Gimpel as The Archetype of The

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1901

"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 would likely believe bad as well as good.

Gimpel's roots extend all the way back to the Bible, according to critic Thomas Hennings who posits that "Gimpel'' is based on the Old Testament Book of Hosea. While understanding Singer's Yiddish background is essential to understanding "Gimpel," his Hebraic background is key as well, and the immigrant audience Singer was writing for would be well aware of Biblical allusions, Hennings sees parallels in that both Gimpel and Hosea marry women who are sexually unfaithful and that "Gimpel" follows the four-part structure of the Book of Hosea exactly: first, the marriage; second, the affairs, the birth of the children, and divorce; third, the reconciliation, remarriage, and continued affairs; and fourth, the "social application of it all, that is, the moral and theological implications of the adulterous marriage for the Jewish community." Like Hosea, Gimpel has a reunion with his repentant wife in a dream and progresses from being a foolish baker to a beloved prophet, Hennings sees that Singer, like Hosea, "deliberately chooses to disturb his readers' complacent assumptions about God, about faith, love, wisdom, and folly—and about themselves.... Singer creates a deeply religious story about a man of simple faith who, because of his faith, has a godlike capacity for love, the ideal Jew, if you will."

What sets the Yiddish holy fool apart from fools in British or French or Russian literature (e.g. Dostoevsky's The Idiot) is the high value that Jewish culture places on intelligence and learning, says critic Sally Drucker. "The holy fool, a fool who is more than a fool ... both subverts and augments this value." Drucker sees Gimpel as a character who displays ''a kind of wisdom that does not have to do with ability to reason—which is closer, perhaps, to the Khassidic religious tradition of the heart, than the Talmudic ideal of the head."

It is also possible to see Gimpel's actions as part of a successful coping strategy. Janet Hadda takes a completely different approach to "Gimpel," applying psychoanalytic theory and asking questions in the way she would conduct a clinical case. She notes that while literary critics tend to emphasize Gimpel's relationship with God, students, on the other hand, tend to view Gimpel as a masochist. Since both views are based on the same evidence, Hadda wonders if perhaps another way of looking at the material might be more to the point. In her view, ''Gimpel is not a suffering martyr, although he does experience intense pain.... Gimpel is a successful man whose subjective reality is undaunted by circumstances that would overwhelm a less daring person." She believes that "the central fact" of Gimpel's existence is his orphanhood. When Rietze the Candle-dipper runs into the bakery and tells him that his parents have risen from the dead, Gimpel knows "very well that nothing of the sort had happened," but, writes Hadda, "if there was any chance of seeing a beloved and deeply mourned parent, what small price to serve as the butt of some much less important person's joke."

Indeed, says Hadda, had Gimpel's parents still been alive, they might have been able to protect him from the jokes and pranks. Because of this loss, Gimpel "turns to others in the hope that they will recognize his vulnerable position and therefore treat him with special tenderness—which they certainly do not; quite the contrary.'' In light of his orphanhood, Hadda believes that Gimpel's seeming masochism can be viewed more as stemming from a ''deep need to maintain a bond, no matter at what price.'' Thus, he maintains his bond with Elka, despite the seemingly high cost, because she gives him "a sense that he is not alone in the world, that he is no longer as abandoned as an orphan, [which] helps him to maintain his equilibrium."

Gimpel asks, "What's the good of not believing? Today it's your wife you don't believe; tomorrow it's God Himself you won't take stock in." Of the connection Gimpel makes between faith in one's wife (however unfaithful she herself may be) and faith in God, Alexander points out that "Gimpel never takes the analogy a step further to say that the Jewish people have been far more faithful to their God than [God has been] to them, but in the aftermath of the Holocaust there are few Jewish heads through which that thought will not at least momentarily pass when they read this passage."

A line of schlemiels have followed Gimpel in America, according to Sanford Pinsker, most notably in the works of American Jewish authors such as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. But critics such as Alexander and Ruth Wisse note that few schlemiels other than Gimpel appear in Yiddish fiction after World War II, possibly because of a disturbing connection between the "schlemiel's innocence or gullibility and the inability or refusal of the majority of Jews 'to face reality' when they were being herded into ghettos, concentration camps, and finally gas chambers." Alexander asks whether it was really the Jews' religious faith that prevented them from seeing the full extent of the threat to their survival, or whether it was their faith in "'mankind' and in the 'world'" that betrayed them. If the latter, then ''Gimpel the Fool'' can be viewed as a story written ''not in spite of, but because of, Singer's awareness of the Holocaust. If worldliness is indeed the gullibility that disbelieves everything, then this is the most intense of all Singer's assaults upon it, for Gimpel is a character who insists on believing everything. If, Gimpel might say, you disbelieve the nations who threaten to remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth, you will disbelieve anything."

In the end, after Elka appears to him in a dream saying that her false witness towards him does not mean that everything is false, only that she had deceived herself, Gimpel realizes once and for all that faith is the most important thing. He undergoes a transformation, giving away his worldly possessions and leaving Frampol. What he comes to understand is that ''there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't happen is dreamed at night," or it happens to someone else, or "in a century hence if not next year."

According to Pinsker, one of the possible derivations of the word schlemiel is the Hebrew phrase which means "sent away from God"; however, another possible translation is ''sent from God," as in the sense of being a gift from God. It is often Gimpel's following the dictates of religion which leads him to believe things which at face value are technically untrue. The rabbis reassure Gimpel that to believe is the most important thing. For example, when the townspeople tell him the Messiah has come and his parents have risen from the grave, the rabbi says to Gimpel, "It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil." When Elka has a child only a few months after the wedding, the schoolmaster tells Gimpel that "the very same thing had happened to Adam and Eve.'' Gimpel leaves Frampol, continuing to believe even when doing so causes him pain. The longer he lives the more he learns to believe, until even the people around him can see that he is truly wise.

Source: Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Judy Sobeloff is a writer and educator who has won several awards for her fiction.

Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1640

"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....

Gimpel differs from the other representatives of the archetype, the Yiddish ones as well as the others, in that he is the expression of his creator's own idiosyncratic mixture of faith and skepticism. It is this mixture which, as we shall see in analyzing the story, is the source of its pervasive irony. Singer stated in a Commentary interview on November, 1963 that it would be foolish to believe the purveyors of fantasies about psychic phenomena—-just as it was foolish of Gimpel to believe the fantastic lies he was told—yet the universe is mysterious, and there is something of truth after all in these fantasies, at least a revelation concerning the depths of the human psyche from which these fantasies emerged and perhaps something more as well. The need to continue to search for the truth, the realization that this search cannot result in the attainment of the truth, the need to choose belief, the realization that, intellectually speaking, such a choice cannot be defended against the unbeliever—all of this lies behind "Gimpel the Fool." ...

Gimpel is the butt of his village because of his credulity. But is he the fool that the village takes him to be? Telling his story himself, he affirms his own folly in his very first words; "I am Gimpel the fool." In the very next breath, however, he takes it back: ''I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me." As he relates the story of his life, this denial of his foolishness seems to be the pitiful defense of his intellect by an evidently weak-witted person who at times tacitly admits that he is a fool, but a steadily deepening ambiguity plays about his narrative. This ambiguity, present from the beginning, is indicated in the title and the opening sentence of the Yiddish, where the epithet used is "chochem" or "sage," which often has the ironic meaning of "fool," the meaning in which the villagers and Gimpel's wife use it

His credulity has no limits. Repetition seems to make it easier for him to believe rather than the reverse. We should laugh at this spectacle of the fool continuing in his folly, but we do not, for we have come to wonder if Gimpel, undoubted fool that he has proven himself to be, is not in reality superior to his deceivers. Early in his torments the rabbi had advised him, "It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself." The paradox is that Gimpel, born to be a fool all of his days, is not a fool. It is the smart-aleck villagers, devoting their time to playing games upon him, who are fools....

Just as he made a vow before not to believe anything that he was told, a vow which he was unable to keep, so he now makes a vow to believe whatever he is told. "What's the good of not believing? Today it's your wife you don't believe; tomorrow it's God Himself you won't take stock in." It is undoubtedly laughable that Gimpel makes faith in the sluttish Elka equivalent to faith in the divine scheme of things. Yet Singer himself, during the Commentary interview in November, 1963, in expounding the philosophy of "as if," the doctrine that all of us must lead our lives in accordance with certain assumptions, such as the assumption that we will go on living, even if these assumptions go contrary to the existing evidence, makes use of faith in one's wife as an illustration....

Before Elka dies, she confesses to Gimpel that she has deceived him all of their married life. The Spirit of Evil comes to Gimpel as he is sleeping and, telling him that God and the judgment in the world to come are fables, persuades him to revenge himself against the deceitful world by urinating in the dough so that the "chachomim," the sages of the village, may be fooled into eating filth....

After he has baked the unclean bread, however, and lies dozing by the oven, Elka appears in a dream. She calls him "cho-chem" —ironically wise man and fool—for believing that because she was false everything else is a lie. She had in reality never deceived anyone but herself, and now she is paying for it in the other world

The "as if' that Elka is faithful by which Gimpel had lived is now seen by him to give way, after it has sunk under him, to other "as if s." He buries the bread in the ground, divides his wealth among the children—he had earlier casually mentioned in his unworldly way that he had forgotten to say that he had come to be rich-—and goes into the world. Before he had regarded his village as die world. Now he finds out that the world has much more in it than he knew. He grows old and gray in his wanderings. He hears many fantastic tales, but the longer he lives the more he comes to realize that there are no lies. Everything, no matter how fantastic, comes to pass sooner or later. The something that was supposed to have happened that he hears and regards as impossible actually happens at a later time. Or even, he says in a sentence omitted in the Bellow translation, a sentence reminiscent of Singer's comment on the magazines devoted to psychic phenomena, if a story is quite imagined, it also has a significance: why does one person dream up one thing and another person an entirely different thing?

Gimpel thus becomes a representative of that other variant of dos kleine menschele in Yiddish fiction, "the ecstatic wanderer, hopeless in this world because so profoundly committed to the other," as Greenberg and Howe have put it. He also becomes reminiscent of the Wandering Jew, who according to the legend transmitted through the centuries was punished for having spat into the face of Christ by being deprived of the power to die. Cursed with unwanted life, imbued with the esoteric knowledge he has acquired through having lived through many civilizations, he is generally an evil figure, but he is also sometimes represented as Christ-like in the sustained agony through which he pays for his sin. Longing to join Elka in death, weary from the years of his wandering, Gimpel is transformed by the realization that has come to him from his varied experiences that "the world is entirely an imaginary world," becoming a personification of the ecstatic wisdom that is attained through the agony of suffering.

Yet the wisdom he has attained is the same that he had when, "like a golem," he "believed everyone," reasoning to himself, "Everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers, I've forgotten just how." What had seemed to be one of a number of excuses offered by a fool for his gullibility turns out to be indeed wisdom. The outrageously outlandish stories about miraculous births he had accepted really attested to his perception of the miracle of life. The hallucinations which he told himself he had had really attested to his perception that the world is a dream.

But now he who had listened to stories of marvels is the one who tells them: "Going from place to place, eating at strange tables, it often happens that I spin yarns—improbable things that could never have happened—about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like." Sometimes the children who chase after him tell him the particular story they wish to hear, and he satisfies them with a recital of that tale. For Gimpel, it is implied, has come to understand that each one of us has his own favorite fiction to which he is addicted, his own delusion to which he needs to remain faithful. But a sharp youngster tells him that it is really always the same story that he tells. For all of our delusions derive from the dream that is life in this world. The tales which the aged wanderer relates deal with the folk superstitions to which there have been so many references in "Gimpel the Fool "—the windmills, however, seem to be a reminiscence of the illusions of that glorious madman, Don Quixote—but these superstitions, silly as they are, are glimpses of the truth shadowed forth in the dream of life: "No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world."...

Source: Paul N Siegel, "Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool," in The Achievement of Isaac Bashevts Singer, edited by Marcia Allentuck, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 159-74. Siegel is an American critic who has written extensively on English Renaissance literature and the works of William Shakespeare.

The Saint as Schlemiel

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1660

When I first read ''Gimpel the Fool "... I felt not only that I was reading an extraordinarily beautiful and witty story, but that I was moving through as many historical levels as an archaeologist at work. This is an experience one often gets from the best Jewish writers. The most "advanced" and sophisticated Jewish writers of our time—Babel, Kafka, Bellow—have assimilated, even conquered, the whole tradition of modern literature while reminding us of the unmistakable historic core of the Jewish experience. Equally, a contemporary Yiddish writer like Isaac Bashevis Singer uses all the old Jewish capital of folklore, popular speech and legendry, yet from within this tradition itself is able to duplicate a good deal of the conscious absurdity, the sauciness, the abandon of modern art—without for a moment losing his obvious personal commitment to the immemorial Jewish vision of the world.

Perhaps it is this ability to incarnate all the different periods that Jews have lived through that makes such writers indefinably fascinating to me. They wear whole epochs on their back; they alone record widely separated centuries in dialogue with each other. Yet all these different periods of history, these many histories, represent, if not a single point of view, a common historic character. It is the irony with which ancient dogmas are recorded, the imaginative sympathy with which they are translated and transmuted into contemporary terms, that makes the balance that is art.

Gimpel himself is an example of a legendary Jewish type—the saint as schlemiel The mocked, persecuted and wretched people, who nevertheless are the chosen—chosen to bear a certain knowledge through a hostile world—are portrayed again in the town fool, a baker who is married off to a frightful slut without knowing what everyone else in town knows, that she will bear a child in four months. Gimpel is the fool of the Jews: a fool because he is endlessly naive, a fool because, even when he does learn that he has been had, he ignores his own dignity for the sake of others. His wife's unfaithfulness, her shrewishness—these are not the bourgeois concealment, the "cheating" on one's spouse that it would be in another culture, but a massive, hysterical persecution. The child she already has she passes off as her "brother"; Gimpel believes her. When she gives birth to a child four months after the wedding, Gimpel pays for the circumcision honors and rituals, and names the boy after his own father. When he cries out that his wife has deceived him, she deliberately confuses him, as usual, and persuades him that the child is ''premature":

I said, "Isn't he a little too premature'" She said that she had a grandmother who carried just as short a time and she resembled this grandmother of hers as one drop of water does another She swore to it with such oaths that you would have believed a peasant at the fair if he had used them To tell the plain truth, I didn't believe her; but when I talked it over next day with the schoolmaster he told me that the very same thing had happened to Adam and Eve Two they went up to bed, and four they descended.

The humor of this is always very real, for these people are rough old-fashioned village types who know their own. The town boys are always playing tricks on Gimpel, setting him on false trails; he is mocked at his own wedding—some young men carry in a crib as a present. His wife, Elka, is a living nightmare, a shrew of monumental proportions, a Shakespearean harridan. Yet in Gimpel's obstinate attachment to her we recognize, as in his customary meekness, the perfection of a type- what to the great world is folly, in itself may be wisdom; what the world thinks insane may, under the aspect of eternity, be the only sanity....

One night, Gimpel comes home unexpectedly and finds another man in bed with Elka; this time he has had enough, and he separates from her. But the town mischiefs take her side and persecute him, while Gimpel worries whether he did see the man1

Hallucinations do happen You see a figure or a manikin or something, but when you come up closer it's nothing, there's not a thing there And if that's so, I'm doing her an injustice. And when I got so far in my thoughts I started to weep. I sobbed so that I wet the floor where I lay In the morning I went to the rabbi and told him that I had made a mistake.

Elka has another child and "all Frampol refreshed its spirits because of my trouble and grief. However, I resolved that I would always believe what I was told. What's the good of not believing? Today it's your wife you don't believe in; tomorrow it's God Himself you won't take stock in."

Even his superstitions—Singer uses local demons and spirits as dramatic motifs—become symbols of his innocent respect for the world. One night, after covering the dough to let it rise, he takes his share of bread and a little sack of flour and starts homeward....

He returns home to find his wife in bed with the apprentice. Characteristically, he suffers rather than storms; characteristically, "the moon went out all at once. It was utterly black, and I trembled''; characteristically, he obeys his wife when she sends him out of the house to see if the goat is well; characteristically, he identifies himself tenderly with the goat, and when he returns home, the apprentice having fled, the wife denies everything, tells him he has been seeing visions, shrieks prodigious curses. Her ''brother'' beats him with a stick. And Gimpel: "I felt that something about me was deeply wrong, and I said, 'Don't make a scandal. All that's needed now is that people should accuse me of raising spooks and dybbuks.'"

So he makes his peace with her, and they live together for twenty years. "All kinds of things happened, but I neither saw nor heard." When his wife dies, she tells him that none of their children is his, and the look on her dead face seems to say to him—"I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life."

Now Gimpel is tempted by the Spirit of Evil himself, who tells him that it is all nothing.'' 'What,' I said, 'is there, then?''A thick mire."' And, succumbing to the devil, Gimpel urinates into the risen dough. His dead wife comes to him in a dream— and, when he weeps in shame at his act, "It's all your fault," she cries-—-"You fool! You fool! Because I was false, is everything false, too?"

When the mourning period for his wife ends, he gives up everything to tramp through the world, often telling stories to children—"about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like." He dreams constantly of his wife, asks when he will be with her; in his dreams, she kisses him and promises him that they will be together soon. "When I awaken I feel her lips and taste the salt of her tears.''

The last paragraph of the story, Gimpel's serene meditation before death, is of great beauty. It sums up everything that Jews have ever felt about the divinity that hedges human destiny, and it is indeed one of the most touching avowals of faith that I have ever seen. Yet it is all done with lightness, with wit, with a charming reserve—so that it might almost be read as a tribute to human faithfulness itself.,..

Singer's story naturally suggests a comparison with I. J. Peretz's famous "Bontsha the Silent," who was offered everything in heaven, and meekly asked for a hot roll with fresh butter every morning for breakfast. One thinks also of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the dairyman, who recited his prayers even as he ran after his runaway horse. But in his technique of ambiguity Singer speaks for our generation far more usefully than the old ritualistic praise of Jewish goodness. While Bontsha and Tevye are entirely folk images, cherished symbols of a tradition, Gimpel—though he and his wife are no less symbols—significantly has to win back his faith, and he wins it in visions, in dreams, that give a background of playfulness and irony to this marvelously subtle story.

This concern with the dream, this everlasting ambiguity in our relations with the divine—this is a condition that our generation has learned to respect, after rejecting the dogmas first of orthodoxy and then of scientific materialism. This delicacy of conception unites Singer to the rest of imaginative humanity today: Man believes even though he knows his belief to be absurd, but what he believes represents a level of imaginative insight which shades off at one end into art, at the other into Gimpel's occasional self-doubt, the thought that he may be "mad."

It is the integrity of the human imagination that Singer conveys so beautifully. He reveals the advantage that an artist can find in his own orthodox training—unlike so many Jews who in the past became mere copyists and mumblers of the holy word. Singer's work does stem from the Jewish village, the Jewish seminary, the compact (not closed) Jewish society of Eastern Europe. He does not use the symbols which so many modern writers pass on to each other. For Singer it is not only his materials that are "Jewish"; the world is so. Yet within this world he has found emancipation and universality—through his faith in imagination

Source: Allied Kazin, "The Saint as Schlemiel," in his Contemporaries, Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 283-88. A highly respected American critic, Kazin is best known for his essay collections The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), and On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American prose writing since the era of William Dean Howells.

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Critical Overview


Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer