Fateful Grace

“Grace, brother, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty.” This theme of clemency and benevolence is the underlying element of “Babette’s Feast,” linking the extreme simplicity of Berlevaag to the materialistic world that surrounds them. Babette, the savior, the catalyst which softens the edges between these two extremes, finally connects them in the great work of art that is the Feast. This concept of “art” and the “Great Artist” behind the work also permeates the duration of the story, bringing to the reader the idea that this art, this divine aspect not of the world, is the physical representation, as well as the guiding light towards the unbiased grace aforementioned. Finally addressed is the idea of heroism. Even though “Babette’s Feast” makes no direct mention of the word, this heroic aspect is primarily expressed in the self-sacrifice and “great”ness of the artist.

Throughout each individual element we see the relating medium of “general amnesty,” expressing the idea that no matter what kind of life one lives, such amnesty and mercy will always be available to whoever seeks it.

Babette quotes Monsieur Papin saying, “Through the entire world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!” This refers directly to the relationship between an individual and their personal salvation, representing the idea that we cannot experience the fully satisfied feeling of redemption unless we chose to let it move in us and change us. Grace, like art, is a thing of individual experience, relying upon a development of a relationship between several ideas, several aspects in order to bring about a change and effect a movement.

However, this art of Grace in Babette’s Feast is realized in divergent views by the two opposing ways of life represented in the story. The first, the congregational world that is the isolated town of Berlevaag, believes that grace is granted to the simple and the pious. The outside world believes grace to be yet another benefit of the well-off. However, each has the wrong idea in that grace is neither earned by works nor freely given by privilege. Rather, it is a gift to those who would accept and use it. Babette has such grace. She exemplifies the art a person can create; she forgives wrongs and treats her enemies as her friends; she becomes honored among those to whom she once appeared a lowly beggar. Now, according to the after-dinner Lorens Loewenhielm, one of the conditions required for grace is to await it with “confidence.” Babette’s “confidence” is proven through her actions through adversity, her resilience through her time of exile and complete change in way of life.

The second condition (again, from the mind of the enlightened Lorens) is acknowledgement. To preface the discussion of this aspect, I must first address the relationship between grace and fate. These two ideas, even though one is decidedly of a religious background, and the other of a more worldly notion, go hand in hand in this narrative. Grace depicts a relationship of dependence upon a higher power to bring one through struggles, while Fate suggests that no matter what one does, the outcome will be the same in all cases, for it has already been determined. Babette brings these two seemingly contrasting ideas together in that one divine act of the Feast.

At first she receives doubt, even disdain, upon her initial plans for the banquet, but pays no mind to it. One could even assume that she has expected the oncoming controversy, for she meets it with a smile: “Babette seemed pleased with the news, and assured them that there would be food enough” (48). Now, as the path from Fate to Grace continues, the reader sees Babette almost leading Lorens to his revelation with a trail of breadcrumbs, eventually bringing him to the table of the Feast. Here she serves up one familiarly exquisite course after another, ultimately having Lorens end up at a point of questioning, signaling the change within him from the state of “dumb despair” (27) to one of shocked revelation that the meal had aided him in discovering. A man previously described as a “young,” “gay,” “fine horseman,” is reduced to “foolishness,” even made to “tremble” in the presence of such an awe-inspiring representation of grace as this Feast.
In short summation, Grace is represented by the abstract concept of “the art” made manifest by “the artist” through the Feast. The “general amnesty” aspect of this Grace is illustrated in the uniting act of the dinner despite the two opposing ways of life of the meals attendants. Finally, Fate is addressed with this idea about divine intervention for a preface: When you do something right, nobody will be sure you have done anything at all. Babette successfully brings each person, from the two world views present at her table, out of themselves and gives them a physical embodiment of the uniting factor among them without them even being aware of it. Her acknowledgement of this concept is expressed in her response to the awe which she inspires in the Dean’s daughters simply by being there in Berlevaag and being the person she is, “What will you ladies? It is Fate” (37).

To bring these themes together within the main area of focus of this unit, the Romantic Hero, I will begin with the delineation of such a concept. According to Webster, Romanticism is defined by a, “heightened interest in nature, emphasis on the individual's expression of emotion and imagination, and a rebellion against established social rules and conventions.” They then characterize Heroism as, “conduct, behavior, or qualities expressing self-sacrifice, specifically courage.” I have trouble pinning “Babette’s Feast down with either of these labels. Babette leads Lorens and a proverbial flock of lost sheep to a place where “mercy and truth” meet – where “righteousness and bliss” kiss, yet, how can one call this “romantic” when Babette herself concedes the influence of Fate? How can such an idea of passionate pursuit of idealism be present if such random, chaotic struggle is made tame by the reigning aspect of control that is Fate? Similarly, how can “heroism” be a dominate facet, let alone truly exist in the story, if Fate is what has actually allowed for such possibilities?

The answer lies in that mitigating factor, that one, ever-present, but so often left unexpressed, aspect of Grace. It is this “infinite” (60) Grace that makes one satisfied in all choices, whether “right” or “wrong,” being confident in that transcending peace at work in us. It is Grace that quells trembling and grants a sense of purpose. Fate, on the other hand, offers no such comfort, meeting every success and mistake with the same response: there is no right or wrong, only what is supposed to occur.

The Feast is the turning point, where Fate gives way to Grace.

Before the dinner, the simple people of Berlevaag live in poverty and view enjoyment of worldly things as sin: “We will not speak of the food.” They are unhappy, toss accusations and blame around, and live in a state of eternal discontent. They see their lot in life as fated to be miserable so that they may have a chance of avoiding the pitfalls of materialism and dependence upon the world. Lorens represents the opposite spectrum of the effects of Fate: apathy. Not only apathy, but a lifestyle of worldliness influenced by the thinking that whatever one does was meant to be, so why not use what one has been given to further individual causes and better ones’ own life?

Then, Babette’s Feast comes along. Ideas change, views long-held are altered, things formerly viewed as “impossible” become “possible.” The art that is the incredible meal draws Lorens out of the despair, the letdown, resultant of his overdependence upon the approval of the world. It opens the eyes of the humble flock and expresses the “fulfillment of an ever-present hope.” They gather to sing and pray of Grace before the meal, and afterwards they truly experience its’ humbling perfection, falling on their hands and knees into the pure, white snow, “and in this regained, innocent attire” (63) emerge changed and begin life anew.




by Cameron Johnson
Expected Graduation Date: May 2010
Major: Architecture
Hometown: Oak Harbor, WA
"Babette's Feast" interested me from my first perusal through its pages. It combines topics of theology with those of worldly notions, such as fate, creating an interesting dichotomy of ideas. One is left questioning at the conclusion if the story as to whether Babette's presence, and therefore the effects she had upon the town and its inhabitants, was merely coincidental, or inspired by some higher power. I would highly recommend a reading and discussion upon such topics, and any other aspects you find prominent, to anyone who loves to analyze or think critically.