Isak Dinesen presents weighty themes with a delightfully subtle sense of humor that surfaces most noticeably during the feast and its aftermath. Appropriate to the main theme, everything works by opposites. The ascetics come to the feast prepared to endure and resist the temptations of the world but end up getting tipsy and discovering the brotherhood and true spirituality they had been losing. General Loewenhielm comes to the feast determined to prove his superiority to the rustics but is humbled by the Parisian magnificence of Babette’s meal. Although Babette creates the meal only for her own satisfaction (not knowing that Loewenhielm will be a guest), she transforms the lives of many in a single evening.
The comedy during the meal arises from Loewenhielm’s wonderment at the fare and the nonchalant responses of the ascetics. Although they do not understand what so excites him, they manage to appear sophisticated in their nonchalance. For example, as Loewenhielm expresses incredulity at being served Blinis Demidoff (a kind of blintz), he looks around at his fellow diners, only to see them all eating their own Blinis Demidoff, “without any sign of either surprise or approval, as if they had been doing so every day for thirty years.” Once the ascetics become slightly drunk, they readily accept more drink. They know that what they are drinking is not wine because it sparkles. “It must be some kind of lemonade,” they guess. The “lemonade” agrees with “their exalted state of mind and seem[s] to lift them off the ground, into a higher and purer sphere.”
Before Babette’s meal, the aging ascetics grow so quarrelsome and petty that Martine and Philippa worry about their group’s spirituality. During the feast, however, the wine so loosens their tongues and the food so warms their hearts that by its end they are forgiving old quarrels and building new intimacies. Soon the house is “filled with a heavenly light,” as if they have “been given one hour of the millennium.” After the dinner the disciples stagger out of the house and stumble together in the snow, giggling and playing like small children in a “kind of celestial second childhood.” In a monument to comic understatement, Martine enters the kitchen after the guests depart and says, “It was quite a nice dinner, Babette.”