Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer
“Gimpel the Fool” Isaac Bashevis Singer
The following entry presents criticism of Singer's short story “Gimpel tam” (“Gimpel the Fool”), first published in the journal Jewish Daily Forward in 1945. See also Isaac Bashevis Singer Short Story Criticism.
“Gimpel the Fool” is Singer's best-known and most acclaimed work of short fiction. The story chronicles the life of the “wise fool” Gimpel, who comes to realize profound truths about love, evil, and spiritual faith. Originally published in Yiddish, “Gimpel the Fool” made its first appearance in English in 1953, translated by the writer Saul Bellow, in the journal Partisan Review.
Plot and Major Characters
Gimpel, an orphan in the fictional East European town of Frampol, is teased as a child for believing anything he is told, no matter how outlandish. As he grows to adulthood and becomes a baker, he remains gullible, and he is widely regarded as a fool. When townspeople bully Gimpel into marrying the town whore, Elka, he becomes her cuckolded husband. Eventually he falls in love with her and accepts her abuse and infidelities. Elka has a baby four months into the marriage, and Gimpel trusts that the child was “premature.” When Gimpel finds Elka in bed with another man, he is ordered by the rabbi to divorce her. Reluctant to do so, he proclaims that he must have hallucinated the entire incident. With that rationalization, the rabbi allows him to return to his wife, who eventually has six more children, none of whom are Gimpel's. Before she dies, she confesses the truth to Gimpel. As a result, he experiences a profound loss of faith and sense of betrayal. He even urinates on the bread dough he makes in the town bakery to exact vengeance against the townspeople who think that he is a fool. The Devil encourages Gimpel's need for revenge and fosters his spiritual doubts. When Elka visits Gimpel in a dream and warns him not to be like she was, he buries the contaminated dough and leaves Frampol. Liberated from his role as the village fool, he wanders the countryside and tells fantastic stories about devils, magicians, and windmills. In the end, he is at peace with his life and looks forward to death.
Critics have identified the central concerns of “Gimpel the Fool” as the power of faith and love, the virtue of the powerless, innocence, tolerance, and conformity. Some commentators have observed that “Gimpel the Fool” explicitly establishes a connection between Gimpel and Adam and between Elka and Eve: as Adam forgives Eve for deceiving him, they note, so too does Gimpel pardon Elka. Gimpel's forgiveness of his wife—in fact, his forgiveness of everyone who has taken advantage of his kindness and love—is another of the story's central themes. Much critical discussion of “Gimpel the Fool” focuses on the significance of the protagonist. Several critics perceive Gimpel as the archetype of the wise or sainted fool, which is a common type in both Yiddish and Western literature. A variation of that interpretation views Gimpel as the archetypal schlemiel—a foolish but wise individual found in Yiddish literature. Gimpel's role as a scapegoat, as he is ridiculed by his wife and the townspeople, is also a subject of commentary. Gimpel is seen as becoming, in the latter part of the story, reminiscent of the figure of the Wandering Jew, as he considers esoteric questions of faith and meaning and longs for death. Some critics have viewed Gimpel as representing the Jewish experience during World War II.
“Gimpel the Fool” is regarded as a masterpiece of Yiddish short fiction. Reviewers have praised the simplicity of Singer's narration and his poignant and compelling portrayal of Gimpel as he undergoes a profound spiritual crisis. Critics have contended that “Gimpel the Fool” affirms Singer's preference for faith over skepticism and can be viewed as a meditation on the power of love and spiritual faith. Gimpel has been discussed within the context of the literary tradition of the “wise fool” or schlemiel and has been viewed as a rare example of the schlemiel figure in postwar Yiddish literature. He has also been compared to similar creations by Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. Since Bellow's translation brought the story to the attention of the American public, “Gimpel the Fool” has remained Singer's most popular story and his most anthologized work of short fiction.
“Gimpel Tam” [“Gimpel the Fool”] 1945; published in the journal Jewish Daily Forward.
*Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories 1957
The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories 1961
Short Friday and Other Stories 1964
Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1966
Zlateth the Goat, and Other Stories 1966
Schlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories 1968
The Séance and Other Stories 1968
A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw 1969
A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories 1970
An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader 1971
A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories 1973
Passions and Other Stories 1975
Old Love 1979
The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1982
Stories for Children 1984
The Image and Other Stories 1985
The Death of Methusaleh and Other Stories 1988
†Shoten an Goray [Satan in Goray] (novel) 1935
†Di Familie Mushkat [as Isaac Bashevis; The Family Moskat] (novel) 1950
†Mayn Tatn's bes-din Shtub [as Isaac...
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SOURCE: Siegel, Paul N. “Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool.” In The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Marcia Allentuck, pp. 159-73. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
[In the following essay, Siegel examines the ways in which Singer utilizes the archetypal figure of the wise fool in “Gimpel the Fool,” and calls the story “a masterpiece of irony.”]
“Gimpel the Fool,” perhaps the most widely acclaimed work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, has its roots deep in the soil of Yiddish literature. It is concerned with two of what Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg tell us, in their Treasury of Yiddish Stories, are “the great themes of Yiddish literature,” “the virtue of powerlessness” and “the sanctity of the insulted and the injured,” and has as its anti-hero the “wise or sainted fool” who is an “extreme variation” of “the central figure of Yiddish literature,” “dos kleine menschele, the little man.” The wise or sainted fool is, however, not merely a recurring character in Yiddish fiction; he is a centuries-old archetypal figure of western literature. The manner in which Singer handles this archetypal figure, making use of the ideas associated with it, but in his own distinctive way, makes “Gimpel the Fool” the masterpiece of irony that it is.
The idiot was regarded in the Middle Ages and in...
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SOURCE: Natanson, Maurice. “Solipsism and Sociality.” New Literary History 5, no. 2 (winter 1974): 237-44.
[In the following essay, Natanson offers a phenomenological perspective on “Gimpel the Fool.”]
In one edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story “Gimpel the Fool,” the concluding paragraph carries the line: “At the door of the hotel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away.”1 Lying on his “bed of straw,” his shrouds in his sack, ready to greet his Maker at the door of the hotel, Gimpel, turned itinerant beggar—a shnorrer—awaits death. In the opening paragraph of the story, Gimpel tells us that he “was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see all the way to Cracow.” It would seem that when he left his village of Frampol to go “into the world” and after having “wandered over the land,” Gimpel ended up in Cracow, for where else, apart from cities such as Lublin or Warsaw, would one find a hotel? An inn would be remarkable enough. Inevitably the question arises: By what strange set of circumstances does it happen that a shnorrer ends his life in a hotel? Yet it is Gimpel himself who says: “… the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next...
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SOURCE: Alexander, Edward. “The Short Stories: ‘Gimpel the Fool’.” In Isaac Bashevis Singer, pp. 143-46. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
[In the following essay, Alexander examines Gimpel as a schlemiel figure and considers “Gimpel the Fool” as a commentary on the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.]
“Gimpel the Fool” (in Gimpel the Fool …) is without question Singer's best-known, most frequently anthologized, and most thoroughly studied short story. When Saul Bellow's translation of it appeared in Partisan Review in 1953, the barrier of parochialism which has kept the American literary world ignorant of even the greatest of Yiddish writers in the United States was lowered long enough for Singer to make his escape from the cage of Yiddish into the outside world. But even those critics who, like the Shakespeare scholar Paul Siegel, have located Gimpel, as the wise or sainted fool, within the most pervasive archetypes of Western literature, have admitted that he is inescapably of the Yiddish world, and that the story “has its roots deep in the soil of Yiddish literature.”1 Irving Howe explicitly labels him “the literary grandson of Peretz's Bontsha Schweig, whose intolerable humbleness makes even the angels in heaven feel guilty and embarrassed,” although he reminds us that the activist Peretz did not, like Singer, endorse...
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SOURCE: Hennings, Thomas. “Singer's ‘Gimpel the Fool’ and The Book of Hosea.” Journal of Narrative Technique 13, no. 1 (winter 1983): 11-19.
[In the following essay, Hennings views “Gimpel the Fool” as a modern rendition of The Book of Hosea.]
The most popular of I. B. Singer's short stories, “Gimpel the Fool” tells about a man who endures the derision of his neighbors for marrying, divorcing, and remarrying an adulterous wife. Shortly after Singer wrote the story in Yiddish for the Jewish Daily Forward, Saul Bellow published a translation in The Partisan Review and brought it to the attention of the American public. Since then it has been frequently anthologized, hailed as “the capstone of [Singer's] achievement,” and studied diligently by scholars who like to explain its disturbing epistemological themes or its Yiddish literary conventions, the most important of which defines Gimpel's character type, the stock figure of dos kleine menshele, the little man or schlemeil. According to the philosophical approach, analytic and synchronic, “Gimpel the Fool” depicts modern man struggling in “the locus in nuce of the anomie which [Singer] sees as endemic to the condition of the world.”
Deliberately to underscore the theme of ethical relativism, the confused and rambling narrative of the story instructs us to cling, like...
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SOURCE: Fraustino, Daniel V. “‘Gimpel the Fool’: Singer's Debt to the Romantics.” Studies in Short Fiction 22, no. 2 (spring 1985): 228-31.
[In the following essay, Fraustino argues that the major themes of “Gimpel the Fool” were drawn from the poetry of the Romantic period.]
“Gimpel the Fool” is generally regarded as Isaac Bashevis Singer's greatest fictional masterpiece and for good reason. Its appeal to the reader is personal and immediate. Gimpel, the narrator-protagonist, represents that child-like quality in all of us which is the source of both our humanity and our vulnerability: the need to believe in the people around us and in the credibility of our own experiences. Singer's story is about Gimpel's search for manifest truth, or as Sol Gittleman declares, “for the nature of truth in reality.”1 While Gimpel's quest has obvious precedent in many literatures throughout the world, it has a special debt to the literature of the Romantic period. As I shall suggest, Singer's thematic concerns with disillusionment, the difficulty of belief, and especially with the relation of worldly experience to truth were clarified and shaped by the poetry of the Romantics. Finally, Singer may have incorporated at a focal point in his story the language and events described in Wordsworth's “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known.”
At the heart of “Gimpel the...
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SOURCE: Grebstein, Sheldon. “Singer's Shrewd ‘Gimpel’: Bread and Childbirth.” In Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by David Neal Miller, pp. 58-65. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986.
[In the following essay, Grebstein identifies the controlling metaphors of “Gimpel the Fool” as bread and childbirth.]
Rabbi Isaac said: In the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, we find that bread strengthens the heart.
At surface, Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic story “Gimpel the Fool” (“Gimpl tam”)1 might be perceived by the unwary reader as a transparent morality tale rendered appealing by its credulous protagonist, its earthy humor, and—for readers in English—the vibrant style of Saul Bellow's superb translation. Approached in this way, “Gimpel the Fool” has close kinship with both the folktale and the Yiddish shlemiel story. As in the folktale, “Gimpel” utilizes a clearly delineated introduction and conclusion, threefold repetition, contrasting characters (i.e., “good” and “bad”), a seemingly naive method of characterization, a straightforward plot without subplots, and a simple mode of direct presentation which appears to eschew subtlety and variety for the sake of emphasis. Like the folktale's hero, the supposedly weak and gullible...
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SOURCE: Drucker, Sally Ann. “I. B. Singer's Two Holy Fools.” Yiddish 8, no. 2 (1992): 35-9.
[In the following essay, Drucker compares the archetypal figure of the holy fool in Singer's novel Shosha and “Gimpel the Fool.”]
A gantser nar iz a halber novi. A whole fool is half a prophet. A halber nar iz a gantser khokhem. Half a fool is a complete sage.
These proverbs, seemingly contradictory, are usually interpreted as having ironic import—yet at first glance, their meaning is ambiguous and could imply the wisdom of fools. There are many words for fool in Yiddish and many types of fools in Yiddish literature: clever fools like Hershel Ostropolier, witless fools like the residents of Chelm, and a variety of luckless fools, whether schlemiels or schlimazls. This paper focuses on the holy fool, whose foolish wisdom or wise foolishness reaches transcendent levels. In particular, it compares Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story “Gimpel the Fool” with his novel Shosha.
In Eastern Europe, the popular picture of the Jew, held by Jew and Gentile alike, was true to the Talmudic tradition. The picture included the tendency to examine, analyze, and re-analyze; to seek for meanings behind meanings, implications, and secondary consequences. Deductive logic was the ideal basis for practical conclusions and actions...
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SOURCE: Norich, Anita. “Isaac Bashevis Singer in America: The Translation Problem.” Judaism 44, no. 2 (spring 1995): 208-18.
[In the following essay, Norich examines Saul Bellow's 1953 translation of “Gimpel the Fool,” addressing issues of translation and the preservation of Yiddish.]
Rabbi Yehuda said: “If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar; if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer and a libeller.”
—Talmud, B. Kiddushin 49a
I sometimes suspect that the Universe is nothing but a bad translation from God's original and this is the reason that everything here is topsy-turvy. My cabalist theory is that the Almighty trusted Satan to translate His Creation and it was published before He could correct it. I am not going to make the same blunder.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Address to Pen American Center, 1971
Translators and their critics are repeatedly drawn to citing and glossing the Italian epigram “traduttore, traditore” [the translator is a traitor]. Translation seems inevitably to be an act of transgression in which violence is done to one language—to its culturally specific cadences and resonances—so that those who live in another language may find it less foreign. Translation results in a necessary, creative, but nonetheless...
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SOURCE: Clasby, Nancy Tenfelde. “Gimpel's Wisdom: I. B. Singer's Vision of the ‘True World’.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 15 (1996): 90-98.
[In the following essay, Clasby considers the connection between the archetypal images of the scapegoat and the trickster or fool and traces Gimpel's journey to wisdom in “Gimpel the Fool.”]
Isaac Bashevis Singer's “Gimpel the Fool” is the tale of a gullible baker, his faithless wife, and the devil who tempts the baker to settle old scores. Singer's theme is that of the wise fool,1 a common figure in literature, but always a bit of an enigma. The fool is a catalyst for reversals and surprises. Gimpel, the fool of Frampol, becomes a prophet, and his unfaithful wife is transformed into a figure of wisdom, holy Sophia. Our expectations, like those of the sages of Frampol, are derailed by the paradoxes of contradictory wisdom. Underlying the tales's crosscurrents is a structure based on the transformation of the fool, or trickster, into a scapegoat and then a prophet. His woman companion tracks his progress, emerging with her own new role as Gimpel changes. Singer develops his picture of the fool's progress by allusions to biblical images and the Kabbala, focusing in the end on a wisdom so luminous that it is incommunicable. It must remain a hidah, a riddle or dark saying.
As the story begins, Gimpel is an...
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SOURCE: Morris, Leslie. “1968: The Translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's ‘Gimpel der Narr’ Appears in the Federal Republic of Germany.” In Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, pp. 742-48. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Morris investigates the reception of the German translations of “Gimpel the Fool” and the work of the Jewish humorist Ephraim Kishon in Germany, asserting that “The reception of their work in the German popular and critical press can give insight into the discourse about Jews, Jewishness, and the Holocaust in Germany since 1968.”]
The enormous popularity in Germany of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ephraim Kishon provides an interesting perspective on the relationship of non-German Jewish writing to the German (Jewish and non-Jewish) reading public. It inevitably points to the way in which Jewish writing in Germany is filtered through the United States, as in the case of Singer, and through Israel, where Kishon is generally considered the country's national satirist. The reception of the work of Singer and Kishon in the Federal Republic of Germany from 1968, the date of the German publication of Singer's “Gimpel der Narr” (Gimpel the fool), to the publication of Kishon's memoirs Nichts zu lachen (Not a laughing matter) in 1993, can shed light on...
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SOURCE: Kaminsky, Alice R. “Gimpel.” In Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Vicki K. Janik, pp. 215-19. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Kaminsky provides an analysis of the central thematic concerns and the critical reception of “Gimpel the Fool.”]
Isaac Bashevis Singer (July 14, 1904-July 24, 1991) was born in Leoncin, Poland, the son of a rabbi, Pinchos-Mendel Singer, and a rabbi's daughter, Bathsheba Zylberman. He lived in Warsaw and was a proofreader for a Yiddish literary magazine, which helped inspire him in 1917 to write in Yiddish himself. In 1935 he moved to New York City and became a free-lance writer for the Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward. His first wife gave him his only son, Isaac. He lived the rest of his life with his second wife Alma. In 1933 he began to write the novels and stories that earned him a Nobel Prize in literature in 1978.
“Gimpel Tam,” “Gimpel the Fool,” Singer's most famous and most anthologized story, was written in Yiddish in 1945 and translated into English by Saul Bellow in the Partisan Review in 1953. It belongs to the tradition of the schlemiel school of comedy of Yiddish writers, such as Sholom Aleichem's Menahem Mendl or I. L. Peretz's Bontsha. A schlemiel is a foolish and powerless...
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SOURCE: Yacobi, Tamar. “Package Deals in Fictional Narrative: The Case of the Narrator's (Un)Reliability.” Narrative 9, no. 2 (May 2001): 223-29.
[In the following essay, Yacobi compares the reliability of the narrator in “Gimpel the Fool” and William Thackeray's Vanity Fair.]
The authors of Vanity Fair, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, or “The Overcoat”—to cite a few notable examples—partly divest their narrators of reliability, though leaving them as variously omniscient as George Eliot's. … Whatever logic or theology may lead us to expect, there are no package-deals in narration.
—Meir Sternberg, “Varieties of Omniscient Narration,” in Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction
As my epigraph points out, there are no package deals in narrative, least of all between surface forms or features and their effects. Instead, given the endless variability of context, the same form or formal pattern can always serve as means to different effects, and vice versa.1 One must not, therefore, confuse even typical or plausible configurations in literature with categorical rules. Yet their plausible look and their occurrence in certain well-known examplars often drive scholars toward reducing the vast set of choices open to the literary practitioner to a short list of familiar...
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SOURCE: Reinsmith, William A. “Literature and Life: Helping Students See.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 3, no. 1 (fall 2002): 10-15.
[In the following essay, Reinsmith relates the experience of teaching “Gimpel the Fool.”]
In twenty-seven years at my small university I have never had the pleasure of teaching English majors. The focused students who appear in my classroom will be going into various health care professions. If they persevere in a difficult curriculum they will become pharmacists, physical or occupational therapists, physicians' assistants, biologists, toxicologists, science teachers. Yet they all must take a required number of humanities courses, one of which is Introduction to Literature in the second semester of their freshman year. I have fashioned this course so that it deals largely with short fiction.
Not having English majors, I found early on that it useless to expound on literary theory of any kind. These attempts leave my students either mystified or bored. What does work with my students is the rather old fashioned process of applying what we read to their lives, to the world that exists around them. I have discovered that the short story is ideally suited to this endeavor for a number of reasons: First, most obviously, because it is short. Since their time is limited my students are not immediately put off by the length of a read. Thus,...
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Hadda, Janet. “Gimpel the Full.” Prooftexts 10, no. 2 (May 1990): 283-95.
Applies theories of post-Freudian Self-Psychology to “Gimpel the Fool.”
Lee, Grace Farrell. “Belief and Disbelief: The Kabbalic Basis of Singer's Secular Vision.” In From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Grace Farrell Lee, pp. 12-24. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
Argues that “Gimpel the Fool” is a “sophisticated dialectic” that poses, but does not resolve, a question of faith.
Malin, Irving. “The Short Stories.” In Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Irving Malin, pp. 69-104. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1972.
Study of the short fiction, by a noted Singer scholar.
Additional coverage of Singer's life and career in contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 32; Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 4; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography,...
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