen, Isak. Letters from Africa, 1914-1931. Translated by Anne Born and edited by Frans Lasson. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Excellent collection of correspondence. Illuminates the reality of Dinesen’s African experience.

Dinesen, Isak. Shadows on the Grass. New York: Random House, 1960. Written much later in her life, this book is an epilogue to Out of Africa. Brings the reader up to date on the individuals mentioned in the first book.

Donelson, Linda. Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: The Untold Story. Iowa City: Coulsong List, 1995. A thoughtful analysis of existing correspondence. Medical doctor Donelson gives special attention to Dinesen’s persistent ill health and the myths surrounding it.

Gilead, Sarah. “Emigrant Selves: Narrative Strategies in Three Women’s Autobiographies.” Criticism 30, no. 1 (Winter, 1988): 43-62. Perceptively comments on Dinesen’s escape into art when her coffee plantation fails. Gilead points out that the self that narrates Out of Africa is stable, not changing, as it narrates its chronicle of a lost paradise, and that this stable voice adds to Out of Africa’s mythic quality.

Horton, Susan. Difficult Women, Artful Lives: Olive Shreiner and Isak Dinesen In and Out of Africa . Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Outstanding analysis...

(The entire section is 698 words.)