The Meaning of Babette's Feast
Babette’s Feast is a sophisticated analysis of the relationship between sensuous and spiritual beauty written by Karen Blixen and then made into an oscar winning film. Unfortunately, some of the sophistication was missed in the film so we will jump between the two in order to uncover its beauty.
The story opens with a town between two mountains. And this town looked “like a child’s toy‐town of little wooden pieces painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colors.” And in the yellow house lived a devout Luthern minister whose wife had died and with whom he had two daughters: Martina and Philippa.
And the fact that they live in a yellow house is important because that will be the only distinguishing feature the narrator will include and she does it 10 times, quite a lot in a short story of about 20 pages. And this is not the only yellow the narrator highlights. We also see Martina’s golden hair, their golden crosses and the golden shining of their home when the feast, the feast after which the work was named occurs.
Our narrator emphasizes these yellow colors because it symbolizes gold, the quintessential color of earthly beauty. But the grand irony is that these golden hues reside in, on and around the sisters, the symbols of spiritual beauty.
We know they are the symbols of spiritual beauty because their father had started a pious Ecclesiastical order and named his daughters after Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. When the narrator introduces these women they are identified by their austerity and simplicity. The narrator then tells us that while the women in the town wore bustles the sisters did not nor did they own any article of fashion but dressed in gray hues.
“The members of the order,” our narrator tells us, of which the sisters were a part, “renounced 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 toward which they were longing.”
But Blixen is not setting up a simplistic contrast between spiritual and sensuous beauty. In the same sentence that she introduces the simplicity of the sisters she notes that they could have worn a bustle, implying their beauty and compares their form to a willow tree along with other natural beauties. That is, while the sisters have renounced worldly beauty they nevertheless have it and herein lies the conflict. Their very being disallows them from denouncing all beauty. Indeed, the beauty of the woman is the highest physical beauty and so at the same moment of the renunciation they embody the highest natural beauty.
In contrast, Babette is the symbol for sensuous beauty. She spent her life as the cook in one of the most prestigious French restaurants. And in contrast to the austere religious life of the sisters, Babette was a political revolutionary, a quintessential life committed to the world.
The surface conflict of the story is that the members of this order, this community are “becoming somewhat querulous and quarrelsome, so that sad little schisms would arise in the congregation.”
Blixen then provides two stories of the sisters’ suitors when the ladies were young. And each of these sections share a similar structure. Both men, Lorens Löwenhielm and Achille Papin (Papaw), will come to the town with some problem. Both will experience the sensuous beauty of one of the sisters, more precisely Blixen will describe their experience of seeing the sisters as a vision, and that vision that will transform their problem. Each sister share a kiss but do not marry the man. They get a taste of sensuous beauty but they don’t drink deeply, don’t unite in marriage with beauty.
Lorens will come to the town because he lived a wild lifestyle and was in debt and needed to consider how to improve his ways. When he rides into town he sees Martina and is struck by her beauty. Blixen tells us that “till now 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 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.” That is, her physical beauty had caused him to have to have hope and a vision of a redeemed future. Her beauty allowed him to see a spiritual beauty, a spiritual gift in himself.
And the transformation was not momentary. When he returns home he resolved to work hard in his military vocation and excels at it. He also marries Queen Sophia, Sophia meaning wisdom in Greek, a symbol of his acquisition of wisdom from his encounter with the physical beauty of Martina.
Philipa’s suitor was a great opera singer named Achille Papin. His problem was that “he felt small in the sublime surroundings; with nobody to talk to he fell into that melancholy in which he saw himself as an old man, at the end of his career”
His vision of Philipa’s beauty was the beauty of her singing in church. Immediately, when he heard her sing “he knew and understood all. For here were the snowy summits, the wild flowers and the white Nordic nights,” That is, whereas before he felt small in the beauty of nature, as if he did not fit in, could not see and delight in its beauty, experiencing Philipas beauty transforms his perception of beauty to see God’s beauty in creation.
“I have been wrong in believing that I was growing old” he says “My greatest triumphs are before me! The world will once more believe in miracles...’
Papin was so enamored with Phillipa that he gave her singing lessons and told her that if she came with him she would be a famous singer and “When she left the Grand Opera upon her master’s arm, the crowd would unharness her horses, and themselves draw her to the Café Anglais, where a magnificent supper awaited her.”
Phillipa, just like her sister, rejects Papin’s offer to go with him. Papin was a man of the world of entertainment and culture, constantly surrounded by people and women and in the end he is rejected by this woman. But this serves to be precisely what he needs to humble himself.
15 years later and the girls’ father has died. The large middle of the story will be the melting together of these two beauties, spiritual and sensuous, their confrontation and forced cohabitation. Because this is when Babette shows up.
“The mistresses of the house opened the door to a massive, dark, deadly pale woman with a bundle on her arm, who stared at them, took a step forward and fell down on the doorstep in a dead swoon.”
Babette was a refugee from a revolutionary political life in Paris. Babette is a symbol of beauty without spiritual beauty, beauty by itself, swung to the extreme. And the sisters’ first action toward her is a symbolic foreshadowing of their spiritual action toward her:
“When the frightened ladies had restored her to life she sat up,” But what she is restored to or will be restored to is not the extremes of the previous sensuousness but a sensuousness married to spirituality.
“Babette had arrived haggard and wild‐eyed like a hunted animal, but in her new, friendly surroundings she soon acquired all the appearance of a respectable and trusted servant. She had appeared to be a beggar; she turned out to be a conqueror. Her quiet countenance and her steady, deep glance had magnetic qualities; under her eyes things moved, noiselessly, into their proper places.”
“And they soon found that from the day when Babette took over the housekeeping its cost was miraculously reduced, and the soup‐pails and baskets acquired a new, mysterious power to stimulate and strengthen their poor and sick.
Notice what beauty does for the sister’s sanctuary of spiritualness. It puts things in proper places, it brings order, improves the economics, the cost of everything is reduced, and the poor are better cared for.
“The old Brothers and Sisters, who had first looked askance at the foreign woman in their midst, felt a happy change in their little sisters’ life, rejoiced at it and benefited by it. They found that troubles and cares had been conjured away from their existence, and that now they had money to give away, time for the confidences and complaints of their old friends and peace for meditating on heavenly matters. In the course of time not a few of the brotherhood included Babette’s name in their prayers, and thanked God for the speechless stranger, the dark Martha in the house of their two fair Marys.”
That is, even the spiritual lives are improved in both prayer and virtue. This sensuous beauty has enlivened the spiritual beauty of the town. And in turn the spiritual beauty of the sisters and the town had provided for Babette the beggar, who was a communist revolutionary, a true community. All of her political aspirations were fulfilled not in a revolution but in the spiritual love of Phillipa and Martina.
The Good News
One day Babette receives news from France that she has won the lottery. While the sisters realize that this will be the end of Babette’s stay with them, Babette requests that she be able to cook one proper, exquisite French meal for them. Reluctant as they are about worldly indulgences, they agree.
Blixen then devotes two whole sections of the short story to the preparation. One of these sections Blixen titles “The Turtle.” And this is because the turtle is an image of beauty through the sisters eyes; it’s large just like Babette was when she arrived at their doorstep, dark, large and frightening. They don’t know how to make sense of this turtle but it is an allegory, it will be transformed into the most delicious thing that they ever tasted, doing all manner of good. The natural beauty is transformed or gifted its true telos.
When the sisters see the beauty of the feast prepared before them they not only misunderstand it but they attribute the opposite to it. They associate it with witchcraft, they didn’t know that such drinks could have names, and they think the turtle is a terrible creature. They take an oath to not enjoy any of the food and to cleanse their pallettes. Somehow their abstention has corrupted their understanding, their spiritual vision and in their desire to purify themselves they have blinded themselves to God‘s beauty.
This meal will be the climactic moment where the spiritual penetration into Babette and the sensuous penetration into the sisters will culminate. And a meal is the quintessential place for this climax because in a meal meets the characteristic act of charity, feeding the poor, and the characteristic act of the luxuriant, a feast. Also, this is an unique aesthetic act, unlike architecture or painting where the aesthetic object is outside yourself, with food you consume it, you must completely give yourself to it, there are no allowances for the uncommitted.
Now, the meal itself has a familiar and symbolic structure.
It begins with singing. As the guests arrive an older brother begins to sing a hymn to which the rest of the guests join. A prayer is then offered and the feasting begins. During the meal, General Lowenhielm gives a speech and at the conclusion he gives a blessing.
These actions are the same actions of a church service. The dinner is a symbolic liturgy: singing, eating, drinking, a sermon from the general, reconciliation, and a concluding blessing.
Notice that the symbolic place of the sermon has been taken up by General Lowenhielm. The General opens his speech quoting Martina and Phillipa’s Father, “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together” and the narrator tells us that he was a “mouth‐piece for a message which meant to be brought forth.”
He begins his speech proclaiming that man is “‘is frail and foolish.” This coming from a military man, a man whose life was outlined by the strength and glory of man. And in his frailty General Lowenhielm realized the reality of grace. This feast had opened the General’s soul to the squalor of man and the splendor of God.
And the feast accomplishes even more. Men and women who had long held grudges were reconciled. And remember, this dissent was the primary conflict that began this story, the problem that neither the sisters nor the father could not solve. This reconciliation was achieved through a feast, the intermingling of spiritual and sensuous beauty. A divine feast.
After the dinner, Blixen concludes the story with Phillipa hugging Babette and whispering to her:
In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be! Ah!’ she added, the tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Ah, how you will enchant the angels!’
Upon first reading you might think this is a beautiful way to end this story, but it is a bit more complex. Phillipa’s statement reveals that she still misunderstands the role of beauty in God’s world. She thinks that her gifts are to be used primarily in the world to come. But our narrator has indicated that Babette has delighted and served and enchanted Angels already, at the dinner.
The only person described as an angel in the story was Martina and Phillipa and all the guests were said to have halos. When Martina is called an Angel by our narrator it is also said that the air around her quivers, the only other use of that word is the guests voices at dinner, delighting the angels.
This story takes place in between, in between two mountains, the mountains of spiritual and sensuous beauty, where a yellow home hides haloed, golden-haired angels, enchanted with the spiritually sensuous and sensuously spiritual life of God and his world. A paradise where ancient quarrels are quelled and laughter treats transgressions. Where you don’t have to decide between God and his world, because here, these two are one.