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Monday, October 25, 2004

Babette's Feast

A story of grace, by Karen Blixen, under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.

Blixen set her story in Norway, but the Danish film-makers changed the location to an impoverished fishing village on the coast of Denmark. In this grim setting lived a group of worshippers in an austere Lutheran sect. All wore black. Their diet consisted of boiled cod and a gruel made from boiling bread in water fortified with a splash of ale. On the Sabbath, the group met together and sang songs about 'Jerusalem, my happy home, name ever dear to me'. They had fixed their compasses on the New Jerusalem, with life on eerth tolerated as a way to get there.

The Dean of the sect had two daughters named Martine and Philippa (after Martin Luther and his disciple Philip Melanchthon), whose radiant beauty could not be suppressed despite the sisters' best efforts. He prevented them from marrying a dashing young cavalry officer and a famous operatic singer, although they two resisted their advances, believing that these kind of pleasures should be renounced!

Fifteen years passed, the Dean died, and much changed in the villange. Members of the sect were quarrelling and bore grudges against one another. A pair of old ladies hadn't spoken for a decade. Attendance on the Sabbath dropped, yet the sisters carried on organising the services.

One night, a woman collapsed at the sisters' front door. She bore a note from Achille Papin, the man who had tried to marry Philippa. The woman's name was babette, and she had lost her husband and son during the civil war in France. Her life in danger, she had to flee, and Papin had found her passage on a ship in hopes that this village might show her mercy. "Babette can cook," the letter read.

Despite the sisters' initial reluctance and distrust, Babette softened their hearts with her pleas. She promised to do any chores in exchange for food and board.

For 12 years she worked for the sisters. The first time Martine showed her how to split a cod and cook the gruel, Babette's eyebrow shot upward and her nose wrinkled a little, but she never once questioned her assignments. She fed the poor people of the town and even helped with Sabbath services. Everyone had to agree that Babette brought new life to the stagnant community.

Since Babette never mentioned her past life in France, it came as a surprise when after 12 years she received her very first letter. She announced to the sisters that a wonderful thing had happened. Each year in Paris a friend had renewed Babette's numbers in the French lottery. This year, her ticket had won: 10,000 francs! The sisters outwardly congratulated her, but inside their hearts sank. They knew that she would soon leave.

This coincided with the sisters' plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their Father's birth. Babette came to them and said, "In 12 years I have asked you nothing". The sisters nodded. "But now I have a request. I would like to prepare the anniversary meal. I would like to cook you a real French dinner". The sisters, full of trepidation, have no option but to agree.

In the following days the sisters' kitchen becomes full of exotic foods: crates of small birds, fresh vegetables, truffles, pheasants, ham, a huge tortoise... the sisters are alarmed. The sect agrees to eat the French meal, but withhold comment about it and not even notice the taste, lest she get the wrong idea.

When the evening of the meal arrives, Babette's table looks wonderful. When the meal begins, the guests, their faces puckered with deep wrinkles, eat the delicacies without expression or comment. However, although no one spoke of the food, the banquet worked a magical effect on the churlish villagers. Their blood warmed. Their tongues loosened. Old hurts were forgiven. The two women found themselves speaking once again. When the meal was over the villagers went outside, joined hands and sing lustily the songs of faith. They felt as if "they had indeed had their sins washed white as wool".

The final scene takes place inside the kitchen. It is piled high with unwashed dishes, greasy pots, shells, carapaces, gristly bones, broken crates, vegetable trimmings and empty bottled. Babette sits amid the mess, looking as wasted as the night she arrived twelve years before. Suddenly the sisters realise that, in accordance with the vow, no one has spoken to Babette of the dinner.

"It was quite a nice dinner, Babette," Martine says tentatively.

Babette seems far away. After a time she says to them, "I was once cook at the Café Anglais." [a restaurant in Paris]

"We will all remember this evening when you have gone back to Paris, Babette," Martine adds, as if not hearing her.

Babette tells them that she will not be going back to Paris. All her friends and relatives there have been killed or imprisoned. And, of course, it would be expensive to return to Paris.

"But what about the 10,000 francs?" the sisters ask.

Then Babette drops the bombshell. She has spent her winnings, every last franc of the ten thousand she won, on the feast they have just devoured. Don't be shocked, she tells them. That is what a proper dinner for twelve costs at the Café Anglais.


  • Hi Sladger,

    I take it that you are commenting on the book, not just the film? Do you have it? If so, I would love to read it.

    I love the film - a story of grace is about right.



    By Blogger Andrew and Cora, at 4:58 am  

  • Just to say also that I am alnso very gland that munch changed in the villange. I hand thought that this way of speanking was dining out in the famuhlunce, bunt now see that there is no need to have a chant with you about it. Pnease manke every effort to maintain and, indeend, increanse this kind of ountpunt.


    By Blogger Andrew and Cora, at 10:07 pm  

  • hahahaha!

    i will post the reason for why i posted it when i get round to it...

    By Blogger Bec, at 4:53 pm  

  • I've just watched most of the film, having read Philip Yancey's comments in "What's So Amazing About Grace?" It hasn't been quite as earth-shaking as he implied it ought to be, although beautifully made, and a good watch that I would be happy for the wee'uns to see as well. ... but I've yet to see how the meal unfolds, and I think that's probably the key to how grace works itself out in the film.

    By Blogger Paul (probably - maybe Liz), at 9:30 pm  

  • yeah, it was supposed to be a pre-emptive post to my comments on Yancey's book, which I'm continuing to love, but I just haven't been in the mood or had the time yet! but watch this space...

    i can't really remember the film but the story is amazingly beautiful. :)

    By Blogger Bec, at 1:35 am  

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