The Real Motive Behind Babette’s Feast

bfeastIn the well-loved art film Babette’s Feast, the central character spends her entire lottery winnings to make one spectacular meal for her guests. It is portrayed as an act of marvelous generosity by a poor person who loves to cook and loves to give.

But Alan Jacobs points out the surprising fact that Isak Dinesen’s book rejects munificence as a motive. When her sated sisters thank her for giving up the chance the escape poverty for their sake, Babette is withering in response:

Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”

She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.

“I am a great artist!” she said.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “The Real Motive Behind Babette’s Feast”

  1. Isak Dinesen, or more commonly Karen Blixen.
    A lovely film. Even there, I didn’t read the act as driven by generosity; the cook knows very well the sisters and their friends won’t appreciate the meal properly. It’s only by fairy-tale coincidence that the former suitor of one of the sisters, a worldly officer, is present at the feast and does understand what he’s privileged to enjoy.

  2. PS: Karen Blixen is a member of the long list of canonical writers passed over for the eccentric Nobel Prize for Literature: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Ibsen, Henry James, Borges, Mandelstam, James Joyce ..

    1. Thanks for catching the name typo. Roth, Kafka, Mishima, Proust, Woolf, Twain and Nabokov never won either, though Gandhi not winning the Peace Prize was even stranger. The Nobel is even more eccentric if you look at some of people who did win. Today, being really old seems to help (as long as you have what the committee considers the correct political views, which Borges and Mishima did not). Speaking as someone who has been a nominator, it’s a strange process and should not be taken as the final word on people’s level of achievement, even though some extraordinary people have won.

        1. No, medicine. Which is less capricious but is still a human process, meaning that some deserving people are left out.

      1. In recent years, the winners have tended to be extremely obscure. I was glad, after the fact, to discover their writing. But Le Clezio, Jelinek, Mo Yan, and Muller among others were far from household names, even among those who consider themselves well read. And they’re not necessarily the best or most innovative writers out there.

        The Prize for literature seems to have become a means for accomplishing two things: 1) lifting competent but unknown writers from obscurity, and 2) globalizing the field and moving it away from popular Anglo-American writers. For instance, the last American to win was Toni Morrison twenty years ago. This despite the fact that some of the most innovative writers (those who transform the global culture of literature forever) have been American.

  3. “For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own…I am a great artist!” she said.

    Sounds Ayn Randish.

    1. Only a Randian would speak of her in the same breath as Countess Blixen. There’s real haute cuisine, and real literature.

      1. I’m actually on Charles’ side here.

        When everything can be art, then using art as a justification for behavior is meaningless. It’s no different from saying “I want to do this because I want to do it”, except with the implication that “you have no right to tell me otherwise”. The justification “I want to do this because I want to do it” is fine, but people should expect it to have consequences.

        Are there better justifications? “I want to do this because it will bring joy (or at least emotion) to millions of people” is I think reasonable; I’d give that much more of a pass than “I want to do this because I want to do it”, BUT it relies on that connection to millions of people being real. You can’t credibly claim that unless you’re someone very special, an artist with a track record and something new to say.
        If you’re a struggling artist who truly believes that, fine, believe it. But once again I see no reason why friends and family have to suffer to support this (likely mistaken) belief. You’re welcome to prove them wrong, and then to laugh in their face when you’re Picasso at 50; but I know which side of this bet I would take.

        In the specific case of interest, the argument cannot even be plausibly made that millions of people will be touched, at best a few people will be touched, and in a way that is likely less than the disutility experienced by family. The argument being made by Babette is purely a solipsistic one — “my joy matters more than anyone else’s”. We ARE precisely at Hume (“It would not be irrational to prefer the death of a thousand Orientals to the pricking of the little finger.”) or Ayn Rand.

        1. Blixen probably invited the worldly gastronome, General Löwenhielm, to the Feast to help dispel confusion regarding Babette’s manifest talent: The General’s marveling pronouncements on each dish make it abundantly clear, even before the physical and spiritual uplift experienced by the other guests, that the chef is a master.

          Solipsism would imply others were unaffected by her gift and mere grandiosity or ego would imply she was speaking non-factually but clearly neither is the case WRT Babette, former head chef of the Café Anglais in Paris.

          That she was obliged to cook a strictly limited (and wholly unappetizing) menu for the pious sisters during during her years of exile may have induced Blixen to add a flick of acid to the final scene perhaps but the movie was more gentle, with Babette merely responding to the sisters concern that she has impoverished herself by saying, “an artist is never poor.”

          1. Why does the fact that she is a good chef change anything? This was not a point in dispute.

            I may REALLY enjoy playing video games. I may even be really GOOD at playing video games. I may be a video game artist. Does that give me carte blanche to engage in my chosen pastime as much as I want, regardless of how that negatively affects those around me?

            Look, if Babette wins the lottery, and we all agree that the money is hers, then yes, she can spend it how she likes. But spending it in a way that singularly benefits her and no-one else in her life is an act of profound selfishness, a very Randian act. Calling it art doesn’t change that.

            If you’re willing to deny my statement, then you’re not very far from accepting the claim of the 1% that their uniquely refined bodies cannot survive on anything less than caviar, champagne and 3000 thread count sheets in Manhattan penthouse apartments, and to prevent them from living every aspect of that lifestyle is to commit an injustice unequalled in human history.

  4. Not unlike Pygmalion. Shaw wrote a postscript to a later edition of the play entitled, “What Happened Afterwards” to hammer home the point.

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