The publication of “Gimpel the Fool,” in a translation from the Yiddish by Saul Bellow, launched Isaac Bashevis Singer’s career. During the 1950’s and thereafter, his work appeared widely in English, and throughout the history of Singer studies, “Gimpel the Fool” has held a place of honor. Gimpel belongs to a brotherhood of literary characters—that of the schlemiels. In this work, Singer explores the nature of belief, which, in the modern, secular world, is often considered foolish.
Gimpel believes whatever he is told: that his parents have risen from the dead, that his pregnant fiancée is a virgin, that her children are his children, that the man jumping out of her bed is a figment of his imagination. Gimpel extends his willingness to believe to every aspect of his life, because, he explains: “Everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers, I’ve forgotten just how.”
When, on her deathbed, his wife of twenty years confesses that none of her six children are his, Gimpel is tempted to disbelieve all that he has been told and to enact revenge against those who have participated in his humiliation. His temptation is a central crisis of faith. His faith in others, who have betrayed him, is challenged, as is his faith in himself and in God, because among the stories he has believed are those pertaining to the existence of God. Gimpel’s belief has always been riddled with doubt; only after he concretizes...
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Like many of Singer’s stories, “Gimpel the Fool” takes place in a shtetl, or Jewish village, in Poland, at an unspecified time before the Russian Revolution. Although it is full of details reflecting life in such a village, the story has the universal quality of a moralistic folktale, including the appearance of an evil spirit and a visitor from beyond the grave.
From the beginning of the story, it is indicated that someone called a fool in this world may not really be a fool by other standards. After he introduces himself as “Gimpel the Fool,” the narrator and protagonist proceeds to disagree with the appellation that he has been given throughout his life. He is not really a fool, he says, but simply a man who does not suspect others and, when he finds that he has been deceived, does not like to attack them. In other words, he is trusting and forgiving. Such qualities, Singer’s story suggests, should be valued, not mocked.
In the first section of the story, Gimpel describes all the tricks that were played on him during his youth, when, after he was orphaned, he became a baker’s apprentice. No matter what impossible event that he was told had occurred, he would run outside to see. Because he could be deceived so easily, everyone called him a fool. As the rabbi whom Gimpel consulted told him, however, the real danger in this world is not being a fool, but being evil. Gimpel is not evil.
When the community decides to...
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Gimpel, who has had the reputation of being a fool since his school days, is the narrator of his own story. He relates how the other children used to tease and play tricks on him, and how, because he did not want to endure their taunts when he expressed disbelief in what they said, he made the decision to believe them—in the hope, as he says, that it would do them some good.
An orphan, Gimpel was apprenticed to a baker, and all of his customers continued to tease him by telling him outlandish things that had supposedly happened. Gimpel says that he knew the unlikelihood of these tales, but again, rather than argue with his customers, he took the attitude that anything is possible and was again taunted for his gullibility. When Gimpel asked the rabbi’s advice, the rabbi told him that the others were the fools, not he, and that it is better to act like a fool for all of one’s life than to be evil for a single hour.
Gimpel next describes an event that takes place when he is an adult. Everyone plays matchmaker in his marriage to Elka, a promiscuous girl who has already borne one child out of wedlock. Elka, contrary to tradition, demands a dowry from Gimpel, and he acquiesces and reluctantly goes through with the marriage. She refuses to let Gimpel sleep with her, yet when she has a child in four months, she insists that the child is his. Gimpel does not believe her, but all the townspeople argue him “dumb,” as he says. He soon discovers that he loves the child and that the child loves him, so he goes along with Elka’s unlikely tale. Although Elka swears and curses at him, he finds that he loves her, too.
One night when an oven bursts and almost starts a fire at the bakery, where Elka makes him...
(The entire section is 711 words.)