Out of Africa: A Story of Non-Attachment
I can recite nearly every line from the movie Out of Africa. The story of Karen Blixen, a wealthy aristocrat from Denmark who moved to Kenya to run a coffee plantation in 1913, captivated me as a teenager and still enthralls me today. The movie portrays a strong-willed woman (played by Meryl Streep) thrust into entirely unfamiliar circumstances after her marriage to an English Baron. In spite of many odds stacked against her — a philandering husband, loneliness, chauvinist attitudes among the colonial elites in Nairobi, tribal conflict with the Kikuyu, and the challenge of growing coffee at the plantation’s altitude — Karen’s tenacity never falters. She plays the hand she is dealt with bravery and pragmatism. I didn’t love the movie because of this character, though. And I suspect she didn’t write her autobiographical tale as a tribute to herself, either.
The story is actually about non-attachment, a Buddhist principle and core concept of Jesus’s teachings. While living in Kenya, Karen meets Dennis Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford), a hunter making his living in Africa. Dennis eschews conventional norms, choosing to live a simple life as a bachelor with few possessions. Because he is not bound by material things, he has the freedom to come and go as he pleases (while she remains stuck on her plantation, with her loneliness and her Limoges).
He repeatedly challenges her claims of ownership over people and things. In one scene, she tells him that she wants her Kikuyu to learn to read. He mocks her, "My Kikuyu. My Limoges. My farm. What is it, exactly, that's yours? We're not owners here. We're just passing through.”
Karen falls in love with his free spirit and non-conformity. But she cannot overcome her desire to possess. Eventually, she tries to claim Dennis; tame him; make him fall in line with convention. When she pleads that she needs him, he counters with “You confuse want with need. You always have. If I die, will you die? You don’t need me.” He refuses to compromise his lifestyle for her desire alone. “I don't want to live someone else's idea of how to live. Don't ask me to do that.”
It is not until Dennis is dead, rains destroy a pond she has struggled to keep dammed, her coffee plantation burns to the ground, and she is reduced to begging for resettlement of the Kikuyu people who originally inhabited “her” property that she finally realizes that she never really did own anything.
Do you have a different interpretation of Out of Africa? Have a character you love or loathe? Leave us a comment or tag us on social media to connect with a fellow Out of Africa fan!