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Gimpel the Fool is perhaps Singer's most famous character. He is a schlemiel (a fool), but one may also consider the possibility that he is a wise and devout Jew. Gimpel, from Frampol, becomes renowned in his shtetl for being so gullible, for believing everything that he hears. People enjoy testing him, telling him falsely that the rabbi's wife has gone into labor, that the dead (even his own parents) have risen from their graves, and that the woman (Elka) he is to marry is a virgin (she is actually a loose woman who has been divorced and widowed and who has already given birth to a son whom she calls her younger brother). He marries her, despite his knowledge that she lies about being a virgin, and she cheats on him throughout the marriage and gives birth to a child seventeen weeks after their wedding (obviously not his child although she claims that the child has simply been born prematurely). But Gimpel manifests his goodness by never losing his temper towards his wife or anyone else who lies to him. This ability to accept the lies of others and to maintain his temper as the others publicly humiliate him ennobles him in the eyes of many. And perhaps Gimpel is not such a schlemiel because he actually is not duped by these tricksters; he merely pretends to believe because he does not want to hurt their feelings and because he feels that he has nothing to lose by believing. And he links belief in worldly matters with belief in God. If one loses faith in what others say, one may eventually lose faith in God. One day Gimpel does have a crisis of faith: Satan comes to him and convinces him to revenge himself on the townspeople for their lies, to urinate in the bread that he bakes for them in the bakery. He does so, but Elka, his wife, returns to him from Hell to convince him to change his mind. Gimpel regains his faith and buries the bread before it is distributed, enabling him to keep his conscience clear and his soul pure.

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Abba Shuster is a diligent shoemaker who enjoys making shoes for people in Frampol. He is a dedicated family man who must cope with the loss of his wife (who dies) and his seven sons (who move to New Jersey). Abba represents the hard-working and devout Jew who accepts his station in life and who desires to serve God by making comfortable shoes for other members of his faith.

The Gentleman from Cracow is a mischievous man (actually Satan) who corrupts devout but poor Jews in a small town. He tests their faith and their allegiance to God, and he finds that for a price they will succumb to him. He seduces them from their obedience to God's laws, taking advantage of their poverty, pride, and ambition. The victims in the story are gullible and greedy, so they foolishly succumb to temptation, unlike Gimpel the Fool.

Rabbi Bainish of Komarov in "Joy" is a remarkable clergyman who starts to lose his faith because his children die, one by one. He ponders why an omnipotent God would allow such a tragedy to occur. His loss of faith is shocking to the community because he has been such an important and talented rabbi for a long time. Singer shows how even a rabbi can lose his faith when he has suffered enough. The reader watches as Bainish struggles and finally overcomes his doubts shortly before his death. Bainish, like Gimpel the Fool, laments his unhappiness and lot in life; both men succeed, however, in maintaining their faith.

Reb Nathan in "The Unseen" is an honest man and a good husband—until he meets Shifra Zirel. Satan has set up this essay of Nathan's honesty, enticing Nathan into choosing to divorce his wife of many years to marry a young housekeeper. Nathan has many chances to repent and to change his mind, but his lust overcomes his reason and his morality. One may argue that Zirel's frequent refusals of his initial overtures to her indicate that he has been warned many times, but one may also argue that her refusals...

(The entire section contains 1105 words.)

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Critical Essays