Karen Blixen was born in 1885 to Wilhelm Dinesen and Ingeborg Westenholz. Her father was a writer and an army officer. Her siblings included two sisters and a brother who was called Thomas Dinesen and was a famous hunter. Her father had come from an aristocratic family while her mother hailed from a well to do family. Her early childhood was spent in her mother’s expansive estate in Rungsted Denmark.
She later attended art schools in Copenhagen, Paris and Rome. In 1913 she got engaged to Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen- Fenekie her second cousin and they got married within the same year. Later the following year (1914), the married couple relocated to Kenya in East Africa. Blixen had agreed with the Baron that they were going to establish a dairy farm in Kenya but her husband convinced her to shift from the original idea and establish a coffee plantation instead.
Due to her husband’s infidelity, she was diagnosed with syphilis by the end of their first year into the marriage. Sadly, Denys passed on in 1931 as result of a plane crash. The coffee plantation was not doing so well due to soil incompatibility, this coupled with the world wide economic depression during that time forced Blixen to abandon the farm. Her family sold the farm and Blixen went back to Denmark where she was to live until her demise in 1962.
Her publishing career commenced in 1905 when she started writing fiction in Danish periodicals. However, Blixen did not publish under her real name, rather she chose to do it under the pseudonym Osceola. It was much later after she returned from Kenya that her budding career in writing really took root.
Her first work was a book which was called Seven Gothic Tales. Her second and arguably the best known of her works was the book ‘Out of Africa’ that was published in 1937. It lead to her being awarded the Tegea Brandt Rejselegat in 1939 an award bequeathed to women in Denmark who produce exemplary works in arts or academics
Out of Africa has been written under the pseudonym Isak Denesen. It is basically about the story of a young Danish woman from a rich family who immigrates to Kenya in East Africa in 1913 with her husband. It is a remarkable review of the untamed Africa of the 1930s. This book allows for scrutiny of the various aspects of life that confronts the various players at that particular time; the white colonial settlers and the natives.
Throughout the book, Blixen’s work has been able to capture a combination of character traits that definitely defines who she really was and what she stood for. Indeed the human being is a conservative being, thus it must have involved a lot of soul searching on Blixen’s mind to leave all the comforts that both life in ‘civilised’ Europe and her family wealth could afford her to migrate to a continent that very few knew about by then.
How she has been able to face the numerous challenges in Africa and even her ability to narrate her story graciously indeed can be attributed to strong character traits. This paper will attempt to highlight these character traits and try to define how they might have contributed to her survival and success later on as a writer.
Karen Blixen’s reputation both as model settler and writer can be attributed to strong character traits among them her sense of independence.
KarenBlixen indeed is a depiction of independence throughout her narrative. She exudes this trait the very instant she decides to leave the comforts of her family wealth and generally life in Denmark to embark on a journey of uncertainties in East Africa. The worth of self-determination is incomplete without an acknowledgement of one’s surroundings.
For one to attain full independence, there is need to get acquainted with even the minor things. The narrator seems to have achieved this will relative ease. Her passion and appreciation for the flora and fauna in Kenya is a testimony to this. Her independence is also depicted in her ability to detach herself and be one with nature an expression which was best captured in her writing.
For example she describes the movement of giraffes as being “queer, inimitable and full of vegetative grace and compared this to a family of rare, long-stemmed speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing”(Blixen, p.105). Her writing skills and ability to encompass simple and observable reality into a conceivable fictional expression was a true demonstration of independence.
Her life throughout in her coffee plantation has been depicted as a true expression of freedom. How she interacts closely with the natives who hold her in high regard as a mentor, friend, confidante and even sometimes as a pacifier enables her to exercise her freedom with a touch of responsibility. However, the narrator’s success and appeal as both a settler and a writer cannot be solely attributed to this trait alone. She possesses some other traits which are discussed as follows;
Karen Blixen throughout her book has depicted a character that is absolutely of resolute nature. Her decision to move from Europe to face possible uncertainties and new challenges in a continent that was largely and untamed is an ideal confirmation of this. After contracting syphilis due to her husband’s infidelity, Blixen is able to form a firm decision to separate and finally divorce him. This shows that she possesses a decisive character trait.
This trait is also clearly illustrated by her decision to abandon her coffee plantation when she realized that it was not profitable and that there was a looming war plus a worldwide economic depression. Perhaps the only instance where the narrator fails to exhibit this character trait is when she resigns to her husband’s idea to have a coffee plantation instead of establishing a dairy farm which was their original plan when they left Denmark for Kenya.
“People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness, which the world of the day knows not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom…” ( Blixen,42.)
Readers of Out of Africa are left with the feeling that this story is a nostalgic reflection of Blixen’s life as a settler in Kenya. Her depiction of life in Kenya at her coffee plantation, her challenges and the relationships she has forged with the natives evokes a sense of longing in her tone.
The book nominates Africa as being superior to Europe since it is still largely in its untamed and pure form devoid of pollution that is usually associated with modernization. This indeed depicts a nostalgic character trait since it fails to appreciate the advantages that modernization avails.
So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn. In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, . . . you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as it has begun. Your mind runs, transported, upon a fresh green track.” 86
Above is a paragraph that helps to illuminate the mentioned character trait.
Though various critics have expressed their displeasure in the way that Blixen has referred to native Africans in some instances, her sense of perception is notably evident particularly in her ability to acknowledge the glaring differences between European and African culture. She exhibits a great deal of enthusiasm in detailing the various things that she had learned from “her” Africans. For instance it does not take her long before she has learned from the Africans to identify the signs that announce the arrival of rains, drought etc.
She observes that she had become so adept at such that she is able to be the first person to spot the new moon in the farm (Blixen, p.28). Her perception is also depicted by her knack to abandon her farm in good time before it finally collapses and before the looming war finally breaks out. Thus, through her perception she is able to make the right decision of leaving for Denmark regardless of her love for Kenya and the sudden loss of her lover.
She had to the highest degree, the feminine trait of appearing to be exclusively on the defensive, concentrated on guarding the integrity of her being, when she was really, with every force in her, bent upon the offensive.” Or here she on competitiveness in men: “Men, I think, cannot easily or harmoniously envy or triumph over one another.” 123
The narrator shows clearly that she is totally involved with the natives who live and work in her coffee plantation. Her concern for the natives’ welfare is also depicted by her dispensing medical care for them at her farm. This trait contributes a lot in creating a rapport between the narrator and the natives which consequently creates an ease in which she is able to quickly and comfortably adapt to life in Kenya among the natives.
For example the story of Kamande who comes to seek for medical help with sores in his legs. Blixen is unable to treat him which results to her referring him to a missionary hospital that is being run by Scottish Protestants. Kamande comes back fully cured and as a Christian, he works at the farm as a cook which he further perfects when he is sent to Nairobi (Capital city of Kenya) for further training (Blixen, p.98). This final act before leaving Africa is a pure depiction of concern. This trait has been clearly illustrated by the following excerpt;
“When I heard this I became very sad, but I thought that now I would indeed have to take him with me so that the Virgin herself could enlighten him. The Fathers had a life-size pasteboard statue of the Virgin in their Church, all blue and white, and the Natives are generally impressed by statues, while it is difficult to them to conceive the idea of a picture.
So I promised Kamante my protection and took him with me, and when he walked into the Church, very close at my heels, he forgot all his scruples. It happened to be the finest Christmas Mass that they had ever had at the Mission.
There was in the Church a very big Nativity,—a grotto with the Holy Family, just out from Paris, which was illuminated by radiant stars in a blue sky, and it had round it a hundred toy animals, wooden cows and pure white cotton-wool lambs, without any petty consideration as to their size, that must have raised ecstasy in the hearts of the Kikuyus” (Blixenp.102)
The narrator has many guests gracing her coffee plantation. The guests list comprises of various Europeans who live around Nairobi and natives who usually come to participate in numerous native dances or Ngomas that are regularly held in the narrator’s coffee plantation.
Among the Europeans who visit the coffee farm is Knudsen an old man from Denmark who spends his last days as a guest in the farm. There is also an Indian high priest who is a frequent visitor. Denys Finch-Hatton who is the narrators’ great companion and lover sets base at the farm whenever he has not gone on his safari expeditions. This trait is well captured in the following paragraph.
I had an Evening School for the people of the farm, with a Native schoolmaster to teach them. I got my schoolmasters from one of the Missions, and in my time I have had all three,—Roman Catholic, Church of England, and Church of Scotland schoolmasters. For the Native education of the country is run rigorously on religious lines; so far as I know, there are no other books translated into Swaheli than the Bible and the hymn-books.
I myself, during all my time in Africa, was planning to translate Aesop’s fables, for the benefit of the Natives, but I never found time to carry my plan through. Still, such as it was, my school was to me a favorite place on the farm, the centre of our spiritual life, and I spent my pleasant evening hours in the long old storehouse of corrugated iron in which it was kept”.48
The narrator is a fearless woman. This has been clearly exemplified first by her decision to migrate to Africa even at a time when very little is known about the continent. Seeing the loads of negative images from Africa about civil/tribal wars, HIV Aids, famine, drought etc flooding most of news channels in the Western world today, it is unfathomable that a young aristocratic woman from Europe could have opted to go to Africa in 1913 leave alone today with all the hype in technological advancement.
This depicts a fearless character. She was also able to conquer her fear of the unknown when she decided to live in her coffee plantation with the natives whose culture and way of life was unknown to her. This is another exemplification of her fearlessness. It is also depicted when even after separating from her husband she forges ahead with life in Kenya and has no intention of going back to Denmark.
During her narrative, Karen Blixen has shed light into some details of her private life which are a true indication of her bravado. For instance her admission to her husband’s infidelity, her contracting syphilis and love affair with Danys have clearly illustrated that indeed the narrator is fearless. The following paragraph help to illustrate the narrator’s fearless character.
The ideas of justice of Europe and Africa are not the same and those of the one world are unbearable to the other. To the African there is but one way of counterbalancing the catastrophes of existence, it shall be done by replacement: he does not look for the motive of an action. Whether you lie in wait for your enemy and cut his throat in the dark; or you fell a tree, and a thoughtless stranger passes by and is killed: so far as punishment goes, to the Native mind, it is the same thing.
A loss has been brought upon the community and must be made up for, somewhere, by somebody. The Native will not give time or thought to the weighing up of guilt or desert: either he fears that this may lead him too far, or he reasons that such things are no concern of his. But he will devote himself, in endless speculations, to the method by which crime or disaster shall be weighed up in sheep and goats, – time does not count to him; he leads you solemnly into a sacred maze of sophistry(Blixen.96)
Inasmuch as a lot has been discussed about Karen Blixen both as depicted by her character in out of Africa and as a renowned writer, her works will continue to entertain and educate a lot of people in future. Her ability to bring out “the mask” the persona in her characterization who is able to reveal her true personality albeit indirectly is just superb. She exhibits a congruent of character traits which enhance her reputation as a model settler and reputed writer.
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Blixen. K. ( 1937). Out of Africa. Denmark: Den afrikanske farm. (1st Ed.).
Cooper. B. (2009). Out of Africa: The movie and the life Trivia. Retrieved on 5th July from http://www.karenblixen.com/
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Mark. A. (2009). A review of Out of Africa. Retrieved on 5th July from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/blixen.htm