The Discovery of Meaning in "Babette's Feast"

Summary
Babette's Feast (1987) is popularly regarded as a "food movie." After seeing the movie for the first time, viewers flocked to restaurants around the country to experience first-hand the delicious feast they had watched being devoured on screen. Today, viewers will probably have to prepare their own feasts, but the recipes are still readily available. The film, however, is about a great deal more than the pleasures of eating. It is about the discovery of meaning.
 



The Discovery of Meaning in Babette's Feast

Wanda Avila, Ph.D.

Babette's Feast (1987) is popularly regarded as a "food movie." After seeing the movie for the first time, viewers flocked to restaurants around the country to experience first-hand the delicious feast they had watched being devoured on screen. Today, viewers will probably have to prepare their own feasts, but the recipes are still readily available. The film, however, is about a great deal more than the pleasures of eating. It is about the discovery of meaning.

The story is a simple one: In a village on the remote Jutland peninsula in late nineteenth-century Denmark, two maiden sisters, Martine and Philippa, preside over a small Lutheran pious sect that their father had founded as a young man. Although the minister has long been dead, a dwindling number of disciples continue to meet at his house to read and interpret the Word. Martine and Philippa now want to celebrate what would have been their long-deceased father's hundredth birthday at a simple supper for his remaining disciples. However, their servant, Babette Hersant, a refugee from the French Civil War, asks to prepare a real French dinner for the celebration, and to pay for it herself from the ten thousand francs she has recently won in a lottery. The sisters reluctantly agree, and Babette prepares a feast that brings about a transformation in the chef and feasters alike.

Writer-Director Axel based his film on Isak Dinesen's novella of the same name. However, he added many scenes that have no counterparts in the novella, such as the elaborate preparations for the feast, and the dance of the minister’s disciples around the well. These scenes, as well as Axel’s use of lighting, music, and color, make the film a work of art in its own right. Still, the novella helps the viewer participate more fully in the film by providing insight into the inner worlds of the characters. Axel can only hint at Babette’s past involvement with the French Revolution, for example, while the novella explains in detail the cataclysmic impact that this event had on her personally.

Most of the articles and reviews on the official website for Babette’s Feast tend to focus on the Christian symbolism in both the film and the novella. Many have used the story as the basis for a sermon on God’s ways, and some have even seen the story as taking sides in the theological debate between Catholics and Protestants. However, both Axel and Dinesen take pains to show that their story is concerned not with the God of any organized religion. Rather, it is concerned with what Rudolph Otto called the numinosum, the religious rapture and exaltation that is the innermost core of every religion and that is above and beyond any particular religion.

The first two scenes of the film reveal Axel’s intent to reveal the numinous through the everyday reality of nineteenth century Denmark. The first scene shows the sky, ocean, and land surrounding the Danish village in which the story will take place. As the camera moves slowly inland and downhill to the village, the expanse of the ocean becomes thinner and thinner until it almost disappears. This, Axel seems to say, will be a story about the day the sky touched the earth.

The second scene is a close-up of cod hanging outdoors on wooden racks. This image also functions at both the realistic and symbolic levels. On the one hand, the cod is a staple of the diet of the Danish poor. On the other hand, the fish is an archetypal symbol of the numinous. The fish is found throughout Christian art and literature as a symbol of the presence of Christ. But when the early Christians began to use the fish as a symbol, it was already a powerful religious symbol throughout the Roman Empire, being associated with the Great Mother Goddesses of the mystery religions.

The Divided Self

The participants in the feast, all of whom are in the second half of life, are beset by intense inner conflicts. Consciously or unconsciously, they are searching for meaning in their lives.

Babette finds herself adrift in early middle age. Fourteen years ago, she had fled Paris, having lost her husband in son and all that she possessed in the war of 1871, and had come to the home of Martine and Philippa, begging to serve them without pay. In Paris, she had been the head chef of the Café Anglais, where she was idolized by the French aristocracy, the very people whom Babette had later fought against. She has never regretted fighting against them in spite of the great personal cost. They were bad people, she says; they let the people of Paris starve and oppressed and wronged the poor. Still, in rejecting them, she feels as though she had rejected a part of herself because they had given her an identity. "Those people belonged to me, they were mine," she explains.(68)

In Paris, she had lived happily among family and friends. In this Danish village, she has lived for fourteen years with no intimate connections with anyone. Even though Martine and Philippa greatly value Babette’s services, she is just a servant to them and a rather untrustworthy one at that. When Babette had first come, the two sisters had trembled a little at the idea of receiving a Papist under their roof. Their feelings of distrust had often been rekindled through the years by finding Babette in the kitchen, lost in the study of a heavy black book, which they secretly suspected to be a popish prayer-book.(38) Just this morning, Martine, having seen the huge tortoise in the kitchen, along with the wine and the calf's head, had gone to the old brothers and sisters to ask them their forgiveness for inviting them to a dinner that she feared was going to be a witches’ sabbath.

Unlike Babette, who has lost everything, General Lorens Loewenhielm seems to have gained the whole world. He is at the peak of his career, he is in high favor with royalty, he has friends everywhere, his wife is a brilliant woman and still good-looking.(52) Still, he is not happy. He knows that something is wrong somewhere, "and he carefully felt his mental self all over, as one feels a finger over to determine the place of a deep-seated, invisible thorn."(51) Before coming to the dinner tonight, he had looked into the mirror, examined the row of decorations on his breast, and had sighed to himself: "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!"

As a young lieutenant, Lorens had come to this village to spend three months with his aunt in her old country house. Soon after arriving, he had seen Martine in the marketplace and had immediately fallen in love with her. She had seemed so beautiful to him that he had wondered if he had seen a Huldre, "a female mountain spirit who is so fair that the air round her shines and quivers." This apprehension had worried him because one of his remote ancestors had reportedly married a Huldre, and ever since then, from time to time, members of the family had been second-sighted (the last thing in the world this lieutenant of the hussars wanted to be). Before seeing Martine, "he had not been aware of any particular spiritual gift in his own nature. But at this one moment there rose before his eyes a sudden, mighty vision of a higher and purer life … with a gentle, golden-haired angel to guide and reward him."(26)

Lorens had then started attending meetings at the minister's house, just so he could see Martine. Many a time during the three months, he had sat mutely at the minister’s table, finding no inspiration in the minister’s sermons, feeling himself "grow smaller and more insignificant and contemptible" each time.(26) On his last day in the village, he had not declared his feelings to Martine but had declared instead that he would never see her again because he had learned "that in this world there are things which are impossible!"

Back in his garrison town, he had resolved to forget about Martine—along with the call to the spiritual life she represented—and to concentrate on his career. He consequently made unusually quick advancement; he was sent to France and to Russia, and he married a lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophia on his return. Yet, the face of Maritine continued to appear before him throughout his life, much to his consternation.

Now, for the first time in thirty-one years, General Lorens Loewenhielm has returned for a visit to his aunt, hoping to get a rest from his busy life at Court, and his aunt has asked to bring him to Babette's feast. Dressing for the feast this evening, the general had confronted his younger self, "I have found everything you dreamed of and satisfied your ambition," the general said. "But to what purpose? Tonight we two shall settle our score. You must prove to me that the choice I made was the right one."

Martine and Philippa also have doubts about the choices they have made in life. They have spent their lives trying to live by their father's austere faith, renouncing the pleasures of the world and spending what little income they had on filling the soup-pails and baskets of the poor. Now in their sixties, they fear that their lives have been lived in vain. They see her father's flock dwindling and see how quarrelsome they are becoming, and they worry that "their ever-faithful father will look down to his daughters and call them by name as unjust stewards."(40)

Neither sister ever married because the minister had taught that earthly love, and marriage with it, are trivial matters, in themselves nothing but illusions. Yet, each carries memories of a man with whom they might have enjoyed a far different life. For Martine, the man was the young Lorens. For Philippa, the man was Achille Papin, the opera singer, who had given her singing lessons, convinced that she would be a great diva. But Philippa had rejected Papin’s offer of love and fulfillment as an artist, in service to what her father had taught her was the higher ideal of heavenly love.

The minister’s remaining disciples, who were adults when Martine and Philippa were little girls, are tormented by remorse and anger. As death approaches, they suffer "piercing repentance like a toothache" for the sins they committed in the distant past, fearing the judgment of a righteous God. And though they continue to call each other brother and sister, they recall the sins of others against them with bitter resentment, "like a poisoning of the blood."(39) The minister’s disciples cannot find in their religion, the traditional means of healing the psyche, the means of healing the split within themselves or within their community. Their religion has become merely a matter of dogma and ritual, not a personal experience of the numinous.

The Sacrifice

Early in the morning of the day of the feast, Babette begins slaughtering, disemboweling, dismembering, skinning, plucking, and slicing. In the background, a fire crackles furiously. A monstrous tortoise breathes eerily while moving its head slowly from side to side. A flayed calf’s head, ghastly white, lies in a bowl, like a corpse laid out in a casket. A barrow full of bloody innards and flesh, feathers, shells, hide, skin, heads, and feet is wheeled away. The feathered quail, to which Babette had crooned affectionately "Ma petite caille" when carrying them in their cage from the boat, now lie limp and naked in a bowl. The viewer watches Babette, wielding a sword-like knife, ruthlessly decapitate one of the little bodies and slit its back, spoon stuffing onto the flattened carcass, gently fit the little body into its "coffin" of pastry, and delicately insert the severed head. These preparations evoke the horrific animal and human sacrifices of the Old Testament or those of the followers of Dionysus.

The sacrifice, as C.G. Jung explains, is one of the rituals by which the ego is subordinated to the self. Babette’s preparations for the feast are symbolic of her inner sacrifice, which has all the characteristics of a true sacrifice. First, she experiences her sacrifice as a great personal loss. She gives up all that she has—the entire ten thousand francs she won in the lottery—to have the best wines and foods brought from France for this one dinner. Thus, she surrenders any possibility of returning to Paris and condemns herself to living as a foreigner for the rest of her life.

Further, Babette makes her sacrifice deliberately: After cashing the lottery check, the camera shows Babette sitting in her room in deep thought. The camera then follows her as she goes to stand on the seashore, looking out on the deep, as if looking for guidance. After some moments of watching a lonely sea gull, she turns on her heel and decisively walks to the house and asks permission to prepare a real French dinner and to pay for it herself.

Finally, she makes her sacrifice with no expectation of any return. She does not make the sacrifice to purchase the goodwill of the sisters or of those who will consume the feast. Indeed, she makes her decision believing that the consumers of her feast will have no idea what they are eating. When Philippa gently chides Babette for giving away all that she has for the sisters’ sake, Babette answers: "For your sake? No for my own."

Communion

As the feast begins, the viewer watches looks of incredulous pleasure pass over the faces of the feasters as they sip each new wine and taste each new dish. The disciples say nothing because they have agreed to be silent upon all matters of food and drink at the dinner. (Should even frogs or snails be set before them, they have vowed not to say a word.) But the general utters exclamation after exclamation: "Amazing…an amontillado! And the finest amontillado I have ever tasted! ... This is quite definitely real turtle soup! … And what a turtle soup! … But that’s ‘Blinis Demidoff!… And this most certainly is Veuve Cliquot 1860!"

When he is served "Cailles en Sarcophage!" his amazement knows no bounds. He tells the feasters that once he had eaten Cailles en Sarcophage at the finest café of Paris, the Café Anglais, where the chef was surprisingly enough a woman. His host had explained that this chef could turn a dinner into a kind of love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite. (This statement makes one female disciple look decidedly uncomfortable.) "She was considered THE greatest culinary genius," concludes the general, adding momentously, "What we are now eating is nothing less than ‘Cailles en Sarcophage.’"

When the general is served grapes, peaches, and fresh figs in the middle of December here in this remote corner of Denmark, he feels himself impelled to stand and to articulate his epiphany of the meaning of life. To the minister’s disciples, who look up at him with shining faces, as they had once looked at the minister, the general proclaims: "Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another." The general then elaborates on his central insight that we need not tremble at the risk we take when we make choices in life because "our choice is of no importance…. Everything we have chosen has been granted to us, and everything have rejected has also been granted."

Although the general quotes the lines from Psalm 85 that were also favorites of the minister, Dinesen indicates through capitalization the different meanings the minister and the general attach to these words. Dinesen capitalizes mercy, truth, righteousness, and bliss, when the minister uses them, to place them in the context of his pietist religious beliefs. However, she does not capitalize them when the general uses them, to place them in the context of a personal contact with the numinous, above and beyond any particular religious dogma. Compare, for example, the following quotes from Dinesen’s novella:

"Mercy and Truth, dear brethren, have met together," said the Dean. "Righteousness and Bliss have kissed one another."(26)

The general: "For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!"(60-61)

Listening to the general’s rhapsodic speech, the minister’s disciples also experience epiphanies. They realize that the infinite grace of which he spoke had also been allotted to them. "The vain illusions of this earth had dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is. They had been given one hour of the millenium."(62) Axel dramatizes their epiphanies by having them join hands and sing while circling a well, thus forming a living mandala.

These epiphanies—as well as that of Babette, which happens off stage, so to speak—indicate that a contact between the ego and the self has been made, signaling the integration of their psyches. The perfection of the feast seems to have triggered the epiphanies. However, the participants had already made themselves psychologically ready to receive such epiphanies by performing various rituals: Babette had made sacrifices, the general had consciously reflected on the meaning of his life, and the disciples had come to terms with their shadows by confessing and repenting of their sins.

Transformation

As a result of their epiphanies, all the characters experience a profound inner change. They discover, each in his or her own way, that life has meaning, that it is worthwhile, and that it is beautiful. 

Babette is no longer adrift in life. In sacrificing her ego as represented by the ten thousand francs, she has gained her self. Through the feast she has made manifest who she is: "I am a great artist," she announces proudly to Philippa at the end of the evening. She has won her independence of the princes and great people of Paris whose praise had formerly given her identity as an artist. Further, she has fought free of the identity that the Danish villagers have tried to impose upon her—"the dark Martha in the house of their two fair Marys."(37) She has moved more closely to her uniqueness.

General Loewenhielm has been integrated with Lieutenant Loewenhielm. He is at last able to declare his love for Martine and to consciously accept his spiritual nature, which has been mediated to him through his love of Martine. He tells Martine that henceforward he will sit down to dine with her every evening "if not in the flesh, which means nothing, in spirit, which is all…. For tonight I have learned, dear sister, that in this world anything is possible." This speech indicates that the general no longer fears being second-sighted but accepts his role as a mediator of the numinous experience.

The divisions within the old brothers and sisters themselves and within the group have been healed. As a result of their epiphanies, they are finally able to forgive themselves and each other for past sins. Two women who had not spoken with each other for many years now touch foreheads affectionately, saying "God bless you, dear Solveig" and "God bless you, too, dear Anna." And one man calls across the room to an old friend from whom he had become estranged, "God bless you, Christopher." A widow who, years ago, had been unfaithful to her husband and who thereafter had blamed her former lover for leading her into sin, now takes her former lover’s face in her hands and gives him a long, loving kiss on the lips.

Martine and Philippa have received confirmation of the value of their stewardship. Hearing the old brothers and sisters recall their father’s words and seeing the disciples express love for one another, they have been reassured that the minister is still a force in their lives. Further, Martine has been reunited spiritually with Lorens and Philippa with Papin.

Viewers, too, can receive an affirmation of meaning through their participation in this film. One can even speculate that it was actually a desire to experience this affirmation more directly—not just a desire to experience great food—that prompted viewers to try to recreate a Babette’s feast in the real world when the film was being shown in theatres. Whether these feasts ever triggered an actual epiphany has never been reported. Perhaps all depended on the psychological readiness of the feasters.

References

Dinesen, Isak. Babette's Feast, in Anecdotes of Destiny (New York: Random House, 1958), pp. 23-68. Page references to this work are given in the text in parentheses.

Jung, C.G. (1958) "Transformation Symbolism in the Mass," in Psychology and Religion: West and East, trans. R.F.C. Hull. Collected Works, Vol. 11. New York: Bollinger Foundation Inc.

Official website for Babette’s Feast: http://www.karenblixen.com/babette.html. Viewed 9/28/05.

Otto, Rudolf. (1958) The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Second ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

© 2005 –Wanda Avila. All rights reserved.

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