Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Deeper Down in the Domain of Human Hearts": Hope in Isak Dinesen's Babette's Feast

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Deeper Down in the Domain of Human Hearts": Hope in Isak Dinesen's Babette's Feast

Article excerpt

ISAK DINESEN'S BABETTE'S FEAST was first published in 1950 in Ladies' Home Journal. Dinesen, a Danish writer, had heard that Americans were interested in stories about food. So when she wrote a short piece for an American audience, she centered the transformative action of the story on a splendid meal. (1) About twenty years before Babette's Feast was published, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a work titled "On the Meaning of Courage." He was encouraged by his publisher to write treatises on the seven virtues, to which he responded with great enthusiasm, publishing On Hope in 1935. (2) "How much I, basically unsuspecting, had fallen into a simply inexhaustible theme, which I had been capable of sketching only in outline at best, became clear to me quite soon," Pieper notes. (3) Nevertheless, the theme of hope has not been the focus of much philosophical inquiry aside from Kant; as Bernard N. Schumacher notes, "In the history of philosophy, hope has never been a dominant theme; it was generally treated, if at all, 'incidentally,' just as it continues to be treated today among the majority of philosophers." (4) Yet the experience of hope is fundamental to the human condition; the loss of hope for an individual or for a community can be devastating. In an insightful essay on Pieper's work, Gilbert Meilaender notes that "doing what is right requires being good, but we can become good only by doing what is right. ... [Pieper's] discussion leaves us to wrestle with the problem: how to hand on moral knowledge in a society which often fails to inculcate the doing of what is right." (5)

This is the crux of the tension and discord in Dinesen's Babette's Feast: moral knowledge has not permeated the community. Their religious leader, known in the narrative as the Dean, has died, and "his disciples were becoming fewer in number every year, whiter or balder and harder of hearing." (6) The congregation remembers the Dean's message but individual members have trouble living it out. They sing hymns, study the Dean's writings, and gather for worship services, but nevertheless "sad little schisms would arise" (BF, 3-4). The Dean's daughters, although they live virtuous lives, have been unsuccessful in "hand[ing] on moral knowledge" to the community. The example of their lives--selfless, giving, and nurturing--is not enough to provide spiritual transformative direction. This is a community adrift, a group of professed believers who have lost their way. In Babette's Feast, Dinesen offers a fictional example of the ways in which individuals and communities can recover hope. (7) The dramatic restoration of hope to this community occurs at the end of the story during an elegant feast that the servant/artist/chef, Babette, prepares and serves. (8)

Babette is an outsider. She is French, she is a political exile, and she is Roman Catholic. The narrator tells us that it is indeed a "strange thing" for "a couple of Puritan women in a small Norwegian town" to have a "French maid-of-all-work" (BF, 22). The people in this small mountain town of Berlevaag, Norway, find the explanation for Babette's presence "in the sisters' piety and kindness of heart" (ibid.). This is partially true; the sisters had taken Babette in when she threw herself on their doorstep twelve years ago, cold, wet, and penniless, "a friendless fugitive, almost mad with grief and fear" (ibid.). However, the narrator tells us early in the story that "the true reason for Babette's presence in the two sisters' house was to be found further back in time and deeper down in the domain of human hearts" (ibid.), a statement that resonates and echoes throughout the story, and further reveals Dinesen's approach. Speaking of her narrative technique in general, she writes, "I know the whole story before writing the first word. I actually carry my stories in my head for a long time, before I write them. I tell them and retell them to myself." (9)

Babette's Feast moves back and forth in time so that the feast can be understood as an elaborate palimpsest for the participants, the chef, and the readers. …

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