Study Guide

Out of Africa Hero's Journey

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Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Ordinary World

We get one, single, brief shot of the ordinary world, which in this case is Denmark. It's cold, and snowy and full of snooty people who go to hunting parties. Karen's a part of this world, but she doesn't really belong. She's not aristocracy, after all. The call to adventure is going to take her somewhere very, very different in her attempt to become what she thinks she wants to be.

Call to Adventure

If Bror is good for anything—besides making his general uselessness tolerable in vague and undefined ways—it's serving as the call to adventure. "Marry me, become a Baroness, and move to the wilds of Africa, where we'll run a dairy farm together." That sounds like a pretty keen adventure to us. While things don't turn out nearly the way our heroine thinks, it's not hard to spot where the call first arrives.

Refusal of The Call

You can say a lot of things about Karen, but she's not one to turn tail and run. She has opportunities to turn back: tell her husband he's a massive jerk for lying to her about the coffee plantation (or yeah, and sleeping with every woman he can get his mitts on). But no: she looks the problem in the eye, recognizes that it's really not her fault, and calmly and quietly goes about finding a solution. Refusal of the call? Not with this woman.

Meeting The Mentor

Here's another spot where the Hero's Journey diverges. Karen doesn't have a mentor, at least not in the traditional sense. She's a grown woman, after all, and she's seen enough of life to get a good idea of what it's all about. (The real-life Karen Blixen was almost thirty when the events of the film took place.)

Denys shows her a side of Africa she'd never seen before and she gets sound advice from a few other folks, but the details come from peers and equals, not some benevolent teacher there to show her the ropes. Denys' most important lesson: Karen doesn't really own anything—it's not "her" Africa or "her" Kikuyu.

Crossing The Threshold

The threshold arrives pretty early: one quick scene in Denmark and then we're off to Africa, where the threats including getting saddled with a coffee plantation and contracting a venereal disease from a philandering husband, as much as the danger from lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

The tests come fast and furious, whether it's facing down a lioness in the middle of the veldt, managing a difficult coffee plantation, maneuvering around a husband who she kind of likes but is an absolute cad, or opening a school for the African children.

Karen finds her share of allies to help her—Denys in particular, but other colonials as well—and while she can't chalk up ever obstacle as a win, she doesn't let the setbacks steer her away. Farah is her most constant ally. He's one of the few men in her life that doesn't abandon her.

Approach To The Inmost Cave

The inner cave in this movie is one of loss: loss of Karen's lovers (Denys, in particular), loss of the coffee plantation, loss of her money, and loss of all the fine things in her house. That's tough to face, but this girl has the steel to look it all in the eye and move forward.


The ordeal itself is long coming. Karen came to Africa with her husband hoping to become successful. It eventually takes everything from her, even the man whom she wants more than anything to be with. You could see the whole movie as a single ordeal, and it doesn't work out for her.

Reward (Seizing The Sword)

The reward is short and ultimately very painful, but it definitely holds meaning for Karen. She has to say goodbye to Denys, both because she's leaving Africa and because he refuses to love her the way she loves him. In the end, after all she's been through, he does give her a dance and a biplane ride that opens her eyes to the beauty of the world. It doesn't excuse his treatment of her (seriously, dude, what were you thinking?), but it does present her with a gift, of sorts, for all that she's been through.

The Road Back

Denys is killed in a plane crash, and after attending his funeral, Karen quite literally has nothing left for her in Africa. So she's heading back to Denmark, empty-handed… or is she?


Karen's ordeals haven't made her much money or advanced her standing in the world much, but she's experienced things that few other people have. With the wisdom she's gained on the savanna, she can move on to the next stage of her life. She'll become an author, able to put pen to paper and tell the stories of her life in a way that grabs anyone who reads it.

Return With The Elixir

Wisdom and insight can hurt, and there's no question that Karen pays for the things she learns. But her experience in Africa helps her become the person she was supposed to be. She learns that there's very little life can throw at her that she won't just take in stride and keep going.

Her adventures in Africa were painful, but they allowed her to express herself. After all, the wrote this awesome memoir called Out of Africa that eventually turned into an Oscar-winning film. High-five for you, Karen. We're not sure we could have gone through all that with quite as much grace and poise.

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