Beauty in ‘Babette’s Feast’

Stéphane Audran in Babette’s Feast (MGM)
All is not vanity, but gift.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE G abriel Axel’s superbly crafted 1987 film adaptation of “Babette’s Feast” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Food is one its central themes, but, like the short story it’s based on — credited to Isak Dinesen, the pen name of the Danish writer Karen Blixen — it’s about so much more than that.

Set in Berlevaag, Norway, in the 1870s, the story is about the dean of a small Lutheran sect and his two beautiful daughters, Martine (after Martin Luther) and Phillipa. Though they are not without warmth, theirs is a puritanical existence in which “members [renounce] the pleasures of this world, for the earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem to which they were longing.”

Living by their lights, the sisters pass on both married and artistic life, considering these “trivial matters.” Martine, age 18, attracts the attention of a young lieutenant, Lorens Loewenhielm, but her total detachment leaves him feeling worthless. Kissing her hand goodbye, he leaves his romantic ambitions for a life in the military. Later, Philipa, also age 18, attracts the attention of a visiting French opera singer, Achille Papin, who falls in love with her on account of her talent after hearing her sing at church. (Here I am reminded of Henry Lerolle’s 1885 painting The Organ Rehearsal, in which a young woman is pictured projecting her voice from the choir loft of Saint-Francois-Xavier in Paris). He, too, is thwarted. While reciting “La ci darem la mano,” the famous seduction duet from Mozart’s Don Giovani, Papin loses himself in the music and kisses Philipa. For that, she asks her father to stop the lessons and he returns alone to Paris.

In understanding the effect of rejection on the men, it is important to realize why they were rejected: In the sisters’ Lutheran community, beauty was not to be admired, nor art enjoyed. Years later, as a highly accomplished general, Loewenhielm concluded that “the world was not a moral, but a mystic concern,” resigning himself to the pronouncement that “vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” But Papin, a devout Roman Catholic, was frustrated for a different reason. “Such is the fate of the artist!” he lamented, to be punished for giving his all. He tells Philipa: “In paradise I shall hear your voice again. There you will sing, without fears or scruples as God meant you to sing. There you will be the great artist that God meant you to be.”

Enter Babette, a French Catholic fleeing war-stricken Paris, who, on a rainy night in 1871, with little but Papin’s endorsement to commend her, is taken in by the sisters. Babette’s presence in the household is threatening to the sisters, but they nevertheless treat her kindly. Papin mentioned she could cook delicious food, but they teach her, instead, to make bland meals according to their customs. When, 15 years later, Babette wins the French lottery, she decides to spend all her earnings on a feast to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the dean. The sisters reluctantly agree. But as they see the exotic ingredients and wines come in, they suspect Babette of leading them to something resembling a “witches’ sabbath.”

The entire story is riddled with biblical allusions, some more subtle than others. The feast is likened to that recounted in the Gospels. (“They were sitting down to a meal, well, so had people done at the wedding of Cana.”) More significant still is the reference to Babette as a “good and faithful servant,” recalling the parable of the talents, the message of which is that gifts are given by God so that they can be multiplied: Generosity is to beget generosity, life to beget life. Babette’s feast transforms not just how the townspeople speak to one another — though we do see their “tongues loosened” — but in how they view creation as a whole. As they leave, Blixen narrates:

The town and the mountains lay in white, unearthly splendor and the sky was bright with thousands of stars. In the street the snow was lying so deep that it had become difficult to walk. The guests from the yellow house wavered on their feet, staggered, sat down abruptly or fell forward on their knees and hands and were covered with snow, as if they had indeed had their sins washed as white as wool, and in this regained innocent attire were gambling like little lambs.

We are told how “time itself had merged into eternity,” how theirs was “the fulfillment of an ever-present hope” by which “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 millennium.”

It is a remarkable little story, as remarkable as the woman who wrote it. Born in 1885 near Copenhagen, Blixen came from a wealthy, literary family, but her life was replete with suffering. Her father killed himself. Her husband was unfaithful and gave her syphilis. She had terrible financial troubles. Multiple times, she miscarried children fathered by her lover Denys Finch Hatton, who was then killed in a plane crash in 1931.

Babette, left exhausted and poor to a mountain of dirty dishes, pronounces at the end of the story that she is “a great artist!” Artists, she explains to the sisters, “have something . . . of which other people know nothing.” The reward is in giving, in cooperating with grace. A tearful Philipa finally understands, remembering Papin’s words from years earlier: “In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be!” Papin had said that the prayer in every artist’s heart was merely “Give me leave to do my utmost!” By his lights, all was not vanity, but gift.

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