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Out of Africa

Isak Dinesen

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

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Study Questions

As a foreigner living in Africa, do you think that the narrator supports the colonial system or does she criticize it?

The narrator does criticizes the colonial system in Out of Africa, but since her entire philosophical perspective relies upon the colonial framework she primarily supports its existence. Since the narrator is the master of a large, almost feudal plantation, she is able to present Africa as a type of paradise where she lives in unity with the natives and even with wild animals. If Africa were not a colony where only whites took land from the natives and bought it cheaply as their own, the author would never have owned such a farm and therefore would not have been able to see it as a metaphor for paradise. The narrator's whole perspective, therefore, relies upon her ability to live as she does and her ability to live as she does could only take place in her colonial world. Although faults of the colonial system are occasionally noted, never once does the narrator propose that the colony should no longer exist, nor does she indicate that Europeans should go away.

Out of Africa does however frequently document cruel treatment by white settlers and inefficiency within the colonial government. Primarily, Dinesen focuses on the former, by telling tales of settlers who beat their servant to death, or small-minded people who condemn education for the natives, and of racism by Europeans. Occasionally, she does as well condemn the political order, but overall Out of Africa supports the idea of a colony since its structure is fundamental to the author's own existence and perspectives.

The natives and the narrator belief in different judicial systems to arbitrate their disputes? What are these systems and how do they differ?

The native and European judicial systems differ because the former focuses on the issue of compensation for injured parties, whereas the latter focuses on punishment for the guilty. In the instance of a murder, for example, Europeans would work to punish the murderer. If convicted, the murder would face jail time or possibly execution. Native Africans do not share the ethic of making the offender physically suffer for his crime. Instead, Africans focus on compensating the families that the crime has offended. The person accused of the murder therefore would not be thrown in jail, but he would be forced to pay the deceased's family a sum that is comparable to that person's life. After the sum was paid, the murderer would be free to live in society just as other people do. The fundamental difference between the two systems then involve different interpretations of how the offender should "pay" for his crime. Europeans believe that he should pay by suffering in prison. Africans believe that he should pay by handing over equal property to what was lost.

In real life, Denys Finch-Hatton and the narrator, Baroness Karen Blixen, were lovers. Do you think that their relationship is evident in Out of Africa?

Isak Dinesen never directly states that she and Denys Finch-Hatton were lovers in Out of Africa. Several subtle textual clues, however, suggest such an relationship. Dinesen often projects sexual imagery and allusions onto the landscape surrounding the narrator and Finch-Hatton. The description of the dead lions therefore becomes erotic, as do the images of the lush tropical forest that the lovers drive through.

The idea that the narrator and Denys Finch-Hatton had a special relationship especially becomes clear at the time of his death. Everyone treats the narrator as Denys's widow. She is allowed to determine where his body should be buried. Everyone delivers his or her condolences to her. Just before his death as well, when Denys and she discuss their impending separation, because she is leaving Africa, it is evident that they are more than casual friends. By Dinesen's subtle by telling use of language in erotic contexts, the relationship between the narrator and Finch-Hatton becomes clear even if it is never mentioned.

Suggested Essay Topics

The narrator describes that she is "good friends" with the natives on her farm. Do you think that this perspective is accurate or not?

The narrator delineates between several different native groups in the area. Select three of these groups and describe where they come from and what traits distinguish them from one another?

The narrator describes the death of Kitosch and the subsequent trial of the white settler whose beating may have caused his death. How do you feel about the results of the settler's trial? Do you think justice was carried out or not, based upon the evidence? What do you think Dinesen believes?

The narrator suggests that the native people of Africa, because they did not live through the act of modernization as the Europeans did, are living on a different plane of history? What do you think of this proposal? Does it seem correct or not?

The narrator frequently discusses the animals of Africa in detail. What is the importance of these animals in relation to the author's vision of Africa?

Discuss the way that the narrator changes throughout the story.

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