Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2010, 55, 556–573

An interpretation of Babette’s Feast
as a parable of trauma
Sharn Waldron, Cambridge, UK
Abstract: In this paper I use the film Babette’s Feast as a parable to portray the impasse
that often arises out of the experience of complex trauma. The experience of such trauma
invokes a crisis of reality. It overflows the boundaries of rational containment. There
are no mechanisms with which to apprehend such an event, and consequently it cannot
be comprehended; because it cannot be comprehended it cannot be processed. The film
Babette’s Feast encapsulates the predicament of the individual ensnared in the web of
trauma. Although removed from the location and events of her trauma, Babette remains
the resident of an austere and colourless environment, her gifts repressed, her brilliance
unseen. Healing comes to Babette through her willingness to revisit her true self, a self
that has been crushed under the weight of grief and trauma. This revisiting costs her all
she has. Yet, it is in this revisiting that she not only frees herself from the austerity of
her environment but also engenders purpose and hope within the community who have
taken her in. The dissonance of her life is paralleled by the dissonance of the life of the
community in which she lives; it is the harmonizing of these dissonances which cannot
be spoken that finally gives articulation to the incoherence of Babette’s trauma.
Key words: austerity, film, language, mourning, music, trauma
In my clinical work I have become increasingly aware of the limitation of
words as a vehicle for communicating the experience of trauma. Trauma occurs
when there is a psychological or physical breach of a person’s or community’s
protective mechanisms, a breach of such severity that it cannot be addressed
through the processes usually engaged to deal with pain and loss. The onslaught
of such trauma invokes a crisis of reality. It is an experience of such intensity that
it overwhelms the boundaries of the self. There are no mechanisms with which
to apprehend such an event and because of this it cannot be comprehended;
because it cannot be comprehended it cannot be processed. It overflows the
boundaries of rational containment. The searing pain of trauma floods the
entire self with its devastation and implies, by its presence, the threat of non-
Trauma does not register through the cognitive functions in the same way as
other experiences and, as a result, it is not fully experienced at the moment of
its occurrence but only belatedly, and then in a particular way: not as conscious
memory but as imposed pervasive experience, re-enacted over and over again.
2010, The Society of Analytical Psychology
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 557
This overwhelming experience of trauma introduces a fundamental doubt about
its reality. The victim is often left wondering if this terrible event is real or if
their sanity is flawed. Even if the experience is apprehended and known as
reality, the nature of trauma ensures that psychic numbing will be a significant
factor; an experience of decreased or absent feeling reflects a disruption of the
individual’s capacity to symbolize his or her experience.
The apprehension of trauma as simultaneously absent but ever present
provokes a crisis of reality which is, at the same time, a crisis of language. In
her paper ‘The language of absence’, Hayata Gurevich writes of an insufferable
pain which is not felt as such but exists in multifarious ways:
Here external absence is also and at the same time internal absence because it is an
absence of and from the self, a dissociation. The psychic trauma of absence then
transmutes into ‘something’, while the absence itself becomes marked as ‘nothing’, a
nothing which in fact operates as though it were ‘something’ with a profound and
deeply intrusive impact on the vulnerable self.
(Gurevich 2008, p. 563)
It is in this regard that Freud’s notion of Nachtr¨ aglichkeit is a useful concept.
Freud proposes the idea that there are always two moments in the constitution
of a psychic trauma: that of the event which leaves its trace and that of the
event’s later advent, occasioned by the constellation of an external event with
an internal dynamic (Laplanche & Pontalis 1973, p. 114). The essence of this
recurrence is that it is cyclic, repetitive and on occasions a re-traumatization
which further perpetuates the cycle. The only means by which the cycle of
repetition and re-enactment can be disrupted is to facilitate a means by which
the traumatized individual can be enabled to bear witness to the reality of the
trauma, to put it into language that is heard and acknowledged and, in this
way, to begin a process of assimilation and integration of the experience. And
yet, giving voice to trauma runs the risk that in the very moment of telling, our
language will falsify what is at the core of the reality of the trauma. Language
is often unable to transcend trauma’s essential incomprehensibility.
It is this which brings into question the adequacy of words as a vehicle
for addressing trauma. However, if language is an inevitable component in
processing trauma, then the very nature of trauma confronts psychotherapy
with the question, ’What kind of language might be adequate?’ Juliet Mitchell
in her paper, ‘Trauma, recognition and the place of language’, argues that
psychoanalysis’ emphasis on speech as a therapeutic tool may obscure the ways
in which language itself is a symptom of the trauma (Mitchell 1998, p. 125).
It was in this context, wrestling with the impact of trauma on an individual’s
cognition and on their verbal and emotional functioning, that the film Babette’s
Feast began to gradually emerge to the forefront of my mind. I began to think
about the film’s juxtaposition of two languages, the language of the community
into which Babette had been exiled and the language of Babette, the outsider. As
a parable of the affect of trauma, the film Babette’s Feast is able to function as a
558 Sharn Waldron
multivalent symbol of the devastation and pain of complex trauma. The severity
of this pain has no way of communicating itself through any one medium but
a film allows for a diversity of vehicles and interpretations. The film conveys
its message through geographic, atmospheric and cultural setting, physicality,
religious symbolism, words, food and music.
This particular film is based on the well known and much loved bleak short
story by Karen Blixen. In the background looms her long debilitating illness
and emaciated physical state, ascribed to side effects of the syphilis caught from
her philanderer cousin and husband but never medically verified; her physical
ailment was frequently interpreted as caused by a broken heart and an eating
disorder. This gives the opulent meal in Babette’s Feast an altogether more
poignant, ambiguous and tragic resonance.
As I began to consider the impact of this film there emerged an awareness
that in analysis there are often no words to express adequately discordant
thoughts, feelings or physical sensations. The analyst is there to help make
sense of and translate a cacophony of disparate sounds into something that is
rhythmic and harmonious. Cognitive thought and articulation give content to
what is apprehended by the conscious but the subtlety of music touches what
the conscious cannot. Babette’s Feast is about food, religious symbolism, and
mourning. However there is another dimension to the film that is less articulate,
more subtle but no less significant. The filmcontains a strong musical backdrop.
The hymns of the community and Philippa’s gift of music combine to create an
atmosphere of austerity while simultaneously alluding to the creative potency
of the individuals and the community to which they belong. The music, like
the food, is not just about its ingestion and digestion but about the capacity
to nurture and sustain life. Babette may be a refugee and victim of trauma but
she is also a chef, artist and musician. In Babette’s Feast the kitchen and the
raw ingredients are the instruments and orchestra, and Babette’s cuill ` ere is the
maestro’s baton. In this film, both food and music are communicative vehicles.
As a conductor draws together the discordant cacophony of the orchestra tuning
up and transforms those same sounds into a harmonious symphony, so the
analyst seeks to draw together the discordant aspects of the patient’s psyche,
enabling the rediscovery of the rhythm, the harmonies that have been absent.
In 100 BCE the Chinese philosopher Chou Ma Tchien wrote, ‘Music comes
fromthe heart of the human being. When emotions are born, they are expressed
by sounds and when sounds are born they give birth to music’ (Rudhyar 1982,
Appendix 1). Music is a medium of the mind that pre-exists cognitive thought
and attaches to the essence of the psyche. Mauro Mancia argues that ‘The
unrepressed unconscious can be brought to the surface in analysis through
the “musical dimension” of the transference, characterized by the voice (its
intonation and rhythm) and the prosody of the language’ (Mancia 2006, p. 91).
This notion was also enunciated by Patricia Skar (2002) in her paper, ‘The
goal as process: music and the search for the self’. She proposes the use of
musical improvisation in the analytical encounter, using simple percussion
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 559
instruments. She links this practice with Jung’s concept of active imagination
and argues that musical improvisation can further develop the dialogue between
the unconscious and conscious psyche; it can also deepen the relationship
between analyst and analysand (Skar 2002, p. 636).
According to philosopher Susan Langer (Langer 1976, p. 243) music
expresses feelings which the individual is not able to otherwise utter, feelings
incapable of being put into words such as bodily rhythms, experiences anchored
to early childhood, often unconscious and traumatic. Langer argued that music
is a prime example of a non-discursive form of symbolism that is clearly
symbolic despite not being composed of the discrete symbolic elements of
discursive symbolism such as verbal language where each word acts as an
independent symbol with its own denotation. By contrast, in music the notes
take on symbolic significance only as part of a simultaneous whole. Trauma
requires this kind of non-discursive symbolismsince, as previously stated, words
are an inadequate vehicle for its expression. Discursive forms of symbolism are
limited in their capacity to capture the holistic, multiple and indeterminate
qualities of emotional experience.
Babette’s Feast functions as a conduit between essential daily nourishment
and art, but also suggests that music and the provision of nourishment have
within them the creative potential to bring healing and communion to those
impoverished through trauma and loss. In this film the preparation and
consumption of food serve as the medium of transcendence, that which permits
an unbearable trauma to be openly presented and shared and, as a consequence,
initiates a salvific possibility. In both the creation of a good meal or a brilliant
symphony, there is a process of preparation and commitment by all involved.
In the final outcome all are needed, those who make the instruments, those
who write the musical score, those who play the instruments and the maestro.
Likewise with a good meal, it involves the quality of the basic ingredients,
the capacity of those who serve, the ability and creativity of the chef, and the
capacity of the guests to comprehend and appreciate the quality of the meal
being served. As in the analytical environment, it is the incorporation of the
whole which is required for trauma to become integrated.
Babette’s Feast
Babette’s Feast begins in a remote seaside village in Jutland, the site of an
especially strict Lutheran sect. The beautiful young daughters of the founder of
the sect, although presented with real opportunities to leave the village, choose
to stay with their father, to serve him and their church. At this point, the film
leaps thirty-five years to September 1871. The founder of the sect has died
and his daughters, now in late middle age, continue his work. In the midst
of a driving rainstorm a bedraggled and visibly exhausted woman appears on
their doorstep. The woman is a refugee from the civil war raging in Paris. Her
560 Sharn Waldron
husband and son were both brutally killed. ‘She herself’, a letter informs the
sisters, ‘barely escaped with her life’.
Babette Hersant has lost her family, her country, her language, and, as it
transpires, her art. She arrives at the sisters’ door, begs them to take her in, and
commits herself to work for them as an unpaid servant. However such is the
paucity of the sisters’ life that they scarcely knowwhat to do with a servant, even
one who will work for no wages. Nevertheless they take her in and Babette soon
becomes indispensable to them and to those whom they comfort and care for.
The church that their father founded is beset by conflict and bitterness. In
an effort to heal and bring reconciliation the sisters decide to hold a dinner
to commemorate the 100
anniversary of the birth of the church. They plan a
modest supper with a cup of coffee to conclude the evening. However, it is at this
time that Babette experiences unexpected good fortune. Through a lottery ticket
given by a friend, she wins 10,000 francs. This ticket is the only connection that
remains between herself and France. Babette implores the sisters to allow her to
take charge of the preparation of the meal. Although secretly concerned about
what Babette, a Catholic and a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go
ahead. They and the community are fearful that this meal may turn out to be
a ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ and covenant together not to discuss or comment on the
food and drink, whatsoever Babette will provide.
Babette prepares the feast for the members of the tiny church and for an
important gentleman who has arrived at their home. The guest, a General at
the Swedish court, is not related to the sisters but as an inexperienced and
arrogant young man was once in love with Martine. He chose his military
career over happiness with the woman he loved. It is he who, unknowingly,
identifies Babette as the famous chef from the Paris Caf´ e Anglais and provides
the mouthpiece for the enjoyment of the feast.
Babette does not partake of the meal but remains in the kitchen during
the entire dinner. The serving boy, Erik, moves between the dining room and
the kitchen as he follows Babette’s careful instructions about what and how
much to serve whom in which glass. In the film we are carried back and forth
between these two rooms, dwelling on close-ups of the dishes being lovingly
prepared, tasted and served, and the wine poured and sipped. Babette is joined
in the kitchen by one guest, the General’s coach driver, to whom she serves
every dish. There are therefore fifteen people present during this meal: Babette,
Erik, the coach driver and the twelve invited guests. In an addition that is at
once authentic and comic, the coach driver’s frequently voiced response ‘That’s
good!’ expresses the deep satisfaction that the vow of silence has prevented the
other guests from expressing. Only towards the end of the meal does Babette
allow herself to savour the magnificent old Burgundy that she has dispensed
so liberally. Only at the very end does she eat the incomparable meal that she
has prepared. When the guests leave, Martine and Philippa come to the kitchen
to compliment Babette on the meal. Babette quietly confirms that she was the
head chef at the Caf´ e Anglais.
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 561
She also astonishes these two sisters in another way; she will not return to
France ever. There is no place for her there; everyone dear to her has died, the
world she knew has disappeared. Besides, she has no money. The sisters are
shocked to learn that Babette spent her entire lottery winnings on the dinner;
‘Just what a dinner for twelve would cost at the Caf´ e Anglais’, she states matter-
of-factly. The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice. ‘It was not just for you’,
Babette responds. ‘Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of
the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best’. Babette has had a last chance
to give of her very best, so that, contrary to what Martine fears, she cannot be
poor: ‘An artist is never poor’. For the first time, Philippa embraces her servant
in an act of love that acknowledges the claims of the artist. In this affectionate
embrace she acknowledges the right and need of the artist to create. Babette
is no longer a foreigner but rather a legitimate member of the community in
which they both live.
The dominant discussion concerning the film Babette’s Feast appears to revolve
around the question of whether it is a motion picture about religion and religious
symbolism or a film which juxtaposes food as a means of nourishment and
food as a sensory experience. I can see the validity of both perceptions. In both
arguments food and the provision of the opulent French dinner are seen to have
transformative powers. Babette, the master chef, sacrifices all her riches for a
great feast, and through her sacrificial act brings transformation to her adoptive
community. But more importantly, she also brings transformation to herself
through the recreation of the ‘Caf´ e Anglais’ (Ferguson 2004, pp. 187–201).
According to Wanda Avila, the feast provides the opportunity for an
epiphany, the sudden realization or comprehension of a larger essence or
meaning. She writes,
Acontact between the ego and the self has been made, signalling the integration of their
psyches. The perfection of the feast seems to have triggered the epiphanies. However,
the participants had already made themselves psychologically ready to receive such
epiphanies by performing various rituals: Babette had made sacrifices, the General had
consciously reflected on the meaning of his life, and the disciples had come to terms
with their shadows by confessing and repenting of their sins.
(Avila 2005)
Avila argues that the film is about discovering meaning in life. The participants
in the feast are all in the second half of life and beset by intense inner conflicts.
Consciously or unconsciously they are searching for meaning in their lives.
Babette’s preparations for the feast are symbolic of her inner sacrifice which
has all the characteristics of what Avila refers to as a ‘true sacrifice’ (Avila
2005). She likens this sacrifice to The Last Supper. It is a deliberate sacrifice
without any expectation of return or gain. The sacrifice is not made to buy the
562 Sharn Waldron
goodwill of either the two sisters or that of her adoptive community. She is very
much aware that her dinner guests will have no idea of what they are consuming
or its cost. Babette has chosen to expend the entire ten thousand francs of her
lottery winnings to have the best wines and foods brought from France for this
one dinner. In doing so she has surrendered any possibility of returning to Paris
and consigned herself to living as a foreigner in cold and remote Jutland for the
rest of her life. But she has given her all, invested her whole self, including her
forgotten, dormant brilliance into this one feast, for others.
However, whilst the feast Babette prepared and served offers a reflection
on religion and artistic endeavour there is another more central and poignant
aspect to the story, articulated by Esther Rashkin in her paper ‘Devouring
loss’. She proposes this film as a recipe for mourning. She argues that
Babette’s Feast is a story about the overcoming of an inability to mourn. It
dramatizes the effects of a blockage to mourning and articulates a prescription
or recipe for the transcendence of that blockage. Rashkin focuses on the film’s
psychoanalytic function. In her interpretation, the unfolding story creates a
space for communion through loss by enabling loss to be spoken of and, as a
consequence, a process of mourning can begin. She writes,
The preparation and consumption of food serve as the medium, of transcendence,
as that which permits an unbearable loss to be swallowed and the process of its
digestion to commence. They also function as a vehicle for articulating a fundamental
connection between artistic creation and bereavement, between literary inscription
and psychic memorialization, and between the production of narrative as an aesthetic
enterprise and the creation of art as a life-saving act.
(Rashkin 1995, p. 26)
Rashkin proposes that the repeated absence of language about Babette’s
previous life and the loss of her husband, son and life in France should be
understood as a sign that the process of introjection has been blocked and that
normal mourning has been obstructed (Rashkin 2008, p. 31).
In his paper ‘Mourning and the symbolic process’, Warren Colman argues
[t]he importance of being able to symbolize absence for the process of mourning is self-
evident. Perhaps the central task of mourning is to make sense of the conflict between
the absence of the lost object and the continuing presence of an emotional relationship
to that which is lost. It is here that Jung’s notion of a transcendent function that enables
conflicting opposites to be transcended via an emergent symbolic realization can be
seen to be a crucial element of the mourning process.
(Colman 2010)
In this enigmatic filmBabette has been unable to mourn because she has kept her
trauma in exile. She has been isolated with the trauma and unable to integrate
or move beyond her traumatized state. As a consequence she remains always a
foreigner, existing in a sensually emaciated puritanical community in a foreign
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 563
The impact of trauma
Babette had been traumatized in her home country. Her husband and son had
been killed like vermin. She arrived in Jutland shocked and distraught. The
puritanical community into which she entered regarded her as a papist and a
foreigner. The environment which took her in was cold and basic, portrayed in a
mode typical of the austere Lutheran movement ‘Pietism’ which swept through
the whole of Scandinavia in the eighteenth century. It was well established by
1871, the opening year of the narrative. Pietism began as a search for piety but
became an austere formof Lutheranismdefined by its prohibition of any sensual
pleasures and joy. It proposed that a true believer’s earthly life should be spent
in sacrifice and self-denial in preparation for the celestial feast. The community
abjured erotic feelings and had adopted a life which sought to exclude overt
sexuality and eroticism. Rashkin writes of Martine and Philippa:
Brought up by their father to ‘renounce the pleasures of this world’, these beautiful
young women are effectively put off limits to men by the Dean, who makes clear that
to him in his calling his daughters were his right and left hand. Who could want to
bereave him of them? And the fair girls had been brought up to an ideal of heavenly
love; they were all filled with it and did not let themselves be touched by the flames of
this world.
(Rashkin 2008, p. 33)
The suppression of the erotic and the physical austerity that both Martine and
Philippa experience because of the great need of their father for them to be his
right and left hands is quite shocking in itself. Both Martine and Philippa have
the possibility of erotic desire presented to them but appear frightened by its
presence and as a matter of course suppress their longing. Martine allows the
young lieutenant Loewenhielm to leave without saying a word. Philippa sings
with Achille Papin, ‘I am frightened by the joy’, while Martine and her father
sit outside the room waiting to see if she will succumb, but she chooses instead
to remain true to the austerity her father personifies.
It is in this impoverished and austere home and community, beset by fears
and jealousies, that Babette seeks refuge and security. She arrives destitute and
desolate. Mad with grief and fear she is taken in by the sisters and readily adapts
to their austere life but then, gradually, small changes begin to emerge. When
Babette arrives and is shown by the sisters how to prepare the fish soup, the
kitchen is dim and sober. Later, before the arrival of the winning lottery ticket,
the kitchen is bright and airy; there is a fire burning in the stove, the burnished
pots and pans hang neatly on the wall and there are fresh vegetables and herbs
on the bench.
These small but important touches that Babette brings to the daily fare
make the food more appetizing. Babette insists on the quality of foodstuffs
as she bargains in rudimentary but effective Danish with the grocer and the
fishmonger, both of whom are dumbfounded when she insists on fresh bacon,
vegetables and fish. And yet, this insistence belies Babette’s impoverishment.
564 Sharn Waldron
Babette rediscovers and insinuates an emerging vibrancy into this isolated and
remote part of Jutland. The lottery ticket is only the end product to a salvific
dynamic which is allowed to flourish in this bleak landscape.
Clinical material
I would like to present a case study of a woman whom, for the purposes of this
paper, I will call Mary. Mary was traumatized in her early life and the effects of
this trauma have permeated her life, robbing it of colour and spontaneity. Her
ability to experience joy in living has been blocked by the austerity of her inner
self. What has occurred in working with Mary illustrates the dynamics that I
am proposing are evident in the story of Babette and her journey to wholeness.
This is not intended to provide a direct parallel between Mary and Babette. The
effects of trauma are very individual and diverse. What does seemto be common
to people who have experienced complex trauma is the draining of colour, the
loss of the capacity to experience fullness of life, to experience warmth, love,
joy and fulfilment in sustainable and wholistic measure.
Mary is 49 years old. She has been married for thirteen years and has three
daughters. The daughters are six, eight and ten years of age. They attend a local
religious school.
Mary is an ardent feminist and a professional journalist but she has found
it extremely difficult to sustain employment; her history is interspersed with
sackings and resignations.
Mary has come from a devout Catholic family. Her father was an alcoholic
and was frequently unemployed and ill. He eventually died of alcohol poisoning
when Mary was fifteen. Mary’s mother suffers from Obsessive Compulsive
Disorder and cannot stand the smell of food, nor can she tolerate anyone
messing up the house. When Mary was a child she would frequently find herself,
with her belongings, thrown onto the front garden. Mary learned to make her
own meals from a very early age but was terrified of her mother coming home
and being able to smell the cooking. She learned to cook very simple foods and
to eat them in haste, without tasting.
Mary is fiercely independent and academically gifted. Her presenting reason
for entering therapy was an inability to cope with her life. Living each day
was painful. The myriad day to day decisions about what to wear, what to
cook and what to eat were extremely distressing and difficult. In frustration
she periodically gave way to uncontrollable rage, smashing household items.
On one occasion she destroyed the television set. However, she found that the
‘normality’ of providing a daily routine and meals for her children gave her
some stability. She has also found that attending therapy twice per week is
beginning to have a foundational impact on her life.
Although highly intellectual, an accomplished journalist and screen writer,
Mary often finds difficulty making herself understood. Her difficulty appears to
be centred on the spoken word as opposed to the written word. At times she feels
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 565
that she is speaking a different language to everyone else, an experience which
causes her acute pain and distress. For her, being misunderstood is tantamount
to being non-existent. In her writing she experiences a sense of self and has the
time and perseverance to both speak and translate this different language, but in
a face-to-face interchange she has a tendency to become inarticulate suddenly.
When Mary was a child the chaos and violence were overwhelming. Her
parents could not manage their own chaos and violent feelings, far less the
chaotic and destructive feelings of their troubled daughter. Mary survived
through scavenging. Then, as a fifteen year old, she found a family who took
her in to do domestic work. There was no pay for this but her food and lodging
was provided on the basis that she helped with the day to day chores of the
family. This created in Mary a deep sense of her earnings being only enough
for basic survival: a sense that she had no rights of her own. There was no
presence of grace or gift or the possibility for her of ever being loved or valued
for herself.
In the therapeutic environment, Mary struggles with feelings of despair.
People are starving in Africa. What right does she have to be privileged with
the luxury of therapy or to have a person with whom she may relate? To spend
money on herself for therapy has no justification. It indicates that she is a
person of worth and this contradicts her self-perception, that she is a person of
no value. In an attempt to undermine this developing sense of self, Mary has
brought gifts for me into the therapeutic environment. It is as if she needs to
earn the right to be fed and nourished. The gifts are also a way of warding off
her immense feelings of anxiety that I might go away and never come back.
I interpret these gifts as a defence against her feelings of hate and envy towards
me as her therapist. Hate and envy are an expression, projection and deflection
of Thanatos – the death drive. Envy blocks the very possibility of love, existing
by melding with hate and, in that fusion, destroying all that is good. If hate and
envy are dissociated, they become omnipotent, disconnected from reference to
the present. In this context, the initiating trauma, and the emotions it generates
are inevitably enacted and re-enacted in the present. If they are heard, addressed
and processed, they may be integrated into the existential now, thus becoming
a relative reality rather than an absolute. Interpreting these gifts at a symbolic
rather than concrete level allows space for Mary’s aggression, hate and envy
to find voice in the therapeutic relationship. Mary experiences both anger and
relief at my interpretation of these gifts.
Hate and envy are always with us, but more pronounced in the victim of
complex trauma. They lack what others are perceived to have at the most
basic level of need and they carry anger at what has been imposed upon them.
However, they are not always brought to the surface but can be hidden behind
gifts or overt dependence on another who carries a symbol of their paucity, as
portrayed in the film with Babette’s continued dependence on the sisters and
her acceptance of the servant role. The irony of this dynamic is beautifully
expressed in the film, where Babette, the great chef, accepts direction from the
566 Sharn Waldron
sisters as to the creation of the tasteless and gross fish soup. Like the sisters,
Babette also remains celibate, separated from her emotional needs, her world
as grey as that of the family to whom she devoted herself.
Reconnecting to trauma
Babette carries with her the trauma, unspoken and unaddressed, of the brutality
of the Revolution. The feast that she prepares, using all of her financial
resources, is the means by which Babette reconnects with her trauma. It is
a gift to her community and to both Martine and Philippa, but most of all it
is a gift to herself. It could be seen as profoundly narcissistic to spend all of
one’s resources on a gift to one’s self, but in the giving of this gift Babette is
able to reconnect to her trauma. It is in this reconnection that healing not only
touches her but ripples out to the external world of which she is a part. It is
only through her preparedness to spend all she has that she is able to re-address
what she has buried. She had lost all that she loved; her husband, her son, her
prestigious position as a great chef and her life in France. The sumptuous feast
she prepares contrasts with the remote and austere community in which she now
resides. Set in an inhospitable and remote land, it functions as a lucid medium
for articulating a fundamental connection between artistic creation and loss; it
is a fundamentally life saving act. The consumption of this food, prepared so
painstakingly by Babette, becomes the medium of transcendence, that which
prepares the way for an unbearable trauma to be reconnected, swallowed and
The reconnection with trauma begins in the kitchen where the food is
prepared. Babette is not isolated in the kitchen. She is there with the coachman
and Erik who is occupied serving table. Before the meal commences Babette
gently runs her fingers through Erik’s hair and taps him gently under the nose.
She had lost this intimacy with her child and husband. As a foreigner she
has been unable to participate in family life in this austere and puritanical
community which echoes the austerity and greyness of her soul. Her artistic
gifts have been crushed for the purpose of survival and as an enactment of
her emotional destruction. It is only now that these gifts can be released to
the generative potential they hold, not only for Babette but for the guests
in the dining room. The healing occurs out of sight, in the kitchen, but the
wider community benefits from this salvific dynamic. When this feast concludes
Babette will no longer be a foreigner. She has shared her emptiness and her
creativity, and has become a part of the community, but through the sharing of
all she is, the community itself has fundamentally changed.
In her book, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman writes,
The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection
from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and
the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only within the context of
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 567
relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connections with other
people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or
deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include basic capacities for trust,
autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are
originally formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such
(Herman 1997, p. 133)
I think this is what Babette’s Feast reminded me of. She had left part of herself
in France with the trauma, stepped into a new land and become someone else.
She became the servant of the two puritanical sisters. She managed her new
life but the eschewal of the erotic and the physical made it easier for her to
contain the explosive feelings that are at the core of the experience of trauma.
The puritanical community, combined with the inhospitable climate, created a
shield against experiencing stimuli that could trigger reconnection with the very
deep untouchable feelings of her trauma. These had become her solace against
unmanageable and uncontained feelings that might annihilate her.
The willingness of Babette to spend all that she had creating a sumptuous
feast for the community in which she had exiled herself allowed her, after many
years of living in an austere puritanical environment, to reconnect with her
traumatized past and in it find the seeds of her creativity and brilliance revived.
This rediscovery could only be attained after the lapse of time, time spent in the
safe embrace of the community. It could only occur through the commitment
of the whole self, not through words that participated only in the peripheries
of the self but through a whole-self action that engaged beyond the depths of
The language of trauma
The language of trauma is a silent language. It exists on the periphery of
perception between words and sentences, in the dissonance between the physical
and the verbal. It can be glimpsed in the changes of rhythm in speech; it
creates unconnected and loose words, tears holes in syntax and grammar. The
psychoanalyst Franz Alexander writes,
Logical thinking is based on intellectual syllogisms. The logic of emotions is based
on emotional syllogisms. The logic of intellectual thinking is the result of external
experiences. The logic of emotions is the result of internal experiences.
(Alexander 1935, p. 399)
When the conscious memory has been excluded because the emotional memory
is too painful to bear, and the body itself is inscribed with an unknown language,
how does an individual begin to speak? Furthermore, how are those who listen
to find a vehicle to hear and understand?
My patient Mary would at times come in and sit in total silence throughout
the entire session. I think she was conveying to me in this act the depths of her
568 Sharn Waldron
isolation, how traumatized she had been in her early childhood. There was also
a sense in which her behaviour had an element of persecution towards me as
the therapist. I interpreted this as an expression, an inarticulate cry, for me to
know what it felt like to be isolated and desolate. At other times, Mary was
quite articulate with a musical lilt to her Irish brogue. She suffers acute pain
in her ears, a condition that on one hand causes her to be unable to tolerate
noise and vibration, in short, the presence of other people around her. On the
other hand it is a means of isolating herself within her own home, a vivid and
poignant picture of her emotional seclusion which no words can convey. The
use of words would be antithetical, a betrayal of her experience of isolation,
pain and loneliness. Mary’s trauma and anguish is expressed through the in-
articulation of silence. The language of trauma is not static nor a prescribed
given. It evolves out of the traumatized individual’s unique psyche interacting
with the particular nature of their traumatic experience; it can present itself in
a variety of ways and in that sense it is an individual language. With Mary,
the language of trauma expressed itself in the silences. For Babette it presented
itself in the impoverished foreigner’s differentness.
To cope with her trauma Babette dissociated from the painful memories of
the brutal murder of her husband and son. She expressed this geographically,
culturally and emotionally. By her own words, the only connection remaining
to her past life in France was an annual lottery ticket purchased by a friend. But
the film tells another story. She is still connected to France through music; she
sang in the grocer’s shop and the song, in French, underscored her foreignness.
We, the viewers, do not get the subtitles that translate the song. It is a foreign
song, sung by a foreign person living, dissociated, outside of her context.
Music as communicative vehicle
At the beginning of this paper I indicated that Babette’s Feast is about the use
of food, religious symbolism and music as communicative vehicles. Music is an
integral part of the film. The hymns, combined with the duet fromMozart’s Don
Giovanni, create a sensual and corporeal experience. In this film music is part
of the medium by which the language of trauma is uttered. It is customary to
distinguish between language and music by asserting that concepts are foreign
to music. But as a communicative vehicle, music touches onto the edges and
delves into the heart of that which cannot be expressed at a cognitive level but
is nevertheless real, powerful and effective. In the music, trauma is accessed;
that which is too deep to be spoken, too painful to be touched by the blunt
tool of speech. It can only be hinted at in symbol, signified by the obscurity
of the cadences of music. In both composition and interpretation, music
becomes the vehicle of affective reality. It must be sung. It must be heard,
even as my patient Mary’s silence must be heard. To interpret music means to
make music (Sutton 2002, pp. 127–28). This is also integral to the filmBabette’s
Feast. The hymns of the community and the duet by Philippa and Achille are
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 569
symbolic representations of the austerity and rigours involved in keeping the
carnal at bay. Philippa is frightened at the erotic feelings she is discovering in
her relationship to Achille Papin through music. The song sung by Babette in
the grocer’s shop betrays her outward appearance of containment by alluding
to a land, a life and memories to which she has chosen not to return.
Babette has maintained a connection with France and her previous life, but it
is a tenuous connection, an annual lottery ticket – and a song. These allow her
the possibility of reconnecting with her loss and trauma without demanding of
her that she touch that which is still untouchable. The grocer knows the words
of Babette’s song and joins her in a duet in the shop. It seems she has often
sung this song. A part of Babette did not want to live her impoverished life and
yet she had prepared a means of reconnecting to her trauma, a path for healing
if the opportunity availed itself. It availed itself through Achille Papin who is
also represented by musical connection. It is in the fusion of the art of food and
music that Babette touches the pain of both herself and the community.
Music as a metaphor of analysis
For Mary, the harmony is in the sitting, in the duet of silence with another
who is willing to be there, to hear the isolation and silence of that which
cannot be spoken. She has no words with which to express her desolation and
terror. When she does speak, it is only to elucidate the silence. In the analytical
environment, Mary and I are both present and in the presence of another in this
inhospitable place, an archaic primitive rhythm is called into being from the
primordial chaos. It is an antiphonal duet created by and within the analytical
environment. Music is created in the silence by rhythm, stress and intonation.
Music communicates where words are at times ineffective and inadequate.
Trauma needs a language that is inarticulate because it is experienced as pre-
cognitive, and speech is about cognition. Analytical interpretations do not
have to be verbal; they are often symbolic. The language of trauma cannot
be understood in isolation. To understand music as a metaphor for analysis is
to recognize that both are art forms and as such have the capacity to stimulate
patterns and areas of the brain that have been damaged due to trauma.
It is this symbolic image of music that encompasses analytical experience. The
analytical framework is not only a facilitating and containing environment; it
is also, in itself, a poignant interpretation in that it facilitates an environment
that enables analytical work to occur. This is how the language of trauma can
be listened to, interpreted and taken out of its physically restrictive and isolated
solipsistic world. Child psychotherapist Dr Rose Woo writes:
The use of a ‘musical vertex’ of analytical attention sheds light on the developmental
processes that are set in motion before birth. Although the means of communication
in our analytical work is verbal language, nevertheless the understanding of primitive
mental states involves both the use of ‘symbol and sound’ . . . by our patients and
(Woo 1999, p. 200)
570 Sharn Waldron
The analytical frame
The analytical environment needs to be understood as more than ‘the talking
cure’, because speaking often diverts us from the emotional devastation of
trauma. Analysis is not merely about words. It must symbolically incorporate
a whole range of psychic and physical attunement between analyst and patient.
What is essential to this process is that both analyst and patient are dynamic
agents in the analytical encounter. The warmth of the analytical relationship
was the means of melting the vast, frozen emotional wasteland that was Mary
and her illness. As the accumulated weight melted, the emotional ice sheet
receded, leaving behind the landscape of Mary’s unique psychological depth,
long hidden from sight. The analytic framework is one of dynamic containment
in which the analyst regresses with the patient to the patient’s inner space,
hears what the patient communicates on many levels, and works through the
unconscious and conscious associations to put them into a form which first the
analyst’s ego and then the patient’s ego, can integrate.
Communicating life
In Symbols of Transformation, Jung refers to the alchemical vessel as a true
pharmacon athanasias (Jung 1911–12/1952, para. 246), that is, a medicine
(pharmacon0 of ‘not death’; athanasias is literally the antonym of death: ‘“a”
preceding (thanaton)’. In this passage Jung uses the imagery of the fiery furnace
from the book of Daniel wherein three men are sent into the furnace to die,
but in this furnace it is not death they encounter but rather they are joined
there by another, the presence of God. Their ordeal leads not to death but to
liberation and restitution. This poignant imagery epitomizes the intense heat
that is encapsulated in the analytical environment and vividly portrayed in the
film as Babette prepares and cooks the meal. The quail Babette brings from
France, that she kills and painstakingly entombs in pastry sarcophagi, are not
just birds; they are a fleshly embodiment of her murdered husband and son and
her previous existence in France (Rashkin 2008, p. 38). But perhaps they are
also a fleshly embodiment of her attachment to the pain of that experience. The
film’s depiction of Babette’s assiduous and deferential preparation of dinner
underscores the symbolic and mournful nature of the meal. This is no ordinary
dinner. The film implies that Babette’s creativity in the kitchen is not only the
preparation of a special meal, a French dinner, but is also a preparation of the
dead for burial.
The capacity to speak of experiences that have provoked intense psychic
distress does not erase the disruptive force that the experience may have had
or deny its power to have caused profound psychic pain. Nor does it mean
that the process of working through the trauma is or ever will be completed.
The ability to give voice to the hidden secret signifies the ability to overcome
an obstacle to healing. In this film, it is only when loss and trauma can be
spoken about and shared that Babette is able to find healing, but the healing
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 571
does not happen to her alone. The dynamic that she encounters when she
is once again able to resurrect her brilliance, her true self, is shared by the
wider community who have enabled her to do so through the security of
a loving, and safe, if imperfect environment. But they have also shared her
repression. As the analyst experiences the loss and non-being of the patient,
only then can the analyst experience, with the patient, the re-awakening of the
Dans cet article, je m’appuie sur le film Le Festin de Babette, pour illustrer l’impasse
` a laquelle aboutit souvent l’exp´ erience de trauma complexe. Une telle exp´ erience
traumatique g´ en` ere une crise de la r´ ealit´ e. Elle d´ eborde le contenant rationnel. Il
n’existe pas de m´ ecanismes permettant d’appr´ ehender l’´ ev´ enement, ce qui en rend la
compr´ ehension impossible; et sans compr´ ehension, point d’´ elaboration. Le Festin de
Babette r´ esume la difficult´ e avec laquelle est aux prises l’individu captif des rets du
trauma. Bien que lib´ er´ ee des circonstances du trauma, Babette demeure l’habitante
d’un univers aust` ere et incolore, ses dons demeurent r´ eprim´ es et son ´ eclat voil´ e. La
gu´ erison provient chez Babette de sa volont´ e de revisiter son vrai self , un self qui a
´ et´ e ´ ecras´ e par la charge du chagrin et du trauma. Cette exploration lui coˆ ute tout ce
qu’elle poss` ede. Pourtant, c’est ` a travers ce retour sur elle-mˆ eme que, non seulement
elle se lib` ere de l’aust´ erit´ e qui l’environne, mais qu’elle suscite dans la communaut´ e qui
l’accueille des projets et de l’espoir. Les dissonances de sa vie trouvent un ´ echo dans
celles de la communaut´ e o` u elle vit. C’est l’harmonisation de ces indicibles dissonances
qui finalement articulent et donnent sens ` a l’incoh´ erence du trauma de Babette.
In diesemBeitrag betrachte ich den Film‘Babettes Fest’ als eine Parabel umdie Sackgasse
zu skizzieren, die sich oftmals aus dem Erleiden eines komplexen Traumas ergibt.
Die Erfahrung eines solchen Traumas ruft eine Realit ¨ atskrise hervor. Die Grenzen des
rational Auffangbaren werden ¨ uberflutet. Es gibt keine Mechanismen, mit denen ein
solches Ereignis erfaßt werden k¨ onnte und deswegen kann es nicht begriffen, kann
es nicht verarbeitet werden. Der Film ‘Babettes Fest’ verkapselt die Zwangslage des
Individuums, das in das Gespinst des Traumas verstrickt ist. Obgleich sie vom Ort
und den Ereignissen ihres Traumas entfernt ist, bleibt Babette die Einwohnerin einer
strengen und farblosen Umgebung, ihre Gaben sind unterdr ¨ uckt, ihre Brillanz bleibt
ungesehen. Die Heilung wird Babette durch ihre Bereitschaft erm¨ oglicht, ihr wahres
Selbst wiederzusuchen, ein Selbst, das unter der Last von Trauer und Traumatisierung
zerdr ¨ uckt worden war. Die Wiederbegegnung kostet sie alles was sie hat. Dennoch liegt
in dieser Wiederbegegnung nicht nur ihre Selbstbefreiung von Einschr¨ ankungen durch
ihre Umgebung, sondern auch die Erzeugung von Bestimmung und Hoffnung in der
Gemeinschaft, die sie aufgenommen hat. Die Dissonanz ihres Lebens findet ihre Parallele
in der Dissonanz des Lebens der Gemeinschaft in der sie lebt; es ist die Harmonisierung
dieser unaussprechbaren Dissonanzen, die am Ende eine Artikulation der Inkoh¨ arenz
von Babettes Trauma darstellt.
572 Sharn Waldron
In questo scritto utilizzo il film ‘Il pranzo di Babette’ come una parabola per descrivere
il blocco che spesso emerge dall’esperienza di un trauma complesso. L’esperienza di tale
trauma provoca una crisi di realt ` a. Oltrepassa i confini del contenimento razionale. Non
ci sono meccanismi attraverso i quali comprendere un tale evento e perci ` o non pu` o essere
compreso; poich´ e non pu` o essere compreso non pu` o essere trattato. Il film ‘Il pranzo
di Babette’ isola il problema dell’individuo intrappolato nella rete del trauma. Sebbene
non abitasse pi ` u i luoghi e gli eventi del suo trauma Babette resta la residente di un
ambiente austero e senza colori, i suoi doni rimossi, la sua brillantezza non vista. La
guarigione giunge a Babette attraverso la sua volont ` a di ritrovare il suo vero s´ e, un s´ e che
` e stato schiacciato dal peso del dolore e del trauma. Questo ritrovamento le costa tutto
ci ` o che ha. Eppure ` e in tale ritrovamento che lei non solo libera se stessa dall’austerit ` a
dell’ambiente ma alimenta anche progetti e speranze all’interno della cominit ` a che l’aveva
accolta. La dissonanza della sua vita ` e parallela alla dissonanza della vita della comunit ` a
in cui vive; ` e l’armonizzare tali dissonanze, che non possono essere dette, che alla fine
riesce a dare forma all’incoerenza del trauma di Babette.
Iafoi cfufio n ncnoai:yi|nai:«In¡ Iuooffi» iui n¡nfuy µan naaicf¡unnn
fynniu, uucfo no:nniuimoio n¡n no¡onnnunnn caonnoi f¡un:i. Onif fuioi
f¡un:i ni:inuof i¡n:nc ¡ouainocfn. On :ufonanof i¡unnni ¡unnonuainoio
ionfoinn¡onunnn. Hof :oxunn::on, no:noanimnx nocfnui fuioo cooifno, n
n:-:u afoio oio nono::onno oc:icanfi; nono::onnoo µan oc:icaonnn, ono no
:onof oifi no¡o¡uoofuno. +nai: «In¡ Iuooffi», iui n iuncyao, noiu:inuof
fo f¡yµnocfn, iofo¡io ncnifinuof uoaonoi, oiu:unmnicn n aonymio f¡un:i.
Hoc:of¡n nu fo, ufo onu yno µuaoio of :ocfu n cooifni cnooi f¡un:i, Iuooffu
nnnof n cy¡ono: n oocnnofno: oi¡ynonnn. Io fuaunfi nifocnoni, oo oaociu n
noanioaonnn nnifo no nnµnf. Icnoaonno n¡nxoµnf i Iuooffo c oo noaunno:
nnoni nuifn cnoo noµannnoo 1, 1, ¡u:onfoo fnnocfii io¡n n f¡un:i. Ðfo
no:n¡umonno i cooo cfonf oi ncoio, ufo y noo ocfi. Oµnuio n afo: no:n¡umonnn
onu no foaiio ocnooonµuonn of uciofnunocfn cnooio oi¡ynonnn, no n :u¡onµuof
n n¡nnnnmo: oo cooomocfno noai n nuµonµy. )ncconunc oo coocfnonnoi nn:nn
nu¡uaaoaon µncconuncy nn:nn foio oomocfnu, n iofo¡o: onu nnnof; n anmi
iu¡:onn:unnn afnx µncconuncon, o iofo¡ix nono::onno iono¡nfi, n ionno
ionnon, n¡nµuof :nyuunno f¡un:o Iuooffi n nocnn:nocfn afoi f¡un:i.
En este trabajo yo utilizo el Banquete del Babette cinematogr´ afico como una par´ abola
para representar el impasse que a menudo surge fuera de la experiencia de trauma
complejo. La experiencia de tal trauma invoca una crisis de la realidad. Se derraman
las fronteras de la contenci ´ on racional. No hay mecanismos con que aprehender tal
acontecimiento, y a causa de esto no puede ser comprendido; porque lo que no puede
ser comprendido no puede ser procesado. El film Banquete del Babette encapsula el
predicamento de una persona entrampada en la tela de ara˜ na del trauma. Aunque fuera
de la posici ´ on y acontecimientos de su trauma, Babette se residencia de un ambiente
austero y sin color, sus regalos reprimidos, su brillantez sin ser vista. La curaci ´ on viene a
Babette por su consentimiento para volver a visitar su Ser verdadero, un ser que ha sido
aplastado bajo el peso de la pena y el trauma. Este reencuentro le costar´ a dar todo lo que
An interpretation of Babette’s Feast as a parable of trauma 573
tiene. A´ un as´ı, este reencuentro no s ´ olo la libera de la austeridad del ambiente sino que
tambi´ en genera prop´ osito y esperanza dentro de la comunidad que la ha acogido. Las
disonancias de su vida son paralelas con las disonancias de la vida de la comunidad en
la cual vive; es en el armonizar de estas disonancias, las cuales no pueden ser habladas,
donde por ´ ultimo se articula la incoherencia del trauma de Babette.
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[Ms first received April 2009; final version November 2009]

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