Out of Africa
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Africa as a Pastoral Landscape
Isak Dinesen proposes that Africa is a pastoral landscape in which men exist in a truer form than they do in Europe. With modernization, industry, and cities, Africa exists as a land where everyone lives close to nature. Man's proximity and reliance on his surroundings place him in a position much as he was at the beginning of time. As a result Africans are able to remember truths that Europeans have since forgotten. Africa exists as a virtual paradise, much like the one where Adam and Eve once dwelt. Dinesen's philosophy emerges from the "pastoral school" consistent with many nineteenth century writers and painters, who believed that man exists in his most godlike form when he has a strong connection to nature.
Differences Between the Races
Dinesen believes that Africans and Europeans are fundamentally different. This difference emerges not because of biology, but because the European and African exist on different planes of history. Because of their different historical backgrounds, natives and Europeans possess fundamentally different characteristics. For example, the native mind functions in a different way than the European mind, because the European mind has lived through the Renaissance whereas the native mind has not. Dinesen does not say whether or not the European or native mind is preferable. Because of the essential difference between natives and Europeans though, Dinesen sees future trouble as they try to resolve their different relationships to modernity. Dinesen is not sure how the native Africans, who exist in a more pure human state, shall manage.
The narrator believes that an essential aristocracy exists in certain person, which means that they possess an innate sense of dignity and knowledge of how to act nobly. Aristocrats are not only Europeans. Many native Africans that the narrator knows share distinguishing aristocratic qualities. Having an aristocratic air allows one to connect deeply with other human beings, regardless of their culture and race. In the case of Denys Finch-Hatton and Berkeley Cole, for example, their aristocratic nature makes it easy for them to work closely with native men on safari. The essential refined humanity of these various men make their specific race and culture insignificant because they can interact with a mutual code of respect.
Dinesen's code of aristocracy excludes the middle class, many of whom are European settlers who have come to Africa. When Dinesen observes less than honorable behavior by white settlers, these settlers almost always belong to the bourgeoisie. Between the natives and the European aristocrats exists an essential connection, but with the middle classes troubles begin to arise since the middle classes do not understand the code of aristocracy.
God is a motif that appears frequently in Out of Africa. God primarily appears because he implicitly references the notion that Africa is an paradise- like landscape, which is one of Dinesen's primary themes. When the narrator flies in a plane, she compares looking down to looking with the eyes of God. When she realizes that her mule actually looks like a spoon, she notes that God, with his vantage point, certainly would notice this shape as well. When the narrator writes stories, she compares herself to God who was able to breathe life into Adam. The frequent references to God continue to highlight Dinesen's idea that Africa is a pastoral landscape that remains closer to the ideal as God actually intended.
Dying at Will
Isak Dinesen frequently references her belief that native humans and even native animals can choose to die if they want. This trend is seen among the Masai, who die within three months if put in prison, with the stubborn ox whose leg a lion ate off, and with Kitosch who willed himself to die. The narrator also hopes that the giraffes bound for Hamburg will die, so they shall not be trapped in a German menagerie.
Dinesen's belief that natives can will themselves to die relies upon her belief of their essential nobility, as well as their harmonious connection to their surroundings. The Masai, for example, die in prison because they cannot live without their glorious plains. In the same way, the stubborn ox resists having his spirit broken and prefers death. Dinesen believes that death is a more valid alternative to being oppressed. She sees the native ability to die as a way they can maintain their freedom, no matter how much Europeans want to control them.
Dinesen's praise of willful death is slightly romantic. One can also suggest that it fails to fairly value the importance of a native life. Nevertheless, the motif extends from Dinesen's idea that Africa is a pastoral landscape, where its animals and peoples live in harmony with their surroundings and therefore cannot be without them.
Dinesen frequently discusses storytelling, primarily with references to her favorite story 1,001 Nights or Arabian Nights, as it was recounted by Scherherzade. Dinesen describes that she likes to tell stories to keep her friends entertained. She shares stories with the Somali women. She recounts long oral tales to Denys Finch-Hatton, since he prefers hearing stories to reading them. Dinesen's continual references to her ideal of storytelling help to explain what she is trying to do in Out of Africa. Her ideal is perfectly shaped anecdotal stories that capture characters, colors, and textures and are meant to amuse. The motif of storytelling informs the author's intentions.
Lions are the most noble of the African animals. They rule the forest and are some of the most dangerous creatures to man. For Dinesen, these lions symbolize the aristocracy that is found in the African forests. Just as Dinesen believes that certain humans carry innately noble and aristocratic qualities, so too does she believe so of lions. When lions finally settle on Denys Finch-Hatton's grave, it is a perfect pairing because Finch-Hatton is an ideal human aristocrat and lions are his animal counterparts.
Additionally, the presence lions imply the sexual relationship between Denys Finch-Hatton and the narrator. For example, the scenes where they shoot lions together are highly sexually charged.
Old Knudsen symbolizes Dinesen's ideal of a storyteller. He is a mythic figure who has wandered around the world and comes at last to spend his final days on the farm. Old Knudsen's history is entirely defined by his own ability to describe what he has seen. His adventurous life and ability to spin tales make him into a wandering, heroic figure who has effectively turned himself into a myth. With his own life, he presents a character much like the ones that Dinesen longs to create.
Lulu is the young antelope that the narrator adopts into her household. Lulu symbolizes the connection of the farm to the landscape that surrounds it. Lulu has come out of the forest, yet is able to live at ease within the farmhouse. Her presence brings the secrets of the forest into the human realm. She signifies the farm's ability to exist in harmony with the animals of Africa. Even after Lulu obtains a mate and gathers a baby, she still frequently returns to the farm, in a move that demonstrates her continued connection to the people within it.
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