Babette’s Feast was first written in English as a short story. It was originally published in 1953 in the Ladies Home Journal. It was translated into Danish for radio performances and subsequently translated by the author Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) into Danish as part of a collection of five short stories entitled Anecdotes of Destiny which appeared in 1958.
In 1987 Gabriel Axel directed the film adaptation of the story which starred Stephanie Audran, Jean Phillipe Lafont and Gudmar Wivesson. In conjunction with Out of Africa (1985), directed by Sydney Pollack, and The Immortal Story (1968), directed by Orson Welles, these films achieved the widespread fame denied this outstandingly gifted literary artist in her lifetime.
Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Blixen-Finecke, was born in Rungsted, Denmark in 1885. Her family was well-to-do and aristocratic. From her army officer/writer father she inherited story-telling talent, charisma and an adventurous spirit. Though her early interest was art, which she studied in Copenhagen and Europe, her writing career was to span seventy-eight years. Her most famous work, Out of Africa, describes her life in Kenya where she managed a coffee plantation for seventeen years. In this compelling autobiography she displays the lyrical and poetic ability and the sensitiveness and perceptiveness towards people which are present in many of her works, including Babette’s Feast.
Blixen’s stories are generally set in Denmark, Norway or Italy. She drew inspiration from the Bible, the Arabian Nights, the works of Homer, the Icelandic sagas and the fairly tales of Hans Christian Anderson. A writer of the Romantic genre, her themes often included love and dreams, nature, the supernatural, and satire and fantasy. They were frequently set in the European aristocratic eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Babette’s Feast is regarded by some as an elaborate allegory relating to Christianity, by others as a many-layered work which rewards the viewer with new insights and delights at each repeated experience, and by others still as a fine, light-hearted comedy. Like many grand narratives, this is a deceptively simple story, exquisitely translated into a fine film. Having enjoyed the film version several times, my discussion will inevitably be illuminated by the visual experience.
In Babette’s Feast, the many symmetries and contrasts employed, not only serve to fine tune the comedy aspects, but are also powerful devices which heighten perceptions into the themes and human nature being presented. A ‘glance back’ at the mores and customs of the time – a historical perspective – is sharpened by their use. Major themes of the story are eternal and have preoccupied humans over generations: love and death, the immanent and the eternal, possession and relinquishment.
As we begin the analysis of the tale we are reminded of Isak Dinesen’s statement that she saw herself primarily as a story-teller, a fortaellerske, in the traditional oral sense of the word. This understanding illuminates the persuasiveness and dramatic tension of her narratives.
The story is set in a small village in Jutland on the west coast of Norway. It is an isolated and lonely part: the era is the late nineteenth century. The main characters are two now elderly Norwegian spinsters, Phillipa and Martine, daughters of a priest/prophet Protestant father who followed a strict puritanical rule. He had been loved and feared by the villagers and, since his death, the daughters had carried out father’ s traditions of selflessness, the single life and good works. A seemingly discordant note in this rather Spartan existence was the presence in the house of a French maid, Babette. (A major contrast of the story is that between the ethical life represented by the puritan North and the esthetic represented by the sensuous South).
Phillipa and Martine had been beautiful young girls, ‘flowering fruit trees’, who attended no balls or parties, only church. Here we have the presence of natural earthly beauty and the denial of its full expression. In father’s words, ‘earthly love and marriage are of scant worth and merely empty illusion’. The village is stark – all white and grey; the weather is wet and wild. It often snows. The villagers dress in simple, subdued clothing; their homes are spartan and functional and their lives are regulated by simple and familiar routines. They come together to attend meetings, hear a spiritual message and sing their familiar hymns in the Pastor’s house. His picture adorns the wall.
Symmetrical chapters describe two encounters from the ‘other’ world outside ( the esthetic sensual) in which the lives of Phillipa and Martine and two young men touch in a brief encounter. One is a soldier, Lorens, from a noble family, who is dazzled by the physical beauty of Martine and the unworldly purity of her life. The other is Achille Papin, director of the Paris Opera. He hears Phillipa sing and his vision soars – he has found a new ‘Diva’. Both men are seized by unimagined dreams of a life unknown in their everyday world; one in which they will be transformed. However, Lorens and Achille are constrained to relinquish these dreams – the former because of his felt unworthiness, the latter at father’s request with which Phillipa complies. As well as great contrasts the idea of transcendence, the third element, appears superimposed on the ethical and the sensual/esthetic. This mystical resolution recurs throughout the story. Both men are forever changed by their ‘brief encounters’ at the isolated village.
Many years later, Babette enters the story, introduced to the astonished sisters one stormy night by a letter from none other than Achille Papin. In desperate circumstances, widowed and caught up in Civil War in Paris, Babette has fled France. Her friend Achille has sent her to the sisters. His letter reveals that his memories of Phillipa’s goodness and grace are undimmed by time.
Babette becomes servant to the household and takes over the cooking being ‘tutored’, step-by-step, in the method of preparing ale-bread soup (an implied contrast to the imagined ‘wicked extravagances’ of French fare). Babette remains humble in servant hood but contrives by shrewd bargaining to reduce household costs and make profit for her employers. Here we see a strong parallel with the role of Christ as ‘suffering servant’ supporting the Christian interpretation of the allegory.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile dutiful and loyal ‘flock’ begin to quarrel among themselves, reinterpreting past relationship difficulties and grievances with new bitterness. The sisters, in contrast, remain ever constant in reminders to them of a ‘better way’, invoking the beloved pastor ‘s injunctions.
At this point, Blixen introduces the catalyst to the unfolding of events which will dramatically impact the villagers’ lives: the relatively innocent intrusion of the ‘otherness’ of the sensual world to which they are strangers. Babette wins the lottery! 10,000 francs! All three, Babette, Martine and Phillipa, are equally shocked but respond according to their true natures. Believing that Babette would now leave them, the sisters echo the biblical words: ‘The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.’ There is no hint of their sadness. Babette conceives a plan of extraordinary dimensions.
Aware that the sisters had been planning a small anniversary celebration in honour of the birthday of their father (‘no food, just tea and coffee’) Babette conceives a plan. She asks the sisters for permission to prepare and pay for a real French meal for the anniversary dinner. Perceiving the earnest genuineness of the request, the sisters cannot refuse. The exquisite comedy in this tale begins to unfold as the sisters uncomprehendingly but with mounting apprehension view the extent and detail of the preparations for the event, beginning with Babette’s trip to Paris to organise requirements and culminating in her return with a veritable boatload of boxes apparently to do with the meal. A beautiful contrast is presented between the masterful command of Babette over the unfolding enterprise and the decreasing command of the alarmed sisters. This is visually demonstrated in the film by the soldierly procession of locals under Babette’s orders, bearing ‘strange’ goods via wheelbarrows from the beach right into the kitchen.
In shock, Martine realises that the thing she is beholding in one of the crates is ‘a large and terrible tortoise’. She backs out of the kitchen, speechless. This is high comedy involving both the transposition of control and authority, identity confusion and the exchange of the familiar and predictable for all the horrors of the unknown. Babette has moved from servant to mistress in her domain of the kitchen which has become the centre of witchery.
Martine and Phillipa meet with the villagers to confess their guilt and sorrow over the terrible event about to happen which they liken to a ‘Satanic sabbath’. The villagers rally and the decision is reached that they will partake of the meal but that not a single comment in reference to what is before them will pass their lips. It will be ‘as if we never had any sense of taste’. Common danger has restored their previous unity. This fine piece of strategy reminds one of parallel historic instances of powerful passive protest: Gandhi and the tactic of fasting and African Americans in 1955 who protested against segregation on the buses by boycotts of the transport system. It seems that, when the direst of threats imposes itself even on the simplest of communities like the congregation in Jutland, the very simplicity is able to generate a creative response of sophistication and ingenuity. Again the counterpoint between the ‘natural’ meal and the ‘unnatural’ response.
The drama is heightened by Dinesen as she conflates the distant past with the present in the form of reintroducing Lorens, now an illustrious general, who has lived in France for many years and attained the highest success. His aunt, Mrs Loewenholm, who was a resident of the village during the Pastor’s time having received an invitation, has asked if her nephew could attend with her. As they arrive in their carriage, Lorens muses on the past. Though he has attained great worldly success, he wonders if he forsook the truth for the lie so long ago. He questions the real purpose of his life.
The snowy weather, representing the cold ideal of purity from which he had fled so long ago, contrasts with the ‘witchery’ being practised by Babette in the kitchen. The hymn with which the villagers (now seated), begins: ‘Take no thought for food or raiment’ apposite another hymn: ‘Woulds’t Thou give a stone, a reptile to Thy pleading child for food? ‘ seems to conjoin the sensual and the spiritual.
Blixen demonstrates her supremely skilful and effective use of symmetry and contrasts throughout the whole of this tale. The reflectiveness of Lorens, the calm agreement among the gathered diners contrast beautifully with the intense and focussed preparation of the meal by Babette who remains ‘hidden’ in the kitchen. Solely in command, focussed and sure, she has no questions to ponder; she works in silence.
The feast table is resplendent with silver candles, fancy serviettes and beautiful china; the general is also resplendent in uniform as he tastes the first wine to be served – the Amontillado! ‘the finest wine I have ever tasted!’ which is followed by real turtle soup and Blinis Demidoff. At the general’s astonished exclamation of ‘incredible!’ the other diners sit quietly eating and drinking with blank and disinterested expressions ‘as if they had been doing so every day for thirty years’.
A fine irony here is again demonstrated in the exchange of roles. The provincials’ conduct is that of consummate men of the world, while the worldly General gasps and splutters like a yokel. Blixen’s ability to provide more than one layer of interpretation at a time is signalled in the remark of one of the women in regard to the champagne which she wonderingly describes as a kind of lemonade. This is the true ‘otherworldliness’ masked by the appearance of sophistication. As the exotic food and drink are consumed, the company refers only to the state of the weather or remembrances of the goodness and wisdom of the pastor. Even for Lorens’ aunt, the bonds of community and spiritual loyalty are stronger than those of kinship. She replies to Lorens’ remark on the splendour of the meal that, ‘the storm has died down’.
In the entire tableau of the feast, the contrasts are sculpted with restrained artistry and absolute believability. The impact is heightened by the significance of the underlying themes: good and evil, the sacred and profane, the importance of loyalty, indomitable faith, simplicity versus profundity. The real storyline, however, turns on the question of ‘self’ and the life purpose.
As the effects of the uncommon celebration work their magic on the assemblage of common humanity sharing in the feast, these polarities begin to blur and the distance between seeming opposites fades. Bitterness is replaced by sweet exchanges, Phillipa sings as of yore with a pure voice and the company silently, peacefully, listen – feeling, remembering. Martine and Lorens gaze deeply and lovingly at each other, two who had agonised over a past illicit relationship kiss, other conflicts are touched and resolved.
The concluding highlights of the story are the speech of the General in which he expresses the words of the Pastor spoken so long ago, illuminated now for him. He says: ‘Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together, Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another’. The meaning of his words is that morality and pleasure, the ethical and the sensual, come together within the mystical experience. Babette’s communication to the sisters reveals that she was the famous chef of the Cafe Anglais – an artist who had longed for an opportunity to express her creative genius. She tells them that the dinner cost all of the ten thousand francs – that she is now poor and that the village and the people are her home.
Phillipa identifies with Babette, in the sense that she, too, is a great artist. She assures Babette that her food will one day delight the angels in heaven just as her own voice will ring out in eternity. Martine knows that she will forever ‘live’ in the heart of the General. At each meal she knows that he will dine with her in spirit. Thus is the resolution of this story beautifully crafted by Dinesen.
As a religious allegory it is rich as it parallels the solemn and memorable event of Christ’s Last Supper, through which, by his humility and renunciation, he ‘dies that we might live’, the story of the poor widow who gave her all and the subsequent value Jesus attached to her gift, and the general relationship between worldliness and godliness.
As a comedy it is rich, abounding in situations of opposites and parallels which provide exquisitely humorous cameos: champagne which ‘tastes just like lemonade’. As a many-layered work dealing with the issues of who we are and what our true destiny in life is, Karen Blixen displays her intense interest and deep understandings of this theme.
Babette’s Feast, video recording, release of 1988 picture, Orion Home Video, New York, 1988.
Books and Writers, Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen (online). available 20/3/02, http://www.Kirjasto, sci.fi/blixen, htm.
Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature, Virpi Zuck, Editor-in-chief, Niels Ingwerson and Harald S. Naess, Advisory editors, Greenwood Press, New York.
Karen Blixen’s Life (online), available 7/3/02, wysiwyg:1/7 http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Ithaca/9334/page 2 html.
Langbaum, R., The Gayety of Vision,: A Study of Isak Dinesen’s Art, Chatti and Windus, London, 1964.
Manneche, P., Denmark: A SocialLaboratory, Oxford University Press, Copenhagen, 1939.
Spotlight Reviews (online), available 7/3/02, Amazon.com:buying info: Babette’s Feast, wysiwyg:// 16/http://www.amazon.co…ef_pd_v_1/002-4686772-5178427.
>From a net friend:
A correction to Valerie O’Connell’s summary and discussion of Babette’s Feast on www.karenblixen.com/babette.htlm:
The story takes place in Denmark. The story is set in a small village in Jutland on the weat coast of Denmark – not on the west coast of Norway. The two spinsters were Danish – not Norwegian. It might not mean much to Americans to not distinguish between the three Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) – but it does to Scandinavians.
For more on Babette’s Feast visit http://www.karenblixen.com/babette.html
>From another netfriend (this is a popular article!):
There are two additional errors in Valerie Oconnell’s commentary. The soup they eat is TURTLE soup. A Turtle can swim in the sea., whereas a tortoise is a land based creature and does not swim. They are two different creatures.
Imminent is spelled with an i not an a.
And further, from another friend:
‘A comment to Valerie O’Connell’s article on Karen Blixen’s short story “Babette’s Feast”. The two “corrections” to her article having to do with the setting of the short story must have been written by people who haven’t read the story. Babette’s Feast is indeed set in Norway, as is stated in the first line of the story: “In Norway there is a fjord… named Berlevaag”. Jutland, however, is in Denmark, but is as far as I can see not mentioned anywhere in “Babette’s Feast”.’
From another friend: I would urge that you correct the information regarding Jutland being on the west coast of Norway.
Fact: Jutland is a peninsula, and is part of Denmark. The story takes place on the west coast of Denmark. Danish is spoken in the movie.