Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
By having the protagonist narrate his own story, Singer achieves a mixture of humor, realism, and fantasy; what Gimpel narrates is unquestionably happening, but the interpretation of the events is that of a simple, naïve commentator (although Gimpel is not really very naïve when he tells the story, because it may be assumed he is speaking after the events, with his newfound wisdom and understanding). From Gimpel’s own words, the reader comes to understand the kind of person that Gimpel is, as well as the events in his life, in a way that the narrator himself does not completely comprehend. The reader is able to infer that Gimpel is not as intelligent as others; as Gimpel says, “they argued me dumb.” His realization of what others are doing to him is apparent as he comments, “I realized I was going to be rooked”’ and “To tell the plain truth, I didn’t believe her.” His eventual compromise—“But then, who really knows how such things are?”—is a mixture of his attempt to avoid strenuous intellectual debating and his simple faith.
The strong faith, the essential goodness, of the narrator is childlike in its simplicity: He is like a child who does not know how to interpret the incomprehensible things that are told to him by adults. Singer maintains this tone of childlike simplicity by his choice of words and by the unaffected language with which Gimpel expresses his perception of reality.
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The American Decade
''Gimpel the Fool" was first published in English translation in 1953. The 1950s are sometimes called the "American decade" because European political and military power declined in many areas of the world while the influence of the United States increased During this time, American economic growth produced an abundance of consumer goods, the population increased by record numbers, and more people became members of the middle class. For example, the population in the United States doubled between 1900 and 1950, with a record 4.3 million births in 1957. During the 1950s the population also shifted from urban areas to suburbs; the urban population only increased 1.5 percent while the suburban population increased 44 percent.
The United States was also at the forefront of technological development. In 1954, Chinese-American An Wang developed and sold the small business calculator; 1955 saw the distribution of the first IBM business computer. Control Data Corporation produced the first commercially successful "super" computer in 1957, and the microchip was developed in 1959.
The spread of communism was a major concern to the United States during these years. The Soviet occupation forces in Germany set up a blockade between Berlin and West Germany and Czechoslovakia was taken over by communists. In 1950, the United States began a three-year involvement in the Korean War, which was fought between the democratic...
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"Gimpel the Fool" centers on Gimpel, a baker in the village of Frampol. Although he has been heckled and deceived by his fellow villagers since he was a child, he retains his faith in the goodness of others and in life itself.
"Gimpel the Fool" is set in an indeterminate time in the fictional Jewish shtetl, or village, of Frampol in Poland. Like many of the settings in Singer's fiction, the shtetl of Frampol is presented as a place where life has a mystical quality, the people are superstitious, survival is difficult, and everyday events and concerns revolve around Jewish faith and traditions.
The story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of Gimpel and is, therefore, an example of first-person narration. Because readers are only given access to Gimpel's thoughts and feelings and not those of the villagers who frequently make fun of him, they are uncertain how reliable Gimpel's account is and are left to wonder if he is truly a fool. Singer also uses a simple storytelling technique in "Gimpel the Fool"; he relates the events of the story sequentially without much explanation and presents the characters without in-depth description.
Because "Gimpel the Fool" is intended to teach a moral lesson, it is considered a parable. Parables generally include simple characters who represent abstract ideas. In "Gimpel the Fool," Gimpel represents goodness, innocence, and the...
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Singer depends on the technique of local color in his stories; they all contain an East European flavor, and Jewish culture plays an integral part in them. Talmudic study, faith, and matchmakers are essential elements in them. Before "Gimpel the Fool" appeared in print, critics considered Singer a Yiddish writer whose works only Jews could appreciate. The success of "Gimpel the Fool" catapulted Singer into the international spotlight and allowed readers to consider him a writer whose works contained universal themes; yet "Gimpel the Fool" is imbedded in Polish culture and is a work whose plot perhaps could not exist outside a Jewish community.
Singer's characters, often first-person narrators, are very self-conscious; they involve the readers in their stories by directly addressing them. The narrator of "The Unseen" begins the tale by remarking, "They say that I, the evil spirit, after descending to earth in order to induce people to sin, will then ascend to heaven to accuse them . . . But let me tell you a story." Singer's story "Fire" begins: "I want to tell you a story. It isn't from a book—it happened to me personally. I've kept it secret all these years, but I know now I'll never leave this poorhouse alive . . . Here is my story." The most famous story in the collection begins, "I am Gimpel the Fool. I don't think myself a fool." The use of first-person narration provides special insight into the characters; the reader learns a great deal about...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
An important subject for discussion about Singer's work is faith. Discussions should involve the characters' relationships with God and how these relationships affect their lives. For instance, one may wish to talk about the loss of faith in "The Gentleman from Cracow" and "Joy," but also the unfailing faith of Rabbi Moshe Ber in "The Old Man." How does God reward and punish people in regard to their faith in Him? Does God allow people to repent their loss of faith? Is Singer's God a punishing or a forgiving God?
How does Singer portray the women in his tales? He presents some sinful women, such as Elka, Zirel, and Shifra Zirel, yet he also characterizes some women as virtuous, such as Roise in "The Unseen." Does Singer portray women as weaker or more vulnerable than men?
1. In "Gimpel the Fool," Gimpel has been labeled a gullible fool but also a wise and devout man. Which way do you characterize him and why?
2. In several short stories in this collection, devils dupe seemingly virtuous characters. The reader may discern this idea in "The Gentleman from Cracow," "The Mirror," and "The Unseen." What causes these characters to sin? Are these virtuous and innocent people who are deceived by evil forces or are these normal people whom devils target because they are prone to sin? In other words, are the devils responsible for causing the people to sin or do they simply bring out the evil inherent in human nature?
3. In "The...
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A significant social concern in Gimpel the Fool is the question of free will and the concomitant question of the place of human beings in the universe. Several of Singer's short stories in this collection relate to a person's relationship with God and the role of faith and patience in that person's life. Several characters— especially those in the stories involving devils—express unhappiness with their place in the world and ambitiously wish to rise socioeconomically. Dissatisfied with what God has chosen for them in terms of their financial wealth and their spouses, they foolishly choose to go beyond what God has ordained. The result is, of course, sin—sin that ultimately leads to great misfortune. In "The Gentleman from Cracow," the pious people in the shtetl (small Jewish town) are healthy and have traditionally given birth to wonderful children, yet they are unhappy because of their poverty. Seduced by the mysterious gentleman's riches and generosity, the townspeople sacrifice their spirituality for money; consequently, they temporarily become richer but quickly lose their money and discover to their horror that the infants in the town have died as a punishment for their covetousness. Instead of having wonderful children, they have no children at all; the punishment arises because they have exercised their free will and have chosen wrongly.
Tradition also plays a major role in Singer's short stories. In the moving story "The Little...
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Compare and Contrast
1953: Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Jewish members of the Communist Party, are executed for espionage. As civilians, their death sentence sparks controversy.
1990s: Aldrich Ames, a high-ranking CIA official, is convicted of spying for the Soviets during his 31-year career. He receives life in prison, the harshest penalty possible. His wife is also convicted, but she receives only a several years imprisonment.
1950s: Roughly 5 percent of children are born out of wedlock in the United States.
Today: More than 30 percent of children are born out of wedlock in the United States.
1956: Polish workers protest the Communist regime. Over 100 demonstrators are killed.
1993: In the wake of capitalist reforms, Poland suffers a surge of violent crime inflicted by organized mobs.
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Topics for Further Study
Compare Gimpel to the lead character in the 1994 Academy Award-winning movie Forrest Gump.
Research Eastern European shtetls of the late 1800s and early 1900s and discuss similarities between life in the shtetls and in Frampol.
Gimpel is often described as a ''holy fool.'' Find and describe other examples of the "holy fool'' figure in literature. Why do they fit into this category?
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One literary precedent for "Gimpel the Fool" may be Geoffrey Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales (1387- 1400). Gimpel, like John the carpenter, is gullible and too innocent and trusting to accept that his wife is committing adultery. Gimpel has a clue, but he never accepts it totally. Gimpel catches on to the deception eventually, but John never does. In both cases, the men are comical dupes because their wives' adultery is so obvious. Yet both men achieve a sense of dignity by not retaliating against their spouses, despite the embarrassment and scorn they experience at the hands of the townspeople.
The story of the misfortunes of Reb Paltiel in "From the Diary of One Not Born" mirrors that of the tribulations of Job in the Bible. Both are prosperous and devout men who fall upon hard times; they are betrayed by Satan as a test of their faith in God. Also Rabbi Moshe Ber's tribulations in "The Old Man" resemble those of Job. It is the rabbi's unwavering faith in God that allows him to reach his destination in Jozefow. The facts that he becomes a father when he turns one hundred and that he names the child Isaac indicate that Singer derives the story from the Bible. The reunion of parent and child in a foreign country in "The Little Shoemakers" derives from the story of Joseph in the Bible. When the sons meet their father in America, the narrator remarks, "Suddenly he [Abba] thought of Jacob arriving in Egypt, where he was met by...
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The emphasis that Singer places on religious scholarship and Talmudic study, evident in stories such as "Joy" and "The Old Man," appears in other titles by the same author that are not part of this collection—works such as The Slave and "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy." Singer focuses on the importance of Talmudic study in the life of devout Jews, and how it is an essential aspect of their very existence.
In these short stories, characters long for sexual experiences forbidden to them. Nathan in "The Unseen" desires his maid, Shifra Zirel, yet he is married. Zirel in "The Mirror" longs to be with a man other than her boring husband. Gimpel's wife desires any man but her husband. In these cases, the lovers ignore taboos and act out their fantasies, only to face punishment in the end. The concept of the love (or lust) for the forbidden appears in other titles by Singer. Jacob in The Slave desires Wanda despite the fact that she is a gentile and he is a Jew. Ben Dosa in King of the Fields (1988) secretly wants Kosoka, but he will only marry a Jew, and Yentl desires Avigdor, but she cannot reveal her true gender to him.
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"Gimpel the Fool" was produced during the 1970-1971 season by the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, which also produced an adaptation of Singer's story "The Mirror" in January 1973. In "Gimpel the Fool," Henry Winkler, later Fonzie in "Happy Days," played the rabbi. It is interesting that the impotent husband in "The Mirror" also played Asmodeus, King of the Underworld, whom Zirel (the protagonist and wife) meets in Sodom.
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''Gimpel the Fool" was adapted for the stage by David Schechter and produced by Bakery Theater Cooperative of New York in 1982.
''Gimpel the Fool" was read by writer Eli Wallach on national public radio station KCRW. Transcripts are available through the National Yiddish Book Society.
A documentary film called Isaac Bashevis Singer: Champion of Yiddish Literature was produced in 1991 by Ergo and is distributed by Ergo Media Inc. In the film, Singer discusses such topics as writing, religion, and Yiddish.
An Academy Award-nominated documentary, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Isaac in America was released in 1994. The film profiles the life of the author and includes readings from Singer's works by actor Judd Hirsch. It is distributed by Monterey Home Video.
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What Do I Read Next?
I. L. Peretz's short story "Bontsha the Silent" centers on a character who, when offered everything in heaven, asks only for a hot roll with butter for breakfast every morning.
Sherwood Anderson's short story ''I'm a Fool" is told by a first-person narrator, a racehorse groom, who lies to get what he wants.
The 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by American author John Irving centers on a Christ-like hero and examines the meaning of good and evil.
Prussian author Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1869 novel The Idiot centers on the protagonist's loss of innocence and his experience of sin.
James Michener's Poland (1983) is a fictionalized history of Poland which spans 700 years.
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Farrell, Grace. “Suspending Disbelief: Faith and Fiction in I. B. Singer.” Boulevard 9, no. 3 (Fall, 1994): 111-117.
Pinsker, Sanford. The Schlemiel as Metaphor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
Wisse, Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Alexander, Edward Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction, No. 18, Twayne, 1990.
Drucker, Sally Ann. "I B. Singer's Two Holy Fools," Yiddish, Vol. 8, no. 2,1992, pp. 35-39.
Hadda, Janet. "Gimpel the Full," Prooftexts, Vol. 10,1990, pp. 283-295.
Hennings, Thomas "Singer's 'Gimpel the Fool' and The Book of Hosea," The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 13, no. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 11-19.
Pinsker, Sanford "The Schlemiel as Metaphor," Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3, Gale, 1989.
Contains previously published criticism on Singer's short fiction.
Siegel, Ben "Sacred and Profane: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Embattled Spirits," Critique, Vol. VI, No. 1 (Spring 1963): 24-47.
Discusses Singer's blending of Yiddish and Western literary traditions in Gimpel the Fool and The Spinoza of Market Street.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis, and Burgin, Richard Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986,190 p
Interviews with Singer.
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