Out of Africa Study Guide

Out of Africa

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

Out of Africa is a semi-autobiographical story about the Duchess Karen von Blixen-Finecke and her seventeen-year stay on her coffee plantation in British East Africa, present-day Kenya. The book does not rely heavily on chronological narration and is broken into five parts, each dealing with different aspects of Blixen's residence and her dealings with the surrounding peoples. It is a meditation on colonialism, the twilight of the British Empire, and the country of Kenya itself.

  • The Hon. Denys Finch Hatton – Blixen’s portrait of Finch Hatton is as a kind of philosopher king, a man of exceptional erudition and natural grace, at one with nature, who fit in everywhere and nowhere: “When he came back to the farm, it gave out what was in it – it spoke… When I heard his car coming up the drive, Iheard, at the same time, all the things of the farm telling what they really were.” Such glowing reports of the aristocratic Finch Hatton are not uncommon; by all accounts he radiated, from a young age, a kind of warmth and serenity that many people found irresistible. But while Blixen is generally believed to have been Finch Hatton's lover, and she writes of him with unbridled adoration, in Out of Africa at least she refrains from ever clearly defining the nature of their relationship. Finch Hatton came from a titled British family and was educated at Eton and Oxford. But he turned his back on his British noblesse , and came to Africa in 1911, at the age of 24. He began as a farmer and trader, but later became a white hunter– and he was well liked by many Africans. Blixen met Finch Hatton at a dinner in 1918. He was, to judge by Blixen’s correspondence as well as some passages from Out of Africa , the great love of her life. She was bound, she wrote to her brother, "to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves." After August 1923, when not on safari, Finch Hatton used Blixen’s farm as his home base. Like her, Finch Hatton was a lifelong non-conformist, and it was apparently a cause of great heartache to her that he resisted her efforts to form a more permanent “partnership.” Blixen is believed to have miscarried at least one child fathered by him. From late 1930 to early 1931, as their romance was ending, Finch Hatton took Blixen flying over her farm and other parts of Africa in his de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane, which she described as “the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm.” In May 1931, when their affair was likely over for good,Finch Hatton was killed when his Gypsy Moth crashed after takeoff at the Voi aerodrome; those events are recounted in the last chapters of Out of Africa .
  • Farah Aden – When Blixen first met Farah, she mistook him for an Indian. However, Farah was a Somali of the Habr Yunis, a tribe of fierce, handsome, and shrewd traders and cattle-dealers. It was common among the British colonists of the early period to hire Somalis as major-domos. Most Somalis were, by theaccounts of their employers, highly organized, effective managers. In Shadows on the Grass , Blixen would describe the Somalis as aristocrats among the Africans, "superior in culture and intelligence", and well matched in terms of hauteur with the Europeans they chose to serve. Farah had been hired to work for Bror Blixen as a steward, and Bror sent him to Mombasa to greet Karen when she got off the steamer from England. According to Dinesen's biographer Judith Thurman,“it was upon meeting Farah in Mombasa that Dinesen’s Vita Nuova (new life) truly began.” Blixen entrusted Farah with the farm’s cash flow, and eventually with her complete trust. Farah shared her daily life, mediated her relations with the Africans, and relieved her of many practical burdens. The two would grow exceedingly close, with Blixen herself describing their relationshipas a "creative unity". The chapter in which Blixen describes the sale of her farm is titled, “Farah and I Sell Out.” After Blixen and her husband divorced, Farah remained loyal to her, sometimes leaving Karen's service temporarily to work on one of Bror's safaris.
  • Kamante Gatura – A young boy crippled by running sores when he enters Blixen’s life, Kamante was successfully treated by the doctors at the “Scotch" Christian mission near the farm, and thereafter served Blixen as a cook and as a wry, laconic commentator on her choices and her lifestyle. There is a strong suggestion that Blixen and Kamante were well suited as friends because both were loners and skeptics, who looked at their own cultures with the critical eye of the misfit. Some of Kamante's own recollections and stories were later compiled by Peter Beard and published in a book entitled Longing For Darkness: Kamante's Tales from Out of Africa .
  • The Hon. Berkeley Cole – Cole was, like Finch Hatton, a British expatriate improvising a charmed life among the colony’s well-to-do. Reginald Berkeley Cole (1882-1925), an Anglo-Irish aristocrat from Ulster (being a son of The 4th Earl of Enniskillen), was a veteran of the Boer War, a possessor of a sly wit who affected a dandy’s persona in the Kenya colony. A brother-in-law of The 3rd Baron Delamere, he was also a founder of the Muthaiga Club, the legendary private Nairobi enclave of the colony’s demi-monde. Cole was a close friend of Finch Hatton and the two men supplied Blixen with much of the wine she served on her farm. She famously described him drinking a bottle of champagne every morning at eleven, and complaining if the glasses were not of the finest quality. Cole died in 1925 of heart failure, at the age of 43. “An epoch in the history of the Colony came to an end with him,” Blixen wrote. “The yeast was out of the bread of the land.”
  • Kinanjui – Kinanjui was “the big chief” of Blixen’s neighborhood – “a crafty old man, with a fine manner, and much real greatness to him,” Blixen writes. British colonial authorities had appointed him the highest-ranking chief among the Kikuyu in Blixen’s region because they couldn’t get along with his predecessor; as such he was a significant authority figure for the Kikuyu who lived on her farm. Upon Blixen’s arrival in Kenya, it was Kinanjui who assured her that she would never lack for laborers. Although the book does not fail to point out some of Kinanjui’s vanities (such as the large automobile he buys from an American diplomat), Blixen depicts the king as a figure with a deep sense of his own dignity and royal presence. Kinanjui is also one of the figures in the story who dies toward the end of the memoir, leaving her – as do the deaths of Cole and Finch Hatton –ever more isolated and uncertain.

Conspicuously absent from the stories in Out of Africa is any explicit appearance by Blixen’s husband, Bror von Blixen-Finecke. Blixen refers to her younger days on shooting safaris, safaris which she is known to have taken with Bror, but doesn’t mention him in that context. There is a reference or two to “my husband,” but she never uses his first name. Although the Blixens remained friendly through their separation and divorce, Bror’s associations with other women caused Karen embarrassment. Decorum drove her to withdraw from social events where Bror would be present with a mistress (one of whom became his next wife), and she was, privately, resentful of these social strictures.

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