Candles of Love
in Babette's Feast

Babette's Feast is a movie full of strong Christian overtones. It's not difficult to find these with the frequent scenes set in the church. Also as the story is based around the life of the congregation of a small church Christian themes are a natural. However, one of the most intriguing symbols isn't extremely obvious until the final scene of the movie. In that final scene a single candle fills the screen as it burns out.

The first and most obvious question is what does the candle signify. In the Christian tradition the candle and light in general is a popular symbol. It can symbolize Christ, the gospel, or many other symbols. Perhaps the most interesting interpretation is that of love. Throughout the movie, this seems to be the interpretation that is given.

The first point where the candle appears is in the scene when the young soldier first enters his aunt's house. On the way up the stairs to his room he passes a candle covered by a glass globe. Noticeably this candle is unlit. This symbolizes that his love has not yet been kindled or love that is not currently alive and vital.

When this same man returns from meeting Martina for the first time, he lights two candles. Incidentally the candles are not flickering. This is another interesting aspect to this interpretation of this symbol. It seems that the way the candles appear can give clues to the context of the love in the movie. The significance of the unlit candle has already been addressed. The candle also appears in a couple of scenes flickering. Also it appears burning steady. When a candle appears burning steady this seems to indicate that the love in question is alive and burning bright. At some points this single unwavering candle is the only light of the scene. This is found when the general leaves for the first time. As he is talking the candle burns bright and then as he leaves the candle wavers but doesn't blow out. The wavering candle seems to indicate a wavering in the love in the relationship. However, it remains burning indicating that the love continues in the relationship.

Another way the candle can appear is that it can be lit in the scene. An example of this occurs when the patriarch asks Paulina if she would be interested in taking lessons from Papin. As he asks her this he lights a candle indicating the start of the love in the relationship.

With all these different methods of applying the symbol of the candle, it becomes interesting to apply this symbol to questions that weren't fully addressed by the dialogue of the movie. The first and most important would be whether the two daughters really loved the men that fell in love with them. In the context of the film, one can't be completely sure. It seems on the one hand that they did really love their respective primary suitor but in the light of this symbol a different story emerges.

It is important to digest the two relationships separately. Martina's suitor comes to join the congregation. Interestingly every scene in which the two of them are pictured there is a burning candle. In two of them the candle seems to flicker but never once does it ever go out. It seems to indicate that their love is never extinguished. From the beginning of the movie to the end their love is always burning bright. At some points the candle is the only thing that provides illumination. In these scenes it seems that this is biggest and most important thing between them.

Paulina's story comes out slightly different in the context of this symbol. As already mentioned it starts off similar. The father lights a candle indicating the start of the love in that relationship. The interesting thing is that never again was there a burning candle during the scenes with the two of them. In fact, the only other scene which the candle could be connected was during the scene in which Papin and Paulina are singing a capella. She sings about how scared she is about leaving and he is asking her to leave. Assumedly this is from the text of some opera but it seems that Papin really feels the words that he sings. The scene then cuts back to the kitchen to the very same candle that Paulina's father lit earlier. The candle is not lit even though Martina and her father sit there listening. Soon after the viewer witnesses Paulina's rejection of further contact with Papin. Without this symbol context in which the decision is made is lost.

Obviously this symbol is interesting in the context of the two love relationships. However, it's significance doesn't stop there. It has significance even beyond that point.

Another interesting scene is when Babette eats her first meal with Paulina and Martina. Although the two were reticent to allow her to stay with them, during their first meal they ate together there was a single candle lit. This seems to indicate that she was welcomed in at that point. The light of love was lit.

Also interesting scene is when the General is getting ready to go back to the little house and see Martina again. Not only does he have a conversation with his old self, but there is also a candle lit in the room there with him. This candle is burning strong with full light emanating from it. This seems to indicate that his love for her is still going strong. This is interesting because in the mean time he has had a wife. Later as he is leaving that incredible banquet he reveals this thought to Martina. She has been with him during the entire time.

During the dinner scene candles are everywhere. Interestingly on of the first places where the candles come in again are as they are placed in front of the picture of the minister. Perhaps this symbolizes the two contexts of the love for him - one candle for the love that he received as a father and one candle for the love that he received as a minister. Interestingly these are placed symmetric to the picture. This could indicate the balance that existed in his life with his daughters.

Another important instance of this symbol is during the meal. A single candle sits on the windowsill. This seems to be the love developed around the table that is going out into the world.

As the people leave the house from the meal, the love among them is evident. There is much laughing and gaiety and still the conversation is that of mending old hurts. As they leave the light of the candles in the house they go out into a night lit by the stars.

The final scene is one of the most dramatic shots in the entire movie. A single candle burns out. This could mean several things. First, as this seems to be the same candlestick that was in Babette's room earlier, this could mean that the love of Babette for her homeland has finally burned out with this last feast. But perhaps it means more than that. All through the movie the candle has been the symbol of limited love. It has been a selfish love. Perhaps finally love has been extended much the same way it was through the Last Supper in the Bible. Now finally there is love that extends beyond just two people. It is a love that extends to all.

by Scott Drabenscott
Introduction to Literature
Spring 1998