Out of Africa: A Self-Portrait of Karen Blixen

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Out of Africa, Karen Blixen's autobiographical novel, recounts the author's 17-year ownership of a Kenyan coffee-plantation. Through a series of detailed vignettes, Blixen offers a glimpse into her relationships with the Natives, the Somalis, and other Europeans such as Old Knudsen, Berkeley Cole, and Denys Finch-Hatton. Though this novel is considered autobiographical, Blixen frequently focuses on "supporting characters" rather than on her own feelings and thoughts. When she first describes Kamante in the novel, he is "the most pitiful object that you could set eyes on." (21) He has open sores on both his legs and "looked as if he could not have more than a few weeks to live." (22) Blixen describes his healing process in great length. Through her description of interactions with Kamante, Blixen portrays herself as a matriarchal, nurturing figure, while Kamante is forever an inferior creature who needs her care. The author reinforces her role as a warm and gentle "mother" by chronicling her experience with Lulu, a young bushbuck antelope whom she rescues from a group of young Kikuyus and raises as her own child.

Lastly, while her accounts of Kamante and Lulu show the author to be a caring, motherly woman, Blixen's retelling of her time with Denys Finch-Hatton exhibits her adventurous, fearless side; the pair frequently hunt together and fly together in Denys' plane. The Englishman, "beloved and admired" (206), is described as "an athlete, a musician, a lover of art and a fine sportsman. He would have cut a figure in any age." (208) After reading the novel thoroughly, readers can easily conclude that although Blixen rarely talks about herself in the novel, she still manages to paint a flattering image of herself through her portrayal of Kamante, Lulu and Denys.

Blixen likens Kamante to "a sick animal" (21) that she helps to bring back to the living world by curing him of severe leg sores. When Kamante first crosses her path, his eyes "were without glance, dim like the eyes of the dead." (22) He is lifeless and leads a "seclusive existence" (21) from the rest of the tribe. "Rarely [has Blixen] met such a wild creature, a human being who was so utterly isolated from the world." (24) Blixen portrays Kamante as a lonely, suffering little boy who has lost any desire to live. He has also lost faith in the people around him and does not count on them to care for him. She believes he "had no wish for any sort of contact with the world round him, the contacts that he had known of had been too cruel." (25) Blixen recalls that the first time she sees Kamante exhibit trust in anyone was the "first time that he ever looked at [her] and spoke of his own accord." (25) She had just applied a hot poultice that was too hot; Kamante said, "Msabu", and "gave [her] a great glance." (25) Blixen interprets this incident in the most optimistic light: "This was the first glimpse of an understanding between the wild child and myself. The stark sufferer, who expected nothing but suffering, did not expect it from me." (26) She implies that Kamante had grown to trust her more than anyone else, and never expected her to cause him any pain. Blixen even subtly hints that Kamante now views her as his own mother: after his return from the Scottish mission hospital, he visits his biological mother's hut for a short period of time to recount his "impressions of the strange people" (30) at the hospital; afterwards, however, "he came back to [Blixen's] house as if he took it for granted that now he belonged there. (30) After his recovery, Blixen now compares Kamante to a "lively foal" (28), emphasizing the degree to which she has aided him and nursed him back to health.

By describing Kamante's healing process, and his progress, Blixen indirectly praises herself as a gifted doctor and even describes herself as a deity of sorts. She comments on her "professional prestige" (24), her "renown as a doctor" (23), and describes herself as "highly capable." (24) Blixen also takes care to point out her resourcefulness when describing innovative self-developed remedies: "When at times I had run out of my store of medicine, I discovered through trial that honey was not a bad ointment for burns." (23) She even likens Kamante's attitude towards her as a healer to that of a devout Christian's towards God. "He [bears] the treatment of his sores with a stocisim that [she has] not know the like of." (24) "Pain is my element," he seems to say, as Prometheus said to his God. "Ay, do thy worst. Thou art omnipotent."" (25) Blixen looks "upon him with something of a creator's eyes" (30), even long after Kamante is completely healed of his wounds, as though she gave him life by treating him. By depicting Kamante as a wounded animal and chronicling her role in his remarkably complete recovery, Blixen subtly represents herself as a talented care-giver and nurturing 'mother' who goes to any length necessary to ensure her 'child' receives the best care possible.

Blixen also reveals through her portrayal of Kamante that she subconsciously considers Kamante and the other natives to be her child-like inferiors. Even after twelve years of working with him on the farm, she still sees Kamante as the little boy she cured: "He grew up now, but he always made the impression of being a dwarf, although you could not put your finger on the precise spot that made him look so." (30) She calls his culinary talents a "mysterious natural instinct" for a "Savage" (35) to have, as though he could not possibly "understand the real meaning of the art [of cooking]…could have no idea as to how a dish of ours ought to taste," (37) being only an "arrant Kikuyu." (37) Blixen again implies his ignorance when she relays the incident regarding the Odyssey. Kamante considers the Odyssey to be a good book solely because it is heavy and "hangs together from the one end to the other." (46) He has no knowledge of literature, being a "primitive person" (49), and believes literary quality depends on the length and binding of the book in question. Blixen also depicts Kamante as a child when she describes his ability to cry on command. "They were heavy, dumb tears…he wept as a little boy on the plain, with the sheep round him." (48) Blixen suggests herself to be Kamante's 'parent' when she describes this incident, as crying "crocodile's tears" (48) is something young children often do to get their way with parents. By illustrating Kamante as a naïve, ignorant, "simple" child, Blixen demonstrates to readers that, while she treats "her" Natives well and are genuinely fond of them, she subconsciously considers herself their "brass serpent" (102), or role model, and superior.

Blixen's description of her interludes with Lulu, a young female antelope, further reinforces her role as a tender, loving "mother." She first sees the young bushbuck on her drive into town. A group of Kikuyu children was holding up the fawn, trying to sell her to passing motorists. The tiny antelope was completely helpless and in need of care; her legs were so delicate that "[one] feared they would not bear being folded up and unfolded again, as she lay down and rose up." (64) She was clearly too young to eat on her own. Though Blixen does not give the antelope another thought as she drove by, since her mind is preoccupied with thoughts of an impending insurance settlement, she is "woken up by a great feeling of terror" (64) in the middle of the night. She is so concerned with the safety and well-being of the fawn that she "got up in a real panic and woke up all my houseboys." (64) Blixen goes so far as to demand that the fawn be found and brought to her house in the morning, or they would all be dismissed from her service. The author again reveals an affectionate, gentle side of herself when she calls Lulu her "child." (65) She sounds just like a doting mother when she describes Lulu as "extraordinarily neat in all her habits. She was headstrong already as a child." (65) She even raises Lulu on a sucking-bottle, like a human baby.

After Lulu has grown up and stands "in the flower of her young loveliness" (67), Blixen speaks of her with all the pride of a proud parent speaking of a favorite child.

Lulu is the "perfect lady who demurely gathers her skirts about her and will be in no one's way. She drank mil with a polite, pernickety mien; she insisted on being scratched behind the ears, in a pretty forbearing way…She was from her nose to her toes unbelievably beautiful." (67) When Lulu leaves the plantation and returns to the wild, Blixen perfectly captures the role of the distraught parent. "This was a hard blow to us all, and to myself in particular," she says. (68) "I thought of the leopards by the river constantly" (69) and fretted about Lulu's safety. The reader can clearly see that by recounting her experience with Lulu, Blixen demonstrates her warm, sentimental personality.

While Blixen contrasts herself with both Kamante and Lulu by illustrating a parent-child relationship, she strives to emphasize the similarities between her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton, and herself. Blixen consistently refers to Denys as being part of a past era. He is an "outcast…[he does] not belong to this century." (206) However, she means this in the most positive way. She likens him to the noblemen of the days of Queen Elizabeth. "He could have walked, arm in arm, there, with Sir Philip, or Francis Drake. And the people of Elizabeth's time might have held him dear…" (208) Blixen again implies Denys' lack of harmony with the current times by relaying his love for oral tales. He "lived much by the ear" (218) while most Europeans of the time "have been accustomed to take in their impressions by the eye." (218) Blixen takes care to show readers that Denys is a very complementary partner, "for [she] has always thought that [she] might have cut a figure at the time of the plague of Florence." (217) As a story-teller, she is also of a different time, a time before "the art of listening to a narrative [had] been lost in Europe." (217) They both feel utterly disconnected with European life and feel more at ease on the plantation than in a bustling city: "When the first steam engine was constructed, we parted roads with the rest of the world, and we have never found one another since." (208) Blixen also feels that she and Denys, as people conditioned to a life simpler than the technologically-infused one of the Industrial Age, share "a better understanding and sympathy with the coloured races than [people] of the Industrial Age, shall ever have." (208) Denys' harmonious relationship with the Natives and Somalis is often mentioned. Denys makes the effort to assimilate into the Native world, instead of forcing the Natives to adapt to European culture. "He could speak with [the Masai] with them of the old days in their own tongue." (211) The Native chiefs had such respect for him that they considered him a part of their own tribe: "Whenever [he] came to stay on the farm, the old chiefs came over the river to see him. They sat and discussed their troubles of the present time with him." (211) He carried the Bible with him on all his journeys, "which gained him the high esteem of the Mohammedans." (218) The "particular, instinctive attachment which all Natives of Africa felt towards Denys" (208) suggests he is understanding and sympathetic, nothing like the typical Imperialist of the time. With this statement, the author not only praises the couple's humanity but also covertly expresses disdain for Europe's influence in wild Africa. She mourns the "tractors heaving up and down where the glades had been," (75) driving the game and natives to reserves for refuge. Blixen feels the colonial impact on Africa is "loathsome" (211) and is the cause of death for the African nations: "European civilization…cut through their roots; now they were constantly running breathless to meet danger and death." (211) In addition to emphasizing their similarities and addressing her own discontent with European technological progress and its effect on Africa, Blixen's stories of her and Denys show her to be adventurous and fearless. She recounts a particularly dramatic adventure with lions. She and Denys set out at night to shoot two lions that had killed one of the plantation's bulls. "Come now," she jokes to Denys. "Let us go and risk our lives unnecessarily." (224) When she is close enough to shine her lantern on the lions, her "hand [shakes] so badly that the circle of light danced a dance." (225) This episode with Denys is only one example of Blixen's love for excitement and danger. Afterwards, she "reflects that [she] had not had enough out of life till now." (227) The author's recollection of her flights with Denys also portrays her desire to experience life to the fullest. She counts flying as the "greatest, most transporting pleasure of [her] life on the farm" because "it opens up a new world." (229) Her curiosity of the world shines through when she describes the lives of townspeople as "a sad hardship and slavery" (229) because they "know of one dimension of the world only," (229) having never flown before. Denys' invitations to fly sound to Blixen "like the propositions which people make to you only in a dream." (233) Her fascination with flight suggest she is independent, free-spirited and curious about the world around her.

Though Blixen's Out of Africa is considered an autobiographical novel, the author seldom gives direct commentary on her own thoughts and opinions. Instead, she relies on her descriptions of other "supporting characters" to offer insight into her own feelings. From Blixen's portrayal of Kamante as a perpetually small child, primitive and ignorant, the reader can deduce that the author sees herself as motherly, caring and tender. Her interaction with Lulu also displays Blixen's warm, gentle nature. On the other hand, her accounts of Denys Finch-Hatton highlight the author's own adventurous spirit and love for excitement. Blixen describes Denys as admirable, cavalier, and adventurous. He belongs to a past era; at the same time that she seems to put Denys on a pedestal, Blixen takes care to point out their strong similarities. While this novel may not seem like an autobiography on the surface, since Blixen gives very little explicit commentary about herself, an observant reader will glean a wealth of information about the author by analyzing her portrayal of other characters.