"Gimpel the Fool" is widely viewed as Isaac Bashevis Singer's most popular short story. Singer originally wrote the story for a Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, and then Saul Bellow translated it into English for The Partisan Review in 1953, bringing "Gimpel" and Singer to the attention of American readers. Gimpel is a kind and loving man who seems to be punished for his generosity. His willingness to believe the people around him—and to suffer as a result of believing them—is a virtue and remains one after everything else falls away. As critic Edward Alexander writes , of Singer's wide appeal, "Singer writes almost always as a Jew, to Jews, for Jews, and yet he is heard by everybody,"
Many critics see Gimpel as an example of a Yiddish stock character type, dos kleine menschele (the little man) or schlemiel. Sanford Pinsker, in his The Schlemiel as Metaphor, offers the following definitions of this character type: According to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, & schlemiel "handles a situation in the worst possible manner or is dogged by an ill luck that is more or less due to his own ineptness." Pinsker's personal characterization is that when a "schlimazl's bread-and-butter accidently falls on the floor it always lands butter-side down; with a schlemiel it's much the same— except that he butters his bread on both sides first."
Pinsker traces the schlemiel character back to the mythical town of Chelm, a Jewish community that is the subject of countless "Wise Men of Chelm" stories. Pinsker recounts one such story with a direct parallel to "Gimpel" in which a troubled Chelmite consults his rabbi because his wife has given birth after the couple has been married only three months. The rabbi assists the man with the following calculation: Since the man has lived with his wife three months, and she has lived with him for three months, and together they have lived three months, then three plus three plus three equals nine months. '"So, what's the problem?'"
In addition to representing the recurrent "wise or sainted fool'' of Yiddish literature, Gimpel also represents a "centuries-old archetypal figure of western literature," according to critic Paul Siegel. Siegel traces Gimpel's character type back to the idiot of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance who was regarded as being' 'under the special protection of God."
The reader knows at some level that Gimpel does not believe the lies the townspeople tell him and that he partially endeavors to believe them out of his goodness, or at least his desire to not make trouble. Siegel writes that in the Yiddish version of the story, this ambiguity is broadcast from the beginning In Yiddish the epithet used to describe Gimpel in the title and in the opening line of the story is "chochem," which means "sage," but which additionally ''often has the ironic meaning of 'fool,' the meaning in which the villagers and Gimpel's wife use it." Gimpel's readers are thus lost in a ''labyrinth of irony'' as they watch him deciding when to believe or not to believe. "His belief, then, was in part the wise acquiescence of the butt who must play his role, knowing that otherwise he will never be free of his wiseacre tormentors.''
Like Siegel, Edward Alexander sees Gimpel's ''descent from the schlemiels of the classical Yiddish writers'' and also sees that Gimpel differs from them in several ways, namely that he' 'chooses to be fooled, to be used, to forsake his dignity. This means that not only his creator but he himself is capable of irony about the sacrifices required by faith. Moreover, Gimpel's folly is connected with his credulity, whereas much of the folly of his Yiddish predecessors comes precisely from their unwillingness to credit unusual and extraordinary events, especially if those events portent evil." In other words, Gimpel's literary predecessors were silly optimists, whereas Gimpel...
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