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The Banquet in Babette’s Feast and ‘The Dead’/ NOVELS/ THEATRE/ POETRY/ LITERATURE MAIN original lfff
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Babette's Feast - The General's Speech

 Joyce - The Dead - Banquet

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extract from the film "Babette's Feast" film

The following examination deals with two works (or four, depending on how one counts).  First, with Babette’s Feast, Isak Dinesen’s longish short-story, originally published in Ladies Home Journal, after a British friend told her “Write about food; Americans are obsessed with food,”  then with The Dead, James Joyce’s novella from Dubliners.  Implicitly, the remarks here will also relate to two films: the 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast,” written and directed by Gabriel Axel, and John Huston’s 1987 “The Dead.”  In both works—or in all four—we will look at similar uses of feasts and how those feasts help to establish similar themes.

Dinesen and Joyce are two very different writers.  Both modernists, in their ways, but in vastly different ways.  She presents sparse landscapes in spare prose and underplays drama and sentiment (at least in her best works), while seeking always depth of character.  He, of course, is considerably more experimental, more fascinated by linguistic possibilities and by psycholinguistic nuances.  He lets drama play itself out in a treasury of layered prose—while also seeking depth of character.  But in these two works, at least, they are strikingly similar.  Each is concerned with people who may appear emotionally cold because of their outwardly stern and cautious, if not judgmental, demeanors, but whose devotion to courtesy, propriety, and tradition leads them to be warmly hospitable.  Each story is constructed around a dinner; and the dinner in each case becomes truly, in the deepest sense, a communion feast.  This commonality between the works is somewhat curious, for neither author is conventionally “religious” - and indeed the two “communions” are of mainly secular value.

On the notion that most readers are more familiar with Joyce’s story than with Dinesen’s, it might prove helpful to begin with Babette’s Feast and give some time/space to summarizing its events. 

A “Dean and a prophet” (3) in a small Norwegian fishing-village (it is in Jutland in the film) founds a small religious sect.  To ensure that he is assisted always by his two lovely daughters, Martina and Philippa, he drives off suitors of the two, including a young Lieutenant Lorens Loewenhielm, who is rendered paralyzed and speechless every time he comes to the Dean’s home in the hopes of requesting to court Martina, which he is never able to do.  Also driven away is Achille Papin, Parisian singer, vocal teacher, and impresario, who, impressed with Philippa’s beautiful voice, attempts to recruit her for the French stage and falls in love with her in the process.

Years later, the sisters - now middle-aged spinsters who have survived their father and assumed the care of his small flock - are visited by Babette Hersant, a refugee from revolutionary street-fighting in Paris, who comes with a letter of reference from Papin.  She volunteers to work for the sisters as cook and housekeeper for lodging but without wages. 

Babette has worked for the sisters for twelve years, when two events converge: she wins ten thousand francs in the Paris lottery, just as the sisters are planning a small observance of the hundredth anniversary of their father’s birth.  She begs to be allowed to serve the sisters and their parishioners a genuine, full, French dinner.  In gratitude for her years of devoted service, the sisters reluctantly consent, then are almost instantly visited by regrets. Babette has assembled life quail, a gigantic live turtle, and—Heaven forbid!—various kinds of wine.  The sisters confer privately with all of their sect-members, many of whom have grown quarrelsome with one another through the years since the Dean’s death.  Rallying now to the support of their “little sisters,”  they agree that they will attend, they will eat and drink all they are offered, and they will do so in virtual silence—not a word will be said about whatever diabolical items they are served at what they fear will be a “witches’ Sabbath” (26). 

On the night of the feast, Mrs. Loewenhielm asks if she may bring along her nephew, Lorens, now a near-retired French General, visiting her for the holidays.  His presence means that there are twelve for dinner.  The story focuses on the General’s preparing himself for the dinner.  He resolves to go back to the house where his destiny was decided so many years ago, and—he is sure—will be made aware that he made the right choice at that time.  He imagines the evening: “The low rooms, the haddock and the glass of water on the table before him should all be called in to bear evidence that in their milieu the existence of Lorens Loewenhielm would very soon have become sheer misery” (33).  Little does he know. 

The meal occupies all the rest of the story—the final fourteen pages of forty-six, fully twenty minutes of the 100-minute film.  The general is astonished -“Amazing!” he says, “this is amontillado; furthermore, it’s the finest amontillado I’ve ever tasted” (35-6).  No one even looks at him.  “This is real turtle-soup” he exclaims (36).  No response.  After sect members have inferred of a beverage that “It must be come kind of lemonade,” the general says to the old man next to him, “I’m quite sure this is a Veuve Cliquot 1860.” “Yes,” the old fellow replies politely, “I’m quite certain it will snow all day” (37).  When General Loewenhielm says of the roast quail, “This is truly cailles en sarcophage,” another of the old folks says, “Yes, yes, certainly,” as though they eat like this every day (38).

Over the course of the evening, the aged members of the flock begin, under the influence of good food, good drink, and the thrill of their “promise” to Martina and Philippa, to warm up.  (“Warmth” is a constant motif in the story.)  They indulge in reminiscences of the Dean and his diligent work for all the village.  They recall anecdotes of one another, with an emphasis—either newly discovered or just now re-discovered—on forgiveness.  As the narrative voice in the story tells us, “The convives grew lighter in weight and lighter of heart the more they ate and drank.  They no longer needed to remind themselves of their vow.  It was, they realized, when man has not only altogether forgotten but has firmly renounced all ideas of food and drink that he eats and drinks in the right spirit” (37-8).

At last General Loewenhielm—he whom this very house had once rendered mute and miserable—rises to make the evening’s (and the story’s, and the film’s) key speech:

            “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it

            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 [. . . ] takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See!

            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!”  (40-41)

In the final sentence Loewenhielm is consciously quoting the late Dean (6).

In Joyce’s story—and Huston’s film—the feast works in a different yet analogous manner.  Gabriel Conroy, devotee of literature and of teaching, serves as a sort of master of ceremonies at the annual holiday dinner-dance given by his maiden aunts, Kate and Julia Morkan, sisters of Gabriel’s deceased mother.  He has fretted all evening over the after-dinner speech he will make, hoping he will be neither too literary and erudite nor too plainly sentimental.  In between his fretting, he helps ensure that all goes well for his aunts.  His main duty consists in taking care of one of the guests, Freddy Malins.  From the start, Aunts Kate and Julia have feared that Freddy, in their words, “might turn up screwed” (176), for although Freddy has recently taken a temperance pledge, it is not to be trusted.  Sure enough, Malins turns up mildly drunk; Gabriel takes him in charge, sees to it that he gets no more to drink, and keeps him at least within the bounds of the acceptable.

The dinner goes very well, and it plays out somewhat differently from that in Babette’s Feast.  Here, there is much lively conversation and much more frivolity, for these are more cosmopolitan and more garrulous people than Dinesen’s—not surprisingly, as most human beings are.  Still, the effect is much the same.  Good food, good wine, and good companionship have a heady effect, particularly upon Gabriel, who is pleased on behalf of his aunts that it has all gone as they’d hoped.

Still apprehensive, but pleased overall with his performance during the evening, Gabriel makes his speech, of which a central excerpt is:

            [T]here are always in gatherings such as this [sad] thoughts that will recur to

            our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we

            miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories:

            and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on

            bravely with our work among the living (204). 

Much as we have seen General Loewenhielm do, Gabriel attempts to put together past and present in a reconciliatory manner.  Each feast is thus climaxed by a speech, made by the man who has become the celebrant of the ritual as well as the main recipient of its benefits.  Each of the speeches is a culmination of the motifs operative in the respective works.  Both Joyce and Dinesen have constructed patterns of oppositions to be reconciled, including past/present, warmth/cold, ideals/experience.  The banquet has in each case served as the communion feast that reconciles these oppositions for each of the main characters.

One of Joyce’s most prominent ironies (in a crowded field) in The Dead is that, for the first three-quarters or so of the story, the past seems quite inaccessible, quite lost to us.  However, after the banquet has led its participants into reminiscence, the past becomes progressively more accessible until, in the story’s last moments, it is highly “present.”  Joyce brings setting and imagery into the service of this and other tensions he has created and will eventually merge.  One example of his doing so will have to suffice here.  After the dancing has ended, and before the musical performances begin, Gabriel contemplates—not for the first, or the last, time—his forthcoming speech.  As he does so,

            [his] warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window.  How

            cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone,

            first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be

            lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of

            the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than

            at the supper table!  (192) 

Yet, as we have seen, once at the table, and amidst its culinary splendor, Gabriel is just fine.  The banquet reconciles him to warmth, in several senses of the word. 

Dinesen’s way of reconciling opposites, of creating dualities and then resolving them, is mainly to proceed by repetition-and-variation.  A number of events, conversations, references, and so forth, are repeated in her story.  Here is a sampling: On what he thinks will be his last visit to Martina’s home, young Lieutenant Loewenhielm takes his leave by saying, “I shall never, never see you again! For I have learned here that Fate is hard, and that in this world there are things which are impossible!” (7) When he departs from her after the feast, he says, in very similar language, “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” (42).  There are two leave-takings early in the story: Loewenhielm’s departure is followed by the slightly different exit of Monsieur Papin; two people come to the village from Paris; several of the Dean’s best-loved sayings are repeated; Babette is twice linked to myths involving “familiar spirits,” and so on.  And, as we have seen in General Loewenhielm’s after-dinner speech, Dinesen ultimately reconciles “bliss and righteousness . . . mercy and truth.”

Both stories, then—and both films—are about antipathies that can be overcome, coldness that can be warmed, forgotten dreams that can be revived and realized, dualities that can be unified.  But there seems no union without communion—and that is provided, by both authors, in the form of good food, good drink, and good company. 

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Dinesen, Isak.  Babette's Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny.Random House/Vintage, NY, 1988.

Joyce, James.  Dubliners (Penguin Modern Classics)[Text, Criticism and Notes].  Robert Scholes & A. Walton Litz, eds. Penguin/Viking, NY, 1969.

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C. Kenneth Pellow is Professor of English at the University of Colorado—Colorado Springs, where he has taught for forty years. He teaches and writes on contemporary fiction, critical theory, and film-fiction adaptation. Most recent publications include an essay on J M Coetzee’s Slow Man in Contemporary Literature and on Dennis Potter’s teleplay The Singing Detective in a forthcoming edition of The Journal of Popular Culture.

Babette's Feast (the film)