Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Out of Africa is the result of Isak Dinesen’s seventeen years as an unsuccessful coffee farmer in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, British East Africa (now Kenya). A retrospective narrative, it details her personal experiences in that land and offers a wealth of observations about nature, the culture of the natives, and the life of the immigrant settlers. The book also contains many vivid portraits of both natives and settlers, as well as accounts of numerous dramatic incidents, such as experiences during World War I, incidents of violence, safaris, and lion hunts. Dinesen approaches her material from the perspective of one who truly loves Africa but who is also struck by the fundamental otherness of the indigenous culture and who only gradually and partially is able to liberate herself from her ethnocentric views. To a large extent, however, her perspective is anticolonialist, for she is able to clearly see that the natives are often unjustly treated by the European settlers.

The structure of the book is in part chronological and in part thematic. No clear sense of a chronological beginning is given, for Dinesen has chosen to begin her narrative with an account of the geography of her farm, which is truly fitting because it is the land itself that holds the greatest importance in her story. The latter part of Out of Africa, in which the author details the circumstances surrounding the loss of her land and the death of her lover Denys...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Out of Africa, the mythical autobiography of Karen Blixen (who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen), offers an idyll in which humans recover the original unity among themselves, society, and nature. This paradise collapses because of natural and his-torical interventions. The work is divided into five parts—four acts of idyll, then a fifth describing a swift, unaccountable fall. The dreamlike structure becomes progressively more tangible in its description of the farm’s loss. Parts 1 and 2 represent what Dinesen calls Africa’s “music.”

Part 1, “Kamante and Lulu,” tells of a wounded native, Kamante, and of a tiny gazelle, Lulu. Dinesen expresses African music by describing the civilized and wild qualities in each. Kamante’s culinary genius makes Dinesen reconsider her own civilization. Elegant Lulu has the air of a wellborn lady. Karen’s discovery of civilized traits in nature implies that civilized accomplishments can be judged by their congruence with nature.

“A Shooting Incident on the Farm,” the second part, demonstrates the farm’s social operation and contrasts European and African justice systems. Because of an accidental shooting, a Kyama (local court) is formed to settle the matter according to native laws. Karen is appointed judge because of her importance to the natives, but because she does not know local laws, she summons Kinanjui, the chief of the Kikuyu, to judge the Kyama.

Part 3,...

(The entire section is 594 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Isak Dinesen blazed new trails for women. She farmed an African plantation, hunted lions, doctored native peoples, and judged their Kyamas. Dinesen was also a pioneer in the male province of adventure memoirs, a fact that she acknowledged by assuming a masculine pen name.

Ironically, Dinesen’s gender and failure as a farmer began her writing career. Brought up in a privileged family, she was taught only to marry well. When she returned to Denmark, penniless and divorced, her brother Thomas said that her suggested careers were positions always reserved for men. When Dinesen tentatively suggested writing, Thomas enthusiastically supported her.

Two years later, Dinesen had a short-story collection in manuscript form and several rejection slips. Determined to find a publisher, she wrangled an invitation to a London luncheon where the head of a publishing house was a guest. She broached the subject of her manuscript, but when Mr. Huntington learned that her book contained short stories, he refused to read them—short stories were difficult to sell. Later, Thomas handed the manuscript to writer Dorothy Canfield, who passed it on to publisher Robert Haas. He published the work with no expectation of commercial success, but although criticized for lacking a man’s wisdom, Seven Gothic Tales was a great American success. As Baroness Blixen, she had gotten nowhere with Huntington, but Huntington wrote a letter full of praise to Isak Dinesen and asked for “his” address. Yet the book was not received well in Denmark. When the public discovered that Isak Dinesen was not a man, criticism of the erotic decadence of Seven Gothic Tales increased. One critic accused her of coquetry, shallowness, caprice, and most of all, perversity.

During her first book’s success, Out of Africa was taking shape. As she wrote, years of subconscious ideas emerged. The work was published in the United States, England, and Denmark. It was well received in America and Denmark, but Huntington reported that only intellectuals liked the book in England. Although she was now lionized and financially independent, Blixen nevertheless received criticism from those dear to her. An old family member believed it almost scandalous for a lady to make money writing books.

Out of Africa places a woman in the center of adventure, instead of as a spectator or supporting figure. Like Job, to whom all was eventually restored, Blixen restored Africa to herself through her imagination.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Kenyan warriors of the Kikuyu tribe assemble, dressed in ceremonial costume. Published by Gale Cengage

British East Africa
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, European countries, especially Britain and Germany,...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Dinesen began telling and writing stories as a young child and had a reputation for being a fine storyteller. The novel Out of Africa...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Dinesen's novel deals with a lost paradise, caused by the influx of immigrant Europeans who had no sensitivity to the African natives' rights...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Isak Dinesen's novel, Out of Africa written five years after she returned to her native Denmark, describes Africa as she remembers it:...

(The entire section is 1506 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1895: The British government establishes the East Africa Protectorate, which controls the political and economic life of the...

(The entire section is 150 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Research the colonization of Kenya. Discuss how East Africans were treated during the first part of the twentieth century. How has the...

(The entire section is 95 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Dinesen's primary technique in Out of Africa is a first-person reminiscence focusing on personal relationships and the conflicting...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A major criticism of Dinesen's work is that it seems a little difficult to read, perhaps due to her use of a more formal language. This is...

(The entire section is 235 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1985 Columbia Pictures developed a screenplay of Out of Africa with Robert Redford cast in the role of Denys Finch- Hatton and...

(The entire section is 76 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

A still from the 1985 film version of Out of Africa captures the beauty of Kenya's sweeping landscape Published by Gale Cengage

Out of Africa was adapted as a film by Kurt Luedtke and based on Dinesen's autobiography and her Letters from Africa. Sydney...

(The entire section is 57 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Anecdotes of Destiny, a 1985 collection of short stories by Dinesen, includes "Babette's Feast," a tale of a woman's struggle to...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Anthony Burgess, in a review in The Observer Review, September 6, 1981, p. 29.


(The entire section is 250 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 431 words.)