Several months ago, Babette’s Feast received a Criterion release accompanied by a fat little book of essays about the film, as well as the Isak Denisen short story upon which the film was based. In the last several years, I have seen the film five times and loved it so much I named a daughter after the heroine, although, until several weeks ago, I had not ventured through the text.
The film is unfailingly fair to the story, but until you’ve read the story, the film is merely a gorgeous hibernating animal. You read the story, though, and the bear will dance.
Here’s the bad interpretation of the film I stood by for years: a small Gnostic Christian cult despises pleasure and nature and creation, but when a glorious and mysterious stranger appears in their midst and prepares a love feast for them, they experience how delicious food can be, and are delivered of their Gnostic stuffiness into a robust, colorful, lusty appreciation of creation.
Such an interpretation begins to melt away as you begin Denisen’s story, though.
The two daughters at the center of Babette’s Feast are Martine and Philippa, named after Martin Luther and Philip Melanchton. Their father, who is simply “the Dean” in Denisen’s story, considers himself a Lutheran, although he lives in the small village of Berlevaag in Norway where he is a beloved minister who accepts a mild, but pious cult from his parishioners. The Brotherhood, as they are called, eat and sing together in his kitchen and gather “together to read and interpret the Word.” The Dean read the works of French Lutheran writer Lefèvre d’Etaples in his youth, and after the Dean’s death, his daughters think the “example of a good Lutheran life would be the best means of converting” the papist who comes to live with them. Exactly how Lutheran is the Brotherhood, though?
Our suspicions ought to be aroused early, as the first paragraph of Denisen’s story suggests members of the Brotherhood “renounced the pleasures of this world, for the earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion,” and this sounds like exactly zero Lutherans I know. When Bach couldn’t get work from Calvinists, he knew where to turn. While all the world loves a drink, Germany is by no means the least of these. When Babette the chef arrives in Norway, seeking refuge from a civil war torn France, Martine and Philippa accept her but quickly decide, “The idea of French luxury and extravagance next had alarmed and dismayed the Dean’s daughters. The first day after Babette had entered their service they took her before them and explained to her that they were poor and that to them luxurious fare was sinful. Their own food must be as plain as possible; it was the soup-pails and baskets for their poor that signified.” When the titular meal is about to be served, the sisters don their “old black best frocks and their confirmation gold crosses.” Forgive me, but when I think of a pious Lutheran woman from the nineteenth century, the image of the St. Pauli girl comes more readily to mind. Old black frocks? What about Cupid and Eros? Martine and Philippa remain unmarried into their late 30s because the Dean taught “earthly love, and marriage with it, were trivial matters…”As for the Clos Vougeot 1846 Babette serves the sisters, well, they “had never suspected that wines could have names to them…”
So, yes, Lutherans my left foot, although Denisen is in on the game. They’re not Lutherans, and they’re not Gnostics. The Dean is an abbot, and they are all monks. Simple food, simple black dress, charity work, eyes fixed on the heavens and not the ephemeral, passing world. What does this mean for the Feast they are served?
In her youth, Martine was briefly courted by Lieutenant Lorens Loewenhielm, a rakish young military man who had racked up debts and (probably) broken hearts around Europe, but came near Berlevaag to rehabilitate and regroup under the watchful eye of his mother, a wealthy devotee of the Dean. When Loewenhielm sees Martine about the village, has “a sudden, mighty vision of a higher and purer life, with no creditors, dunning letters or parental lectures, with no secret, unpleasant pangs of conscience and with a gentle, golden-haired angel to guide and reward him.” Martine and Lorens briefly court, and Lorens acquires a fine sense of what life in the Brotherhood should hold for him were he to marry, but in the end, he loses his nerve and runs away to marry a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sophia. While he is attracted to the life of virtue suggested in Martine’s innocence, the prospect of wearing such mean clothes, living at such a distance from the theater and eating tasteless haddock for dinner every night is too much. He wants to commit his life to the monks, but the allure of the city pulls him away.
So he cuts “a brilliant figure in a brilliant world,” marries up, dresses well and hobnobs with the kind of people who can afford to buy him a thousand dollar dinner at the Café Anglais.
Babette the poor chef wins the lottery after living with Martine and Philippa for many years and asks if she might honor the Dean, whom she never met, by hosting a dinner his daughters planned to posthumously celebrate his one hundreth birthday. The sisters don’t entirely understand what they have agreed to, but become worried in the coming months that the papist Babette is preparing some kind of “witches’ Sabbath” for them to eat, a sumptuous meal that would do their father no honor. However, longsuffering Puritans all, the Brotherhood meet secretly and agree that, when served the celebratory meal, they will “be silent upon all matters of food and drink. Nothing that might be set before them, be it even frogs or snails, should wring a word from their lips.”
On the eve of the meal, Babette receives news that General Loewenhielm is near Berlevaag to see his mother, and that he will be coming to dinner. We find Loewenhielm pacing his mother’s house, speaking to an enigma of his younger self, wondering if he made the wise choice to flee the Brotherhood all those years before. “Vanity of vanities,” he says, looking at his breast of medals in the mirror shortly before departing for Martine’s. His life has been spent acquiring fame, power and wealth, and neither has he been mean of spirit; rather, “he would find himself worrying about his immortal soul. Did he have any reason for doing so? He was a moral person, loyal to his king, his wife and his friends, an example to everybody. But there were moments when it seemed to him that the world was not a moral, but a mystic, concern.”
When returning to Martine and Philippa’s house for the first time in thirty-one years, Loewenhielm seems unsure of what he left behind. What the reader has seen and knows is not necessarily what Loewenhielm remembers. That we remember what it was like 31 years back doesn’t mean the General remembers; in fact, the General has become hazy of the details. On the carriage ride to Berlevaag, Loewenhielm hopes he will find a scene which confirms to him that he made the right decision. The dismal food, dismal clothes. The ascetic life is a drag, and three decades of unsalted food and water will have taken their toll on Martine; she will look no less sad than the things she has consumed.
When the general takes his seat at the table, though, and the terrified Brothers and Sisters silently begin drinking their amontillado and eating their turtle soup, Louwenhielm is sublimated, joyous, terrified, confronted by the whirlwind. The food is… unreal, sumptuous, divine, lovely. The old monks worldlessly eat the food as though they’re accustomed to it all. What dried haddock? Was there ever any dried haddock, or had Louwenhielm’s crinkled heart only made it so? Did they always eat this good? The ascetic food of the monks is transformed into a royal feast in the imagination of Louwenhielm. When they ate the haddock, they were eating the turtle soup, the blinis demidoff, the Cailles en Sarcophage… When they drank well water, they truly drank the finest champagne in the world.
The homily the General preaches at the conclusion of the meal obliquely looks forward to the Beatific Vision.
“Man, my friends… is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble . . . We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
The Beatific Vision is the unmediated experience of God, and theologians have often been at a loss to describe it precisely or even make proper apology for its possibility. In Book XXII of the City of God, Augustine goes back and forth on whether created, fleshly eyes will see uncreated God. In the final lines of the final canto of the Comedy, Dante makes a point of the ultimate indescribable quality of the Vision. “Thus my mind, all rapt, was gazing, fixed still and intent, and ever enkindled with gazing. At that light one becomes such that it is impossible for him ever to consent that he should turn from it to another sight; for the good which is the object of the will is all gathered in it, and apart from it that is defective which there is perfect.” The infinite light of God’s being is splayed out, undulating, fractaling, reflected, refracted in and on and through every object and every moment of our lives. Some things are given to reveal that light powerfully (moons, mountains, women), other things more dimly (grass, ducks), however all refer back to that Light from which all things emanate. To experience that Light directly must be something like, all at once, tasting every good taste possible (Morbier, figs, cognac), hearing every beautiful sound possible (tides, Faure, coins jingling), feeling every good sensation possible (back rub, sitting down after standing for hours, standing next to tall buildings), inhaling every good scent possible (lavender, bergamot, tuberose), and seeing every beautiful thing possible (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Helen of Troy). Of course the Vision is beyond even this, but it is at least this.
Even the unhappiest literalist must admit the numerous poetic parallels between Babette’s feast and the Last Supper— for just a list, an entirely separate essay would be needed— but suffice here to say that General Louwenhielm is at his most Christological when speaking the meal into existence; no one else at the table can name the food, but the General teaches them all the names, and tells the story of a meal he partook of at the Café Anglais alongside a Colonel Gallifet, who remarked the chef was “turning a dinner at the Café Anglais into a kind of love affair–into a love affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety!” The Eucharist is a meal eaten in reference to the Vision; both the Eucharist and the Vision help to explain the General’s baffling, “that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us.” The Vision is a kind of medicine for the Sophoclean blues, a sickness wherein a man spends his entire life kicking himself for lacking the foresight yesterday to prevent tragedy today. High school students in their junior and senior year often suffer from pre-Sophoclean blues, and they worry and sigh over choosing this or that college path, staying behind to take a year off, pursuing marriage early or waiting until they’ve seen the world.
The Vision, though, is a revelation that whether the monastic life is pursued, or the life of the city, both refer forward to final deliverance of all desire in the revelation of God. What we have chosen now is a gift, although all the lives we must choose not to live, because we are finite and have only so many hours and so many hands, are also restored to us in the Vision. When he finally departs Martine, the General says, “I shall be with you every day that is left to me. Every evening I shall sit down, if not in the flesh, which means nothing, in spirit, which is all, to dine with you, just like tonight. For tonight I have learned, dear sister, that in this world anything is possible.” The General has learned to content himself with longing, with imagining, as must all who can only be contented in the life to come.