Paul N. Siegel (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4934

SOURCE: Siegel, Paul N. “Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool.” In The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Marcia Allentuck, pp. 159-73. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Siegel examines the ways in which Singer utilizes the archetypal figure of the wise fool in “Gimpel the Fool,” and calls the story “a masterpiece of irony.”]

“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.

The idiot was regarded in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance as being under the special protection of God. He was also often regarded as an “innocent” or a “natural,” a child of nature who lived without thought of the past or the future and was consequently happier than the supposedly wise man. The court jester was either a feeble-minded person or a lunatic who evoked amusement by his inaneness or his antics. He might also be someone who pretended to be a fool and used his assumed folly as a license for his wit.

Shakespeare's Feste and Touchstone are jesters of the second kind, “fools” who, as Viola says of Feste (Twelfth Night, III, i, 61), are “wise enough to play the fool.” Feste demonstrates the foolishness of Olivia in her exaggerated mourning for her brother, and Touchstone satirizes the foolish artificialities of the court. Each finds the world to be made up of fools, of whom it might be said (in the words of Touchstone (As You Like It, V, i, 30-31), “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

Lear's fool is mentally unbalanced but shrewdly perceptive, crack-brained but sharp-witted. He knows the ways of the world and exposes the folly of Lear in seeking to give up power but to retain the pomp of power. Paradoxically, however, while mocking Kent for foolishly following someone who has given up his power, he himself remains faithful to Lear. In doing so, he is following a higher wisdom than worldly wisdom. This is the wisdom of St. Paul, who warned that those whom the world regarded as wise must become fools in the eyes of the world if they were to become genuinely wise. They must become as the little children of whom Christ spoke. The “innocent” or “natural” fool might act on such wisdom without thought or utter Christlike truths without realizing their significance.

The heyday of the wise fool was in Renaissance literature. However, the idea was continued in different forms in Coleridge's crazed mariner, the “gray-beard loon” who has learned the secret of the love of living things; in Melville's young black boy Pip, who on being alone, like the ancient mariner, in the vast immensity of the ocean, has been rendered idiotic but has seen in its “wondrous depths” the “hoarded heaps” of “the miser-merman, Wisdom”; in Dostoevsky's saintly Prince Myshkin, reviled as an “idiot,” who experiences a vision of light at the beginning of his epileptic fits.

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.”

In many ways the work dealing with the idea of the wise fool that is closest in spirit to “Gimpel the Fool” is Erasmus's The Praise of Folly. Although Erasmus accepted Christianity as divinely revealed, he was capable of writing, “I like assertions so little that I would easily take sides with the skeptics wherever it is allowed by the inviolable authority of Holy Scripture and the decrees of the Church.” Socrates, the man who was so wise because he knew how little he knew, he regarded as a saint equal to St. Paul. He attended the same school of the Brethren of the Common Life and imbibed there the same philosophy of a simple Christianity devoid of scholastic subtleties as did Nicholas of Cusa, who in his Of Learned Ignorance maintained that all human knowledge is only speculation and that wisdom consists of the recognition of man's ignorance and the apprehension of God through intuition. The expression of a fusion of skepticism and faith resembling that which underlies “Gimpel the Fool.” Erasmus's The Praise of Folly is pervaded by a similar complex ironic ambiguity. It will be interesting and illuminating, as we proceed in our discussion of Singer's story, to observe the similarities between these two works.

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.

Singer's device of having Gimpel act as the narrator is similar to Erasmus's device of having the allegorical figure of Folly deliver a mock encomium of folly. Are we to take what she has to say seriously? Her oration is in the form of a mock encomium, that is, it is an ironic praising of folly which, it would seem, should be read as the opposite, as a censuring of folly. But then, it is delivered by Folly herself. If Folly censures folly, then it would seem as if Wisdom should praise it. But if Wisdom praises folly and Folly censures it, how are we to know which is Wisdom and which is Folly? We are lost in a labyrinth of irony similar to that which we shall find in “Gimpel the Fool.”

Gimpel, looking back upon his childhood, seeks to justify the way in which he would allow himself to be taken in. He once played hookey because he had been told that the rabbi's wife had been brought to childbed. But how was he to know that he was being lied to: he hadn't paid any attention to whether her belly was big or not. So too, when he took a detour because he heard a dog barking, how was he to know that it was a mischievous rogue imitating a dog? These excuses of Gimpel sound plausible enough, the first as well as the second. After all, we don't expect a child to note the advance of pregnancy. Each birth is unexpected and comes as a kind of miracle that may happen to any woman.

But as Gimpel continues to explain that he was not really a fool, we see that he was indeed stupidly credulous, accepting the most fantastic stories which all the villagers conspired together to make him believe. Working as an apprentice in the bakery after he left school, he was subjected to a never ending flow of accounts of alleged wonders, each more silly than the other. Whereas before it was the rabbi's wife who was said to have given birth, now the rabbi was said to have given birth to a calf in the seventh month. But, as outrageously ridiculous as the stories are, there is still some uncertainty about how utterly a fool Gimpel is. He had to believe, he tells us, or else people got angry, exclaiming, “You want to call everyone a liar?” 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.

Yet it was not merely a pretended belief. For always there would come the thought: maybe it is, after all, true? When he was told that the Messiah had come and that his parents had risen from the grave, he knew very well, he informs us, that nothing of the sort had occurred, but nevertheless he went out. “Maybe something had happened. What did I stand to lose by looking?” The jeering he got on that occasion made him resolve to believe nothing more, but he could not stick to this resolution, his poor wits being no match for those of the villagers, who confused him with their argumentation.

Moreover, he came to believe not merely because he was talked into it but also because he wanted to believe. When he was derisively matched with the village prostitute, he knew very well what she was, that her limp was not, as alleged, a coy affectation and that her supposed little brother was actually her bastard child. But, after having been pushed into marriage with her by the entire village, he grew to love her and the uncertain belief in her virtue to which he had been persuaded became a determinedly held belief against all the evidence.

At this point in his narrative Gimpel, the husband of the sharp-tongued Elka, becomes both a henpecked husband and a cuckold, the two figures who have been objects of mirth through the centuries and have often as here been combined in the same person. With comic repetition each time the truth is revealed to him he is talked out of it or talks himself out of it. Elka bears a child seventeen weeks after the wedding, but after a period of pain he allows himself, having grown to love the child, to believe that it is his. She bears another child after a separation of more than nine months. The village laughs, but Gimpel accepts it as his. He finds Elka in bed with another man, but after a period of painful separation persuades himself to accept her story that it was an illusion. On returning home unexpectedly after the separation, he finds her in bed with his apprentice, but again he permits himself to be persuaded that what he saw was an illusion, this time allowing himself to be overwhelmed by her torrent of abuse and giving up all doubt the following morning when the apprentice replies to his questioning with amazed denials.

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.

“A whole town can't go altogether crazy,” reflects Gimpel, when all of his neighbors join in urging him to marry Elka. But the poor fool is quite wrong. A whole town can be united in its wrongheaded lunatic folly. Folly, as Erasmus's Folly saw, is to be found everywhere in the world. The microcosmic world of Singer's village of fools is reminiscent of the medieval vision of humanity as constituting a ship of fools embarked on the voyage of life and of the Renaissance vision of life as a drama witnessed by God in which the characters play their parts on “this great stage of fools,” to use the words uttered by Lear (IV, vi, 187) when his mind is illuminated in his madness.

The paradox of Gimpel the fool being less foolish than his neighbors does not stop there. The rabbi himself, revered though he is and consulted by every one as a sage, has his own kind of foolishness, the foolishness of the aridly Talmudic scholar who, learned though he is, may be less wise than the man who acts upon natural feeling. It is a foolishness similar to that of the scholastic philosophers, to whose intellectual sterility Erasmus's Folly counterposed the simplicity of the “babes and sucklings, that is to say, Fools,” to whom Christ revealed “the Mystery of Salvation.” When Gimpel goes to consult the rabbi after having found Elka with a lover, the rabbi advises that he must not stay under the same roof with her, and when Gimpel, longing for Elka and the child, convinces himself that it was an hallucination, the rabbi will not permit Gimpel to rejoin her until the case has been reconsidered. He permits Gimpel, however, to send his wife money and bread during this period. And so for nine long months poor Gimpel, who asks for nothing more than to be with his wife and child, supports them without seeing them until an obscure reference in Maimonides can be found that will release him from his unhappiness. Who, it may be asked, is the greater fool, the rabbi or Gimpel?

If the rabbi will permit Gimpel to return to Elka only after Gimpel has stated his conviction that he had suffered from an hallucination, Gimpel himself excuses Elka even if a man were actually there, saying to himself that women are easily deceived. He would have gone back to her even if he had not convinced himself that he had been mistaken. In fact, we may say that the conviction to which he comes, although sincere, is also a means by which Gimpel the “chochem” circumvents the rigid prescription of the revered sage.

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.

So too Erasmus's Folly makes delusion in marriage representative of the delusions by which all of us must live if society and human life are to continue. Such delusions, a part of life, are, she says, necessary and natural. They are in Singer's words the “as if” by which life is maintained. Gimpel's equating of faith in Elka with faith in the divine scheme of things may thus be seen as an expression of the wisdom of simple, natural folk who accept the things of this world without thought.

Gimpel's belief in Elka despite the evidence of his own senses springs from his love for her. Where love is great, there must be faith. But Gimpel's love is not confined to Elka. It extends to all living things. This is why his faith in her is related to his faith in the divine order. Faith, hope, and charity—Gimpel has the qualities, the tenderness and the forgiveness, of the fool in Christ. In his childhood, he states, he was no weakling: if he were to slap any one, the other would see all the way to Cracow, but he wasn't a slugger by nature and accepted without retaliation his playmates' jokes on him. “I wanted to be angry,” he says, telling of his longing for Elka and the child after he discovered her deception of him, “but that's my misfortune exactly, I don't have it in me to be really angry.” And so throughout his life he continues to bear his burdens without anger, telling himself philosophically, “What's one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too.”

It is his lovingness, indeed, which makes it possible for him to continue to be deceived. The first time that he comes upon Elka in bed with a man the thought comes to him that if he makes an uproar he will awake the child, and so he steals away without doing anything and is able to persuade himself later that it was an hallucination. The second time, when he catches Elka sleeping with the apprentice, she awakes and quickly tells him to go look at the nannygoat, which she says has been ill. Gimpel, who has a “nearly human feeling” for the nannygoat, goes to examine it, and when he returns the apprentice is gone. If Elka and the apprentice, however, reply to Gimpel's tenderness and kindliness with deceit, the simple things of nature, the infant and the nannygoat, “a good little creature,” respond affectionately to him. They are, as Erasmus's Folly said of the little children and the guileless animals of whom Christ spoke—the sheep, Christ's term for the souls destined to eternal life, Folly pointed out, is the most foolish animal of all—creatures “living only by the dictates of Nature and without either craft or care.”

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. When Gimpel had queried Elka about the apprentice, she had screamed, “An evil spirit has taken root in you and dazzles your sight,” and he had thought to himself, “All that's needed now is that people should accuse me of raising spooks and dybbuks. … No one will touch bread of my baking.” Now his resentful thoughts have indeed conjured up an evil spirit which momentarily blinds him and causes him to bake bread which should not be touched. (Indeed, Singer in the Commentary interview mentioned earlier stated that he believes in demons both substantively as literally existing powers and symbolically as representing human behavior.)

After he has baked the unclean bread, however, and lies dozing by the oven, Elka appears in a dream. She calls him “chochem”—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. In her screams in child-labor she had anticipated her death-bed confession, calling, “Gimpel, I'm going. Forgive me,” but when she had recovered she did not mend her ways. Now it is too late.

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 the 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.”

Dreams themselves are visions of a higher reality. The moment Gimpel closes his eyes he sees Elka standing over the steaming washtub as he had first seen her, but it is an Elka transfigured, her face shining, her eyes radiant, her words consoling, her talk of strange things which he forgets the instant he awakes. He does, however, remember her promise that they will be reunited in a future time.

Yet Gimpel's ecstatic vision is not without its ambiguity. It is similar in this to the conclusion of The Praise of Folly. Folly relates how holy men through their meditations attain a brief glimpse of heavenly bliss. When they come to themselves, they do not know whether they were asleep or awake and do not remember what they experienced except that they were rapturously happy. “And therefore they are sorry they are come to themselves again, and desire nothing more than this kind of madness, to be perpetually mad. And this is a small taste of that future happiness.” But Folly does not conclude with this description of the ecstatic vision of the saints. She apologizes for her boldness in dealing with such matters but reminds us of the proverb “Sometimes a fool may speak a word in season.” Of course, she adds, she is a woman, and the reader may choose not to apply the proverb to women. Moreover, she does not remember what she has said, “having foolishly bolted out such a hodgepodge of words,” and she advises the reader not to remember them either. It is up to the individual reader, therefore, whether he is to regard the vision of the saints as mere lunacy, whether he is to regard Folly's assurance that it is a taste of future happiness as the words of wisdom which may come from the lips of a fool and whether he is to regard the advice to forget what he has heard as the advice of Folly.

So with Gimpel the Fool. Can we believe in the transformed Elka? Is the Elka who, suffering the pangs of labor, cried out for forgiveness only to relapse into a life of deception capable of such a transformation? Must not reunion with her after the separation of death be similar to the disillusioning reunion with her after the previous separation? Is Gimpel's vision really a foolish dream?

He awakes to taste the salt of the tears Elka had shed over him as she stroked and kissed him. But on previous occasions he had wept himself asleep or had awakened crying. Is this what he is left with now—his own tears? He awaits death as entrance to the true world: “Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.” But the first time he had found Elka in bed with a man he had told himself, “Enough of being a donkey. Gimpel isn't going to be a sucker all his life. There's a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel,” yet he had gone on permitting himself to be duped. Even the world of marvels he discovers as a wanderer may be, it is hinted, merely additional evidence of his credulity. “Often I heard tales of which I said, ‘Now this is a thing that cannot happen.’ But before a year had elapsed I heard that it had actually come to pass somewhere.” He heard that it had come to pass somewhere: he had not himself witnessed it, therefore, but accepted on trust what it was told him had happened elsewhere. Is Gimpel's foolishness, then, really limitless, and is his final assurance that he will attain the world of reality after death either another self-deception or the continuation of an endless deception practiced upon him by malevolent Higher Powers? Will death, instead of blissful certainty, bring him either nothingness or another world of dreams and deception?

The reader is left with this teasing ambiguity, but the intensity of Gimpel's vision is such that it is consigned to the back of his mind. “I choose to believe,” said Singer. It is also the choice of Gimpel, not an intellectual choice but one springing from his innermost need. If Singer makes the same choice, he is still able to look upon Gimpel with the detachment of the doubter. We need not share Singer's philosophy to be moved by the compassion mixed with irony with which he regards Gimpel, the fool who has become representative of poor, bewildered, suffering humanity.


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“Gimpel the Fool” Isaac Bashevis Singer

The following entry presents criticism of Singer's short story “Gimpel tam” (“Gimpel the Fool”), first published in the journal Jewish Daily Forward in 1945. See also Isaac Bashevis Singer Short Story Criticism.

“Gimpel the Fool” is Singer's best-known and most acclaimed work of short fiction. The story chronicles the life of the “wise fool” Gimpel, who comes to realize profound truths about love, evil, and spiritual faith. Originally published in Yiddish, “Gimpel the Fool” made its first appearance in English in 1953, translated by the writer Saul Bellow, in the journal Partisan Review.

Plot and Major Characters

Gimpel, an orphan in the fictional East European town of Frampol, is teased as a child for believing anything he is told, no matter how outlandish. As he grows to adulthood and becomes a baker, he remains gullible, and he is widely regarded as a fool. When townspeople bully Gimpel into marrying the town whore, Elka, he becomes her cuckolded husband. Eventually he falls in love with her and accepts her abuse and infidelities. Elka has a baby four months into the marriage, and Gimpel trusts that the child was “premature.” When Gimpel finds Elka in bed with another man, he is ordered by the rabbi to divorce her. Reluctant to do so, he proclaims that he must have hallucinated the entire incident. With that rationalization, the rabbi allows him to return to his wife, who eventually has six more children, none of whom are Gimpel's. Before she dies, she confesses the truth to Gimpel. As a result, he experiences a profound loss of faith and sense of betrayal. He even urinates on the bread dough he makes in the town bakery to exact vengeance against the townspeople who think that he is a fool. The Devil encourages Gimpel's need for revenge and fosters his spiritual doubts. When Elka visits Gimpel in a dream and warns him not to be like she was, he buries the contaminated dough and leaves Frampol. Liberated from his role as the village fool, he wanders the countryside and tells fantastic stories about devils, magicians, and windmills. In the end, he is at peace with his life and looks forward to death.

Major Themes

Critics have identified the central concerns of “Gimpel the Fool” as the power of faith and love, the virtue of the powerless, innocence, tolerance, and conformity. Some commentators have observed that “Gimpel the Fool” explicitly establishes a connection between Gimpel and Adam and between Elka and Eve: as Adam forgives Eve for deceiving him, they note, so too does Gimpel pardon Elka. Gimpel's forgiveness of his wife—in fact, his forgiveness of everyone who has taken advantage of his kindness and love—is another of the story's central themes. Much critical discussion of “Gimpel the Fool” focuses on the significance of the protagonist. Several critics perceive Gimpel as the archetype of the wise or sainted fool, which is a common type in both Yiddish and Western literature. A variation of that interpretation views Gimpel as the archetypal schlemiel—a foolish but wise individual found in Yiddish literature. Gimpel's role as a scapegoat, as he is ridiculed by his wife and the townspeople, is also a subject of commentary. Gimpel is seen as becoming, in the latter part of the story, reminiscent of the figure of the Wandering Jew, as he considers esoteric questions of faith and meaning and longs for death. Some critics have viewed Gimpel as representing the Jewish experience during World War II.

Critical Reception

“Gimpel the Fool” is regarded as a masterpiece of Yiddish short fiction. Reviewers have praised the simplicity of Singer's narration and his poignant and compelling portrayal of Gimpel as he undergoes a profound spiritual crisis. Critics have contended that “Gimpel the Fool” affirms Singer's preference for faith over skepticism and can be viewed as a meditation on the power of love and spiritual faith. Gimpel has been discussed within the context of the literary tradition of the “wise fool” or schlemiel and has been viewed as a rare example of the schlemiel figure in postwar Yiddish literature. He has also been compared to similar creations by Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. Since Bellow's translation brought the story to the attention of the American public, “Gimpel the Fool” has remained Singer's most popular story and his most anthologized work of short fiction.

Maurice Natanson (essay date winter 1974)

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SOURCE: Natanson, Maurice. “Solipsism and Sociality.” New Literary History 5, no. 2 (winter 1974): 237-44.

[In the following essay, Natanson offers a phenomenological perspective on “Gimpel the Fool.”]

In one edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story “Gimpel the Fool,” the concluding paragraph carries the line: “At the door of the hotel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away.”1 Lying on his “bed of straw,” his shrouds in his sack, ready to greet his Maker at the door of the hotel, Gimpel, turned itinerant beggar—a shnorrer—awaits death. In the opening paragraph of the story, Gimpel tells us that he “was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see all the way to Cracow.” It would seem that when he left his village of Frampol to go “into the world” and after having “wandered over the land,” Gimpel ended up in Cracow, for where else, apart from cities such as Lublin or Warsaw, would one find a hotel? An inn would be remarkable enough. Inevitably the question arises: By what strange set of circumstances does it happen that a shnorrer ends his life in a hotel? Yet it is Gimpel himself who says: “… the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make? Often I heard tales of which I said, ‘Now this is a thing that cannot happen.’ But before a year had elapsed I heard that it actually had come to pass somewhere.”2 We are left with a typical transformation in the alchemistry of Singer's universe: Gimpel leaves his world in order to enter the world and ends by returning to his station in the world he repudiated. Everything is possible. There are Jews everywhere, even shnorrers in hotels. The alternative, simpler explanation is not altogether free of Singerian demons: the typographical error which turned Gimpel's hovel into a hotel may have been generated by an imp, by the resentful or embittered typesetter carrying on a last skirmish in the warfare between Yiddishists, or perhaps by the Evil One himself. Who can say?

If the typographically displaced Gimpel is “out of character” at the end of the story, it is because he is situated as much by the demands of eastern European Jewish life of the period as he is by Singer's manipulations. There is a requiredness to the life of a shnorrer; but beyond that, the reader knows the occasion for Gimpel's departure from Frampol “into the world.” The Devil tempts him, suggests revenge against the people of Frampol who have deceived Gimpel. “I sensed that everything hung in the balance. A false step now and I'd lose Eternal Life.” At the last moment Gimpel is saved; the price he pays is the repudiation of his world in favor of the mystery of the wandering beggar. Where is he to take his prayer shawl and shrouds as he waits for death? To a hotel? Acting “in character” means nothing more than acknowledging the necessity of the bond between Singer and Gimpel's world. Those scholars and students in Singer's stories who pore over Spinoza's Ethics find their life's efficacy not in their commentaries but in their inevitable immersion in and acknowledgment of the demands of Jewish life. Those who break away from that life are nevertheless defined by it: even apostasy carries with it the image of the Law. There is a necessitation about Gimpel's dying in a hovel. Character indeed returns us to contract.

Gimpel's world—the world of the shtetl—presupposes order under God, an order specified by the Talmud. What is interpreted is a matter of record: it is written. Gimpel is able to go back to his wife because “the Yanover rabbi … found an obscure reference in Maimonides” that favored him. How are we to understand the solidarity of that world? It is, of course, quite reasonable to characterize Gimpel's world through a reconstruction of its underlying principles. For present purposes I prefer to turn to a different facet of “world”—the taken-for-granted assumptions and typical expectancies which constitute mundane reality. In truth, Gimpel, far from being a learned man, has only a rather dim and remote understanding of the principles undergirding the Law. He has never read Maimonides. But he does interpret matters for himself. More important, he lives in and through such interpretation. What we have, then, is a set of constructions: the Law and the Talmud on one side; Gimpel's sense of the Law and Gimpel's sense of the rabbis' pronouncements on the other side. If the first grouping carries the weight of authority, the second thrusts us immediately into the current of daily life. In more formal terms, the Talmud consists of constructions of the first order; Gimpel's actions are founded on second-order constructions—typifications of first-order constructs. What is defined as real and consequential by Gimpel becomes the “real” world. Accordingly, the social world is grounded in a believing which Edmund Husserl called the “natural attitude” and which leads, ultimately, to his conception of the Lebenswelt—the world as immediately interpreted by each of us as ordinary men acting within ordinary daily life.

Before turning to some consideration of the phenomenological notions of the “natural attitude” and the “life-world,” I think it might be helpful to indicate the point I have to make about the relevance of phenomenology for literature. Boldly stated, I believe that literary interpretation, in good measure, concerns itself with the form and content of the world which a story presents and even presupposes, but that it does not inspect the epistemological status of that world. Thus, there are problems of a world but not a problem of “world” as such. Perhaps an essentially realistic impulse lies at the base of much of literary interpretation: the assumption, first of all, that mundane reality is given through experience and, second, that it is given to all of us in essentially the same manner. Common sense is the bedrock of that assumption and constitutes the foundation for existence in everyday terms—for what might be called sociality. Criticism may examine the richness of Gimpel's world without raising any questions about the status of mundanity in that world. In one respect the critic's concern is no more with everyday reality as a fictive construction than with his own everydayness. The phenomenologist reverses the critic's procedure by rendering problematic the initial taken-for-grantedness through which “world” as a literary phenomenon arises. At the same time, it may be said, the phenomenologist takes a radical stance with respect to his own involvement in mundane existence. He makes everydayness a theme for examination. What I hope to show or at least to suggest is that with the phenomenological turn, the duality of consciousness and character—the relationship between selfhood and sociality—is reapproached as the expression of an epistemological unity: consciousness intending sociality.

The “natural attitude” is a tacit acceptance of social reality as not only real but intersubjectively warranted: the world as we find it in daily life is the world as it really is for all men. The “believing” which characterizes Husserl's “General Thesis” of the natural attitude has, in phenomenological language, a sedimented character. Not only do I believe in the reality of the world but that believing is the continuation of an earlier believing. The career of belief is sedimented in the ever-new positing of the General Thesis. Consciousness, in its naive cast, is the bearer of the history of sedimentation of meaning. So, too, with the communal nature of belief. In my believing is sedimented what I expect of my fellowmen. For Husserl, the natural attitude is a non-self-conscious orientation. One would be tempted to call it unconscious if that word were more neutral than it is. The thematization of the natural attitude by phenomenological method is the point of access to both the structure of naive experience and the illumination of consciousness as the universal ground of mundanity.

The concept of the natural attitude leads immediately to Husserl's analysis of the life-world. The world in which we naively believe is, above all, a familiar world, given to each of us as unquestionably ours. Quite apart from whether my claims about the world are legitimate, I live within their horizon and act in the everyday world as though they were true. It might be noted at this point that Singer is fond of reminding us of Vaihinger and the philosophy of “Als-Ob.” But Vaihinger's position is a sophistication of common sense, which lies on the far side of the life-world. Within the province of everydayness, commonsense men simply take for granted the truth of their experience: the world has, more or less, always been as it is; for all practical purposes we rely on it as continuing to be as it was; and if we do not understand aspects of our experience, we can nevertheless reasonably assume that if we follow tried procedures which have worked in the past, we will be able to make our way in the future. Within the life-world mundane man is the sovereign, for he must ultimately decide on whether to follow the advice of experts, submit to the demands of tradition, or trust the very common sense which has always been his primordial guide. Of course, the pull of sociality and tradition is recognized, but the act of recognition is the responsibility of the individual. In any case, what would it mean for the sovereign to withdraw his allegiance to the only world he can, if not master, at least come to terms with? As Gimpel says, “What's the good of not believing?” Rooted in the life-world, the individual chooses to hold on to what he knows rather than risk what is ultimately strange to him.

Taken together, the natural attitude and the life-world are ways of expressing the realm of mundane experience. In phenomenological terms, however, the task is to reconstruct that realm without building upon the philosophical assumptions which orient mundane men in the course of their daily lives. Without following the lead Husserl provides in establishing a specific method for the description and analysis of mundanity, it is possible nevertheless to indicate some of his results (including the work of some of his followers, Alfred Schutz in particular). The general result of phenomenological procedure is the location of the realm of intentionality. Freed of its psychologistic moorings, consciousness is understood as a perceptual arrow directed toward some object (almost in the grammatical sense of that word). Rather than being hidden within the mind, like the cuckoo in the clock before the hour has struck, consciousness is lucidly engaged with the world it intends. The proper starting point for phenomenology becomes the medium for its inquiry: an egological method is the basis of Husserl's reconstruction of everyday life. It would appear that by swearing allegiance to egology, the phenomenologist has committed himself to solipsism. A few words about that are in order.

By definition, solipsism is a philosophy without friends. Everything conspires to degrade it: on the one hand, it is accused of hubris; on the other hand, it is denounced for its insularity. Pushed in one direction, solipsism tends to be the madman of total conceptual aggrandizement; nudged in a reverse direction, it is held to be the lunatic of metaphysical autism.3 And even if a more moderate attitude it taken (a stentorian admonition delivered preferably in British tones: “Solipsism simply will not do!”), it is evident that no one wants any part of a philosophy which scandalizes the primitive fact of experience: that ours is a social world. We seem to be left with a position everyone needs and nobody wants. Yet it should be clear from the history of philosophy that solipsism has two faces. On the one side, there is the traditional claim that the individual is the sole reality. On the other side, however, there is the less familiar message that the proper method of philosophy calls for the examination of all experience from an egological perspective. The former is metaphysical solipsism; the latter is methodological solipsism. Phenomenology does entail a procedure which demands that nothing is to be accepted as knowledge which has not passed through the filter of intentional consciousness and has been evaluated in the most rigorous terms. Husserl writes:

First of all, before everything else conceivable, I am. This “I am” is for me, the subject who says it, and says it in the right sense, the primitive intentional basis for my world; and, at the same time, it must not be overlooked that likewise the “Objective” world, the “world for all of us” as accepted with this sense by me, is also “my” world. But “I am” is the primitive intentional basis, not only for “the” world, the one I consider real, but also for any “ideal world” that I accept; and this holds, without exception, for anything and everything of which I am conscious as something existent in any sense whatever that I understand or accept—for everything that I show, sometimes legitimately, sometimes illegitimately, to be existent—including me myself, my life, my believing, and all this consciousness-of. Whether convenient or inconvenient, and even though (because of no matter what prejudices) it may sound monstrous to me, it is the primal matter-of-fact to which I must hold fast, which I, as a philosopher, must not disregard for a single instant. For children in philosophy, this may be the dark corner haunted by the spectres of solipsism and, perhaps, of psychologism, of relativism. The true philosopher, instead of running away, will prefer to fill the dark corner with light.4

In these terms, the phenomenologist adopts an egological stance because he seeks a philosophy without appeal to any transcendent assumptions or second-hand reports. At the same time, he proceeds to build his Aufbau of the full range of experience. The social, far from being ignored or reduced artificially by a priori strictures, is confronted in its root form. The constitution of the social becomes the prime theme of intentional analysis. It is at this juncture that the importance of methodological solipsism for literary interpretation shows itself. The solipsism of the psychological novel restricts consciousness by insulating and by dissolving the contract between the individual and the social, as John Bayley points out. “It is paradoxical but true,” Bayley writes, “that the old character contract can only be filled today by the solitary consciousness which does not attempt to compound its solipsism but accepts the amorality which is its logical consequence.” The solitary consciousness at issue is the heir of metaphysical solipsism. It is the product of the psychologizing of consciousness into domains of “interior” and “exterior,” and it is the inheritor of Cartesian dualism: the cogito doomed to trudge along with the body. Methodological solipsism, on the contrary, provides a new point of access to the nature of consciousness. Everything given in the social world is reflected in intentional consciousness. Amorality is the logical consequence of such a position (or, more precisely, of such a method) only if amorality is implied by the nature of sociality. Complicity displaces collusion.

Stated in a different way, I am suggesting that the epistemological ground of contract presupposes the activity of consciousness understood in its purely formative but not psychological aspect. Rather than being a position which the interpreter can ally himself with or renounce, solipsism is the inevitable accompaniment of any method which demands the scrutiny of its own terms and procedures. The individual is both an emergent from social process, as George H. Mead has shown, and the condition for the constitution of social process (as Mead, in my reading of him, implies, despite the “social behaviorism” he claims to honor).5 Methodological solipsism may be understood as a way of providing an account of the history of consciousness in the formation of sociality. Such a history takes nothing away from the weight and requiredness of the social world. Instead, the logic of that history establishes the conditions which must be fulfilled if there is to be a social order. Both metaphysics and psychology give way to what might be termed structural analysis. Methodological solipsism is not free to invent the world; it is responsible for reflecting what the constitutive history of the world demands if there is to be a coherent, let alone cohesive, order to sociality. If metaphysical solipsism concerns itself with the reality of the self, its methodological counterpart investigates the essential (eidetic) character of the mundane. Sociality becomes a problem of the Lebenswelt.

The recommendation implicit in these reflections can be stated directly. The duality of self and world, understood as the relationship between consciousness and social reality, can be undercut by the phenomenological concept of intentionality. With the Husserlian attitude thematizing the natural attitude, everyday life becomes a problem for the inquirer who hitherto tacitly accepted the taken-for-granted world as real and valid for everyone. And along with this change in attitude there goes a reassessment of the nature of consciousness and a reevaluation of its psychological implications. If I am right in thinking that much of literary interpretation is indebted to the categories of a psychological conception of consciousness, then the utilization of a phenomenological approach carries with it the opportunity for a radical reinterpretation of the nexus between self and world in psychological fiction. The novel of character may, perhaps, be reconsidered in terms of an intentional theory of consciousness. Contract may find a new expression in a constitutive conception of sociality. The everyday world made possible by the typifying activity of consciousness may be the matrix within which character is generated. Recognizing the suspicion if not hostility which criticism shares with common sense toward traditional solipsism, I would nevertheless plead with the interpreter of literature to offer the methodological solipsist a glass of tea while he hears his story. A cup, as any reader of Singer knows, will simply not do.


  1. Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. and intro. Irving Howe (New York, 1966), p. 19.

  2. Ibid., p. 18.

  3. George Santayana offers an appealing overview: “Spirit is everywhere the first person, the only speaker of all the parts. Here is a vital necessity, at once a quasi-divine privilege and a fatal animal limitation, a blessing to the humble and a snare to the proud. Shall I wonder and give thanks that in my little mirror such great things can be reflected? Or shall I proclaim myself the universal protagonist, the indispensable Proteus, out of whom all things are formed? And yet is not this a sad omnipotence, or rather a profound impotence, never to have a neighbour, never to find a friend, but always to dream unchallengeably and helplessly of some vapid universe? The spirit, enthroned in the animal heart as in an audience-chamber, may fancy itself a monarch. Can any messenger reach it that it does not admit into its presence? Can any event alarm it, that it does not choose to care about? Can anything but its own will dictate the commands that it shall issue? And as these commands are often obeyed instantly by its own thoughts, the privy counsellors in its presence, ought not all things always to obey likewise? Is it perhaps only irresolution in the spirit, its want of faith and courage, that allows events to fluctuate, to surprise, or to seem disastrous? Might not a spirit that obeyed its own orders give orders to the universe?” (Realms of Being [New York, 1942], pp. 721-22).

  4. Edmund Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic, tr. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), p. 237.

  5. I am heartened by Hans Robert Jauss's references to Mead (see below, pages 300-03). They presage, I hope, a discovery of the potential relevance of Mead's thought for all hermeneutical arts.

Principal Works

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“Gimpel Tam” [“Gimpel the Fool”] 1945; published in the journal Jewish Daily Forward.

*Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories 1957

The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories 1961

Short Friday and Other Stories 1964

Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1966

Zlateth the Goat, and Other Stories 1966

Schlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories 1968

The Séance and Other Stories 1968

A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw 1969

A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories 1970

An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader 1971

A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories 1973

Passions and Other Stories 1975

Old Love 1979

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1982

Stories for Children 1984

The Image and Other Stories 1985

The Death of Methusaleh and Other Stories 1988

Shoten an Goray [Satan in Goray] (novel) 1935

Di Familie Mushkat [as Isaac Bashevis; The Family Moskat] (novel) 1950

Mayn Tatn's bes-din Shtub [as Isaac Warshofsky; In My Father's Court] (memoir) 1956

Der Kunstmakher fun Lublin [The Magician of Lublin] (novel) 1960

Der Knekht [The Slave] (novel) 1962

Sonim, di Geschichte fun a Liebe [Enemies: A Love Story] (novel) 1966

Der Sertifikat [The Certificate] (novel) 1967

The Manor (novel) 1967

The Estate (novel) 1969

The Mirror (play) 1973

Der Baltshuve [The Penitent] (novel) 1974

Yentl [with Leah Napolin] (play) 1974

A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light (memoir) 1976

Yarme and Kayle (novel) 1976

Shosha (novel) 1978

Teibele and Her Demon [with Eve Friedman] (play) 1978

A Young Man in Search of Love (memoir) 1978

Farloyrene Neshomes [Meshugah] (novel) 1981-82

Lost in America (memoir) 1981

Love and Exile (memoir) 1984

Der Veg Aheim [The Way Home] (novel) 1985

Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer [with Richard Burgin] (interviews) 1986

*Published in Yiddish as Gimpel Tam un andere Dertseylungen in 1963.

†These works were originally published serially in the journal Jewish Daily Forward.

Edward Alexander (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Alexander, Edward. “The Short Stories: ‘Gimpel the Fool’.” In Isaac Bashevis Singer, pp. 143-46. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

[In the following essay, Alexander examines Gimpel as a schlemiel figure and considers “Gimpel the Fool” as a commentary on the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.]

“Gimpel the Fool” (in Gimpel the Fool …) is without question Singer's best-known, most frequently anthologized, and most thoroughly studied short story. When Saul Bellow's translation of it appeared in Partisan Review in 1953, the barrier of parochialism which has kept the American literary world ignorant of even the greatest of Yiddish writers in the United States was lowered long enough for Singer to make his escape from the cage of Yiddish into the outside world. But even those critics who, like the Shakespeare scholar Paul Siegel, have located Gimpel, as the wise or sainted fool, within the most pervasive archetypes of Western literature, have admitted that he is inescapably of the Yiddish world, and that the story “has its roots deep in the soil of Yiddish literature.”1 Irving Howe explicitly labels him “the literary grandson of Peretz's Bontsha Schweig, whose intolerable humbleness makes even the angels in heaven feel guilty and embarrassed,” although he reminds us that the activist Peretz did not, like Singer, endorse schlemielhood.2

What mainly characterizes Gimpel is his readiness to believe everything he is told, no matter how improbable, fantastic, “incredible.” He is fooled into playing truant from school by being told the lie that the rabbi's wife has been brought to child-bed. When his tormentors found out how credulous he was, they gave free rein to their imagination in lies: “‘Gimpel, the Czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen. …’ And I like a golem believed everyone.” He believed, he says, because traditional wisdom conveyed the awareness that “everything is possible” (4), awareness that, since the time of the Holocaust, has been alleged by historians to be the peculiar advantage of the criminal mind over the noncriminal.

Sometimes the tricks played on poor Gimpel touched on the most sacred things or on those by which a human being is most immediately attached to life. Told that the Messiah has come and the dead, including his own mother and father, have arisen from the grave, he runs outside to look, even though he “knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened.” Shamed by the howls of laughter which mock his (apparent) credulity, he momentarily resolves “to believe nothing more.” But the rabbi reassures him, not—as perhaps he ought to have done—with the reminder that a believing Jew can hardly be superior and sceptical about that Messianic deliverance towards which his whole religion yearns, but on moral grounds. “‘It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. … For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself’” (5).

The central foolishness of Gimpel's life is the willingness with which he allows himself to be duped (or is he?) into marrying Elka, who is (and whom Gimpel knows to be, though he is told otherwise) the town whore. She is a widow, she is divorced, and she is pregnant with a bastard who is born seventeen weeks after the wedding with Gimpel. He accepts the child as his own, only to be subjected to the further humiliation of finding Elka in bed with another man. At first he refuses to credit (or pretend to credit) her lies, saying that “‘Gimpel isn't going to be a sucker all his life. There's a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel’” (11). But two impulses keep him from asserting his dignity—and his incredulity. One is his incapacity for righteous anger and hatred, an incapacity that some writers on the Holocaust have found widespread among the Jews of Eastern Europe. The other is his instinctive sense that belief is not a matter of evidences but of will. This is Gimpel's positive version of that favorite negative doctrine of dogmatic thinkers: namely, that those who deny speculative truths are morally at fault, and that, as the Catholic thinker John Henry Newman once wrote to a prospective convert to his faith, “We can believe what we choose.3

This link, on the surface utterly absurd, between faith in one's (unfaithful) wife, and faith in God is made by Gimpel himself and does not depend on the reader's inference. “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; tomorrow it's God Himself you won't take stock in” (14). Gimpel never takes the analogy a step further to say that the Jewish people have been far more faithful to their God than He to them, but in the aftermath of the Holocaust there are few Jewish heads through which that thought will not at least momentarily flit when they read this passage.

Elka's continuing infidelities over two decades do try Gimpel's love and faith, but his belief in belief itself is strong enough to blot out all negative empirical evidence. “All kinds of things happened, but I neither saw nor heard. I believed, and that's all. The rabbi recently said to me, ‘Belief in itself is beneficial. It is written that a good man lives by his faith’” (17). Gimpel's last temptation is proffered by Satan himself, who after Elka's deathbed confession of her lifelong deception of Gimpel suggests that he get even with all the inhabitants of Frampol by pouring urine in the dough of their bread. But just as Gimpel is about to risk eternal life for a dirty act of revenge, God comes to his aid by sending a message through Elka, who appears in a dream to say to Gimpel: “‘Because I was false is everything false too?’” (19). This is God's way of keeping faith with Gimpel when his belief in his wife, the foundation on which all other beliefs had rested, crumbles. For the rest of the story, Gimpel wanders through the world as a storyteller in his own right, a sage who spins yarns about “improbable things that could never have happened” (20).

Despite Gimpel's descent from the schlemiels of the classical Yiddish writers, he differs from them in several respects. Unlike Sholom Aleichem's Kasrilevkites or Peretz's Bontsha, 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. Also, his 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 these portend evil. Thus, the crucial moment of Sholom Aleichem's “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke” comes when the lone newspaper subscriber in town reads to the citizens the news of Alfred Dreyfus's unjust conviction for treason against France. They react in violent protest, “not against the judge who had judged so badly … not against the generals who had sworn so falsely nor against the Frenchmen who had covered themselves with so much shame,” but against Zaidle, who reads them the news. “‘If you stood here with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth we still wouldn't believe you. Such things cannot be! No, this cannot be! It cannot be! It cannot be!’” It is true that this incredulity of the Kasrilevkites is connected causally with their faith that divine truth and justice must prevail, yet it goes without saying that Gimpel in the same situation would at once have credited the grim news from France.

All this should be kept in mind when considering Ruth Wisse's suggestion that, in a sense, the most important fact about this story is its postwar date of composition. “How,” she asks, “does one retain the notion of psychic survival when its cost has been physical extinction? … After the entire populations of Kasrilevke and Tuneyadevke have been reduced to the ash of crematoria, does it not become a cruel sentimentality to indulge in schlemiel humor and to sustain a faith in the ironic mode?” Singer's story, she points out, is one of the rare examples in postwar Yiddish fiction of the schlemiel figure, whose development is the subject of her book. She suggests, without insisting on, the possible link between the traditional celebration of 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 ghettoes, concentration camps, and finally gas chambers.4 She accepts the tradition (bitterly repudiated by survivors like Alexander Donat)5 that the hymn of the camps was Ani Maamin (I believe) and implies the link with Gimpel's celebration of belief against all evidence.

But was it really their religious faith that made the majority of Jews disbelieve in the actuality of the threat which faced them? Most witnesses and survivors have alleged that, on the contrary, it was their faith in “mankind” and in the “world” which betrayed the majority of Jews. If that is so, then we can accept “Gimpel the Fool” as a story written not in spite of, but because of, Singer's awareness of the Holocaust. If worldliness is indeed the gullibility which 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. He is sternly indifferent to the voice of common sense, that faculty which, according to Hannah Arendt, because it encouraged them “to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations,”6 was the most fatal of all to the appointed victims of the Holocaust. 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.


  1. “Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool,” in The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Carbondale, Illinois, 1969), p. 159.

  2. Introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, p. 41.

  3. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. C. S. Dessain (Birmingham, 1962), XII, 228.

  4. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago, 1971), pp. 60-67.

  5. See “The Voice of the Ashes,” lecture at “The Holocaust—A Generation After” conference, New York, March 1975, to be published by Institute of Contemporary Jewry.

  6. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 3 vols. (New York, 1951), III, 137-38.

Thomas Hennings (essay date winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Hennings, Thomas. “Singer's ‘Gimpel the Fool’ and The Book of Hosea.Journal of Narrative Technique 13, no. 1 (winter 1983): 11-19.

[In the following essay, Hennings views “Gimpel the Fool” as a modern rendition of The Book of Hosea.]

The most popular of I. B. Singer's short stories, “Gimpel the Fool” tells about a man who endures the derision of his neighbors for marrying, divorcing, and remarrying an adulterous wife. Shortly after Singer wrote the story in Yiddish for the Jewish Daily Forward, Saul Bellow published a translation in The Partisan Review and brought it to the attention of the American public. Since then it has been frequently anthologized, hailed as “the capstone of [Singer's] achievement,” and studied diligently by scholars who like to explain its disturbing epistemological themes or its Yiddish literary conventions, the most important of which defines Gimpel's character type, the stock figure of dos kleine menshele, the little man or schlemeil. According to the philosophical approach, analytic and synchronic, “Gimpel the Fool” depicts modern man struggling in “the locus in nuce of the anomie which [Singer] sees as endemic to the condition of the world.”

Deliberately to underscore the theme of ethical relativism, the confused and rambling narrative of the story instructs us to cling, like Gimpel, desperately to our delusions because “what is important is not what we may believe, but that we choose to believe it—our fidelity, our heart. Men are moved by falsehoods as by truths.” If this synchronic view, as a rule, wanders through popular academic cant to rest on sentimental impressionism, then the diachronic perspective, no less sentimental, is guilty of being too narrow and short-sighted. Singer himself has repudiated his historical critics when he insists he does “not write in the tradition of the Yiddish writers' ‘little man,’ because their little man is actually a victim—a man who is the victim of anti-Semitism, the economic situation, and so on. … Gimpel was not a little man.”1 By limiting attention solely to Yiddish literary conventions, the historical critics have forgotten that Singer's literary heritage is more than Yiddish—it is Hebraic and reaches back to Sacred Scripture.

“Gimpel the Fool” was written for an audience of immigrants whose education, simple as it may have been, nevertheless made them sensitive to Biblical allusions and informed of the basic teachings of the Talmud. In “Gimpel the Fool,” Singer offers for their edification a modern rendition of The Book of Hosea. Many in the original audience, I believe, would have apprehended that Gimpel's life is modeled exactly after that of the great prophet of love, and that in this story Singer reinvigorates the message of the prophet while he tests the truth of Sacred Scripture by the observation of reality and an appeal to experience. In the life of Gimpel, Singer celebrates the Jewish theology of love, a theology that envisions God's relationship to a faithless mankind by means of the adulterous marriage metaphor made famous in The Book of Hosea. Singer not only takes from Hosea the evaluative metaphor that gives his story its intellectual dimension, he also takes the major characterization, the four major incidents of its plot and their structure, as well as the prophet's central images and symbols.

Not a rambling narrative but a tightly knit and symmetrically structured story, “Gimpel the Fool” reaffirms the validity of a providential universe. Singer neatly divides the story into four numbered sections, each imaginatively elaborating on one of Hosea's four incidents: first, the marriage to a whore—in Hosea she is the infamous “woman of harlotry” named Gomer; second, the cuckoldry, birth of the bastards, and divorce; third, the reconciliation, remarriage, and continued adultery; and fourth, the social application of it all, that is, the moral and theological implications of the adulterous marriage for the Jewish community. As in Hosea, so in “Gimpel,” section one is deliberately balanced against three, and section two against four.

By means of dramatic symbols Hosea teaches his countrymen what they must know about God and themselves by teaching them about love. In short, God is everlasting love who desires from mankind the love known as hesed—a real willingness to be the more loving one. He is symbolized by the knowing cuckold who keeps on loving. Like Hosea's sluttish wife, Gomer, Israel, God's wife, has become a whore—an apt comparison because syncretistic idolatry then involved sexual intercourse with the temple prostitutes of Baal. Although an anguished God may become angry with his faithless wife, punish her, even divorce her, His merciful love is everlasting. Hosea predicts the Assyrian captivity as a punishment and a divorce, the parallel of his own divorce of Gomer, but in the midst of enumerating the pains of captivity Hosea suddenly promises the grand reconciliation of God and Israel, the parallel and point of Hosea's remarriage of Gomer. Israel will come to love her Husband, return to Him in the Promised Land, and live with Him forever in Paradise.2

No Yiddish writers' schlemeil, Gimpel is drawn according to the divine analogy and the prophetic identification with God, the Loving One Unloved. As a modern Hosea longing for his adulterous wife's return, Gimpel reenacts the anguish of the God of love. Confronted with overwhelming evidence of the wife's adultery, Hosea speaks in oracular poetry for God: “How shall I deal with thee, O Ephraim, shall I protect thee, O Israel? … My heart is turned within me, my repentance is stirred up. I will not execute the fierceness of my wrath” (11: 8-9). The godlike Gimpel, depicted in psychologically realistic terms to which Singer's original audience could relate, simply says,

I wanted to be angry, but that's my misfortune exactly. I don't have it in me to be really angry. In the first place—this is how my thoughts went—there's bound to be a slip sometimes. You can't live without errors. … And then since she denies it so, maybe I was only seeing things? Hallucinations do happen. … And when I got so far in my thoughts, I started to weep. I sobbed so that I wet the flour where I lay. In the morning I went to the rabbi and told him I had made a mistake.

(pp. 12-13)

Gimpel's remarks proceed from his inability to be really angry and move on to forgiveness. In between is the possibility of error, the epistemological problem exciting to philosophical critics who are attracted to Gimpel's observations that the world is once removed from reality and that there are no lies. The problems Gimpel raises are no doubt capable of taking one through the intellectual maze of a Cartesian evil genius, if one is inclined to wander in that direction, but I suspect Singer's original audience was not so inclined. Versed well enough in the prophets and the Law, they may have seen the problems as religious, and they were probably more intrigued by the legal issues, immediately treated at some length by Singer, concerning a Jew's remarrying his divorced wife. Some may have even recalled that these legal problems have been brought up in most discussions of The Book of Hosea, and that a long tradition of commentary, including that of the great Moses Maimonides, has associated Hosea's reconciliation with the famous story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38: 6-26), a Biblical analogue about a good man who, among other things, is honestly mistaken when accusing a woman of adultery and who later repents, withdraws his accusation, and honors the woman.

According to the long interpretative traditions of Hosea, including the entire medieval exegesis, the prophet's story about his marriage to a temple prostitute is unhistorical. Although it is a lie of allegory, it is a fictive and eternal truth given by God in a dream. It was undoubtedly in a dream of the future that Hosea predicts, in highly charged erotic terms, God's reconciliation with Israel, a consolation matched by Singer's final scenes which transcend time in an erotic dreamworld where every night Elka comes to Gimpel's bed, something she did not do in the earlier parts of the story. The symmetrical balance follows the guide of Hosea and indicates that the wife's earlier, misguided eroticism has now reached its loving perfection:

… her face is shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint. … When I wake I have forgotten it all [what she says]. But while the dream lasts I am comforted. She answers all my queries, and what comes out is that all is right. … Sometimes she strokes and kisses me and weeps upon my face. When I awaken I feel her lips and taste the salt of her tears.

(p. 21)

Although in Hosea (as in “Gimpel”) the reunion of husband and repentant wife occurs in a dream, the Biblical commentators explain that the dream visions of a prophet are the truest perceptions of reality because they provide an eternal perspective. Any one time we see the world, we are likely to be so blinded by particular space and time that we get a false picture of things—Israel as cheap whore or as captive nation—at best partly true because it is removed from the reality of God's eternal perspective—Israel as the perfect wife. Mindful of temporal restrictions, Gimpel reaches much the same conclusion in his famous remark about the world being once removed from reality. A doctrine of his faith shared by the original audience, it is perhaps consonant, as the philosophical critics contend, with Spinoza's concept of the higher and lower modes of being and knowing, but it derives from the spirit and the vision of the prophets.

By stressing the technique of the prophetic dream-allegory in Hosea, many commentators have dismissed the question of divorce and remarriage as moot. No one is to take literally that a Jew married a temple prostitute, named her bastards “No child of mine” and the like, and then proceeded lovingly to raise them as his own. If the allegory is not clear enough, there remains the historical fact that it was impossible for a Jew of Hosea's day to remarry his divorced wife. Such marriages became explicitly forbidden by the Talmud (Joseph Karo, ‘Even Ha’Ezer, ‘Shulan Arukh’, 11:1, 115, 6ff.). Typical of the allegorists, Moses Maimonides resolves the question of divorce and remarriage in Hosea when he explains that the story is not historical. Only Moses received the word of God face to face, as it were; the other prophets received it in a dream, and their dreams are true. Hosea dreamt he married Gomer and the truth of his vision is no less for that. So too, Gimpel, the foolish man with the prophetic vision, comes to realize “that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year” (p. 20). Yet, of course, there have always been literalists who insist that Hosea actually married, divorced, and remarried Gomer, and therefore much controversy has always surrounded the exegesis of Hosea. It is partly to this controversy that Singer, a son of a rabbi and a rabbinical student in his youth, alludes with his playful treatment of Gimpel's request to remarry, a request that causes so much trouble for the rabbis: “I hadn't realized there could be so much erudition about a matter like this” (p. 13).

In his imaginative elaboration upon the proceedings of the divorce and remarriage, Singer alludes directly to Moses Maimonides and the central tenets of the Jewish theology of love. The “obscure reference” to Maimonides discovered by the Yanover rabbi permitting Gimpel to remarry comes, I suspect, from an important passage in The Guide of the Perplexed Life. Concerned with love, compassion, repentance and forgiveness, Maimonides cites Hosea, but he does not discuss remarrying a divorced wife, since the Law forbids such a marriage. Instead, he takes up the question of withdrawing a testimony already given in court (which is what Gimpel actually does). His appeal is to Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 when he declares that the Law demands a reversal of testimony whenever the slightest doubt exists that the former accusation is true. He recalls the prescription in the Talmud quoted almost verbatim in “Gimpel the Fool” by the Frampol rabbi that one risks the loss of Paradise by calling a neighbor a fool (Abath di Rabbi Nathan, 3, 11), and he counsels that a Jew must be extremely hesitant in making any accusations. He refers to the Talmud (Baba Mitzia, 59), where “it is prescribed for a man to suffer death rather than to insult or cause shame to a fellow man.” This observation in the Mishnah comes from the story of Judah and Tamar, which is appropriate to Gimpel's accusing Elka of adultery. Sincerely believing he has been wronged, a righteous Judah mistakenly accuses Tamar of being “a woman of harlotry,” and she is to burn at the stake. She knows the name of the guilty party (the innocent Judah himself), but she refuses to reveal it, lest she sin by publicly making it known. When learning the truth, the surprised and edified Judah immediately withdraws his testimony. Indeed, there is a good deal of learning as well as pointed and playful irony behind Gimpel's discovering he too can withdraw his testimony and in his humble yet firm conclusion: “Maimonides says it is right, and therefore it is right!” (p. 15).3

After the reconciliation, the wife's adultery continues as it does in Hosea, for as in the prophetic work the final and complete reunion takes place in the last section which depicts on the social and supernatural levels the thematic concerns of love explored in the earlier sections. Ruth Wisse has observed that in the fourth part of the story Singer drops the narrative technique he used earlier in order to present Gimpel as a mystic engaged in a contemplative monologue.4 She is partly correct because Singer has approximated Hosea's prophetic vision, but the last section still retains a narrative frame. It completes the theme of marriage-divorce-remarriage on a social level. When Gimpel achieves the reciprocal love of Elka, he no longer remains an outsider among the Jews. He is welcomed and honored by them. Like Hosea, Singer explores the power of love to transcend hate and anger, space and time. The last section presents alternate displays of anger and love, anger symbolically directed not at the wife but, as in Hosea, at the community which has become identified with the faithless wife's values. It shifts suddenly to reveal a transcendent love for the wife and community, who, like Gomer-Israel in Hosea, becomes the story's only dynamic character.

In describing this transcendent love, Singer retains Hosea's crucial image pattern, the major symbolic motif of bread and baking. According to many exegetes, the prominence of bakery images in The Book of Hosea is accounted for by the prophet's being a baker by profession.5 Hence Singer makes Gimpel a professional baker, and like the prophet, Gimpel will leave his profession to wander the countryside, telling (and, according to the little fat boy at the end, retelling) his one story, the story of his marriage, which he also tells to us.

As the most important ingredient of a meal and as the basic sustenance of life, bread symbolizes in Judaic culture not only dependence on God but also union with Him because He provides out of the abundance of His steadfast love. Representing faith and hope in God, bread is the sign of the purity of spirit, the undefiled and reciprocal love between God and the community as well as the fellowship of the Jews who come together to share a meal. Because bread is sacred in character, dietary laws insist that careful attention be paid to its purity. In Biblical times, the purest of breads, also the holiest, were not the sacred Sabbath loaves. They were the twelve cakes or showbreads of the Temple laid before the altar to represent the holiness of each of the tribes. Because bread carries such deep religious meaning for the Jews, the prophets are particularly fond of using bread and food images in their curses and blessings. As a painful reminder of infidelity, the prophets warn that the people will lose their sacred breads and will have to eat impure foods—a sure sign of their being disowned by God. Graphically to underscore how defiled the faith of the people has become, how impure their spiritual life is, the prophets may employ scatological imagery in their food metaphors. In a dramatic and highly symbolic act, to cite perhaps the best known instance, Ezekiel is commanded by God to eat human dung (Ezek. 4:12-14).

Like other prophets Hosea warns that the faithless children of Israel will be divorced from God and have to eat impure foods. His famous epithet hurled at Ephraim, “you half-baked cake,” is an ugly image describing a pancake that has turned into an oily mess. It symbolizes how bad Jewish spiritual life had become. His promise of the return of pure foods when the Jews are reconciled to God replaces his earlier contempt for the syncretistic practice of eating pagan raisin cakes before engaging the services of the temple prostitutes.

As in Hosea, so in “Gimpel the Fool,” the impure bread images and the harlotry metaphor reinforce each other as manifestations of Jewish faithlessness. In the last section of the story, when Gimpel urinates in the dough and “the Spirit of Evil himself” curses, “Let the sages of Frampol eat filth” (p. 18), we witness more than a nasty prank, a petty and vindictive way to even the score, so to speak. The scene symbolizes that the people of Frampol, like Elka, are bad Jews. The act parallels the temporary divorce from Elka, just as the Assyrian captivity had been anticipated by Hosea's divorce of Gomer. The governing allusion, however, similarly indicates the coming reconciliation. The urinating in the dough is the climactic instance of anger from a man, like God, whose loving kindness will prevail.

Soiling the dough is antithetical to Gimpel's true nature; it is a temptation from the devil to embrace atheism and nihilism, the seductive doctrines of the modern Baalim, the perverters of hesed, whose secular charms are tempting many, as some in Singer's original audience would readily attest, to forsake the values of their fathers. The soiling is opposed to all of Gimpel's previous displays of love which had been conveyed in bakery images. Although Gimpel remarks about his marriage that “no bread will ever be baked from this dough” (p. 7), his love for Elka brings out the baker in him. He expresses his love in bakery images: “In the evening I brought her a white loaf as well as a dark one, and also poppyseed rolls I baked myself. I thieved because of her and swiped everything I could lay hands on: macaroons, raisins, almonds, cakes … She ate and became fat and handsome” (p. 10). Calling attention to the parallel with Hosea, who buys his wife, Singer makes Gimpel pay for Elka, although it is “the bride and not the groom who gives a dowry” (p. 7), and, like that of the earlier baker, Gimpel's love is as one-sided, as strong, as anguished, and as enduring. It is emblematic of God's love for a faithless world, and it finds its lyric expression in Gimpel's heartfelt desire to be reconciled to his estranged wife: “I sent daily a corn or wheat loaf, or a piece of pastry, rolls or bagels, or, when I got the chance, a slab of pudding, a slice of honeycake, or wedding strudel …” (p. 14). And after the reconciliation, when he catches Elka committing adultery with the apprentice, he expresses his pain in bread imagery as the loaf of bread he brought home for her falls from his hands (p. 15).

The anger and the hatred that motivate Gimpel's urinating in the dough are alien to both God and Gimpel's character (and symbolically antithetical to the tears of love with which Gimpel had previously wet the flour). It is with the thought of Elka, his beloved, that love returns once more and forever—“My heart is turned within me. … I will not execute the fierceness of my wrath.” According to the artistic patterns of the story, by urinating in the dough Gimpel not only associates with the devil of despair, he joins in the ranks of those who had previously mocked his faith. The mockers are scatological: “instead of raisins they give when a woman's lying in, they stuffed my hands full of goat turds” (p. 3). Here is an instance of scatology as symbolic antagonist of the purity of Jewish faith, as is the later reminder in the rabbinical court when Elka's child soils its diapers and has to be removed from the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.

Those who claim “Gimpel the Fool” begins in comedy and ends in tragic pathos have misread the story. Its final scenes, like those of Hosea, bring into accord the previous antagonism of themes and images. Gimpel, the faithful Jew, is no longer alienated from the reciprocal love of his marriage bed, nor is he estranged from the community. Like Hosea he progresses from foolish baker to beloved prophet. The antagonism between old and young is gone, a leitmotif that had sounded much of the conflict in the story. It is the young of Frampol who had mocked Gimpel. The older rabbi had consoled him, while the rabbi's daughter made fun of Gimpel's willingness to obey the Law. The young, cynical rabbinical student ridiculed Gimpel's old-fashioned faith, the belief in the coming of Messiah, the resurrection from the dead, and life everlasting. The boys in the village put goat turds in his hands, his apprentice cuckolded him, and the first man he caught in bed with Elka he called a “lad.” The schoolchildren threw burrs on his wedding day, but the old granny hugged the braided sabbath loaf. Apparently she understood what Gimpel's wedding symbolized for the community, and she probably understood how much the cynical youth of Frampol needed the repentance of Tishe b'Av. At the end of the story, however, the children no longer mock the faith of their fathers. They love Gimpel; they run to him, surround him, and implore him to tell them his story. Gimpel awaits the rewards of Paradise.

Like Hosea before him, Singer deliberately chooses to disturb his readers' complacent assumptions about God, about faith, love, wisdom, and folly—and about themselves. He wants to warn them against the Baalish philosophies of nihilism and despair; he wants to edify them, to make them think and to obtain with the help of his storytelling a brief, even faint insight into that grand and eternal truth of Jewish history—the steadfast love of God and the glory of hesed. By imaginatively projecting what it would be like to be Hosea today, or in the near recent past, 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. Singer also shares with us his artistic appreciation of the beloved, of the cynical Elka, or modern Gomer, Israel, mankind, and he reminds us of the promised consolation of reconciliation. We are God's beloved and therefore must retain at least some of our original appeal no matter how corrupt we may become. “Fat and handsome” Gimpel calls Elka. She must be a zaftig, and her husband must be happy each morning after to serve her breakfast in bed, fresh rolls and bagels, golden-brown pancakes, topped of course with plenty of butter and honey. “I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary.”


  1. “The Art of Fiction: An Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Paris Review, 44 (Fall 1968), 67-68. For a representative sampling of the diachronic school see Irving Howe, “I. B. Singer” in Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Irving Malin, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1969), p. 118; Alfred Kazin, “The Saint as Schlemeil,” Contemporaries (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), pp. 283-288; Sanford Pinsker, The Schlemeil as Metaphor (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), pp. 55-86; Ruth Wisse, The Schlemeil as Modern Hero (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 60-65. For the synchronic approach see Irving Malin, Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 70-72; Eli Katz, “Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Classical Yiddish Tradition,” a repudiation of the historical approach, in The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Marcia Allentuck, ed. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), pp. 14-25; Paul Siegal, “Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool” in The Achievement, pp. 159-173; William H. Gass, “The Shut-in” in The Achievement, pp. 1-13; Ben Siegel, Isaac Bashevis Singer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), pp. 10-20; Michael Fixler, “Themes in the Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer” in Critical Views, pp. 68-85. Bellow's translation of “Gimpel Tam” appeared in the May 1953 issue of The Partisan Review; it was anthologized the following year in the Viking Press edition, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, again in 1957 by Noonday Press in Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, which was reprinted in paperback by Avon Books in 1965 and reprinted by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1979. My references are to the Noonday Press edition. Singer's biographer, Paul Kresh, praises the story as the “capstone” of Singer's work in Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street (New York: Dial Press, 1979), pp. 203-204, where he informs us that the Nobel laureate regards “Gimpel the Fool” as his personal favorite and that Singer likes to call himself Gimpel. The quotations relating Singer to modern man and his delusions are from William Gass, p. 3.

  2. For well-received interpretations see H. L. Ginsberg, “Hosea's Ephraim, More Fool than Knave,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 80 (1961), 339ff., and R. Gordis, “Hosea's Marriage and Message,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 25 (1954), 9-34, as well as the following commentaries: Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 39-60; Henry McKeating, The Books of Amos, Hosea and Micah, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: University Press, 1971); J. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), pp. 165-173; Jacob B. Argus, “The Prophet in Modern Hebrew Literature” in Interpreting the Prophetic Tradition, Harry M. Orlinsky, ed. (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1969), pp. 45-80.

  3. Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed Life, II, 46, translated by Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 405-407. On the subject of the prophetic dream see Maimonides, The Teachings of Maimonides, A. Cohen, ed. (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1968), pp. 132-137; also Yad-has Hazakah or Mishnah Torah (VI, 3-9) in Cohen, pp. 295-298. For interpretations of the symbolism and legal problems of Hosea's divorce and remarriage see H. H. Rowley, “The Marriage of Hosea,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 39 (1956), 200ff.; Raphael Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible and Middle East (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 112-121; B. Davie Napier, Song of the Vineyard, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 210-215; Studies in the Early History of Judaism, III: Judaism and Christianity, Solomon Zeitlin, ed. (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1975), pp. 339-368; Immanuel Jakobovits, “Marriage and Divorce” in The Jewish Library, 3: Woman, Leo Jung, ed. (New York and London: Soncino Press, 1970), p. 111. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (5, 462-463) regards the story of Hosea's marriage as a literal fact, while the Encyclopedia Judaica (8, 1010-1025) discusses at some length the problems of the autobiographical interpretation.

  4. Wisse, p. 64.

  5. See, for instance, the commentary to the seventh chapter of “The Book of Hosea” in The Interpreter's Bible, introduction and exegesis by John Manchine, exposition by Harold Cooke Phillips (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), pp. 633-637). Professor Betty Ingram, my colleague, informs me that in medieval iconography Hosea was usually depicted with a loaf of bread. Representative of more recent thought on this matter, however, McKeating contends that “the old theory that Hosea himself was a baker has no evidence to support it” (p. 115). More traditional and conservative, the Encyclopedia Judaica repeats the legend that Hosea was a baker. I am much indebted to Sister Patricia O'Toole, I.H.M., who instructed me in a seminar on the prophets.

Further Reading

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Hadda, Janet. “Gimpel the Full.” Prooftexts 10, no. 2 (May 1990): 283-95.

Applies theories of post-Freudian Self-Psychology to “Gimpel the Fool.”

Lee, Grace Farrell. “Belief and Disbelief: The Kabbalic Basis of Singer's Secular Vision.” In From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Grace Farrell Lee, pp. 12-24. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Argues that “Gimpel the Fool” is a “sophisticated dialectic” that poses, but does not resolve, a question of faith.

Malin, Irving. “The Short Stories.” In Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Irving Malin, pp. 69-104. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1972.

Study of the short fiction, by a noted Singer scholar.

Additional coverage of Singer's life and career in contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 32; Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 4; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R, 134; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 39, 106; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 23, 38, 69, 111; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 28, 52, 278; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1991; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 12, 16; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 3, 53; Something About the Author, Vols. 3, 27, 68; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; and Twayne's World Authors World Literature Criticism.

Daniel V. Fraustino (essay date spring 1985)

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SOURCE: Fraustino, Daniel V. “‘Gimpel the Fool’: Singer's Debt to the Romantics.” Studies in Short Fiction 22, no. 2 (spring 1985): 228-31.

[In the following essay, Fraustino argues that the major themes of “Gimpel the Fool” were drawn from the poetry of the Romantic period.]

“Gimpel the Fool” is generally regarded as Isaac Bashevis Singer's greatest fictional masterpiece and for good reason. Its appeal to the reader is personal and immediate. Gimpel, the narrator-protagonist, represents that child-like quality in all of us which is the source of both our humanity and our vulnerability: the need to believe in the people around us and in the credibility of our own experiences. Singer's story is about Gimpel's search for manifest truth, or as Sol Gittleman declares, “for the nature of truth in reality.”1 While Gimpel's quest has obvious precedent in many literatures throughout the world, it has a special debt to the literature of the Romantic period. As I shall suggest, Singer's thematic concerns with disillusionment, the difficulty of belief, and especially with the relation of worldly experience to truth were clarified and shaped by the poetry of the Romantics. Finally, Singer may have incorporated at a focal point in his story the language and events described in Wordsworth's “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known.”

At the heart of “Gimpel the Fool” lie the questions what is truth and how is it to be known. It is Gimpel's failure to pose these questions that results in his continued deception by the villagers of Frampol. An innocent, Gimpel at first is able to weather their humiliation through his simple faith in God and the Bible. When the townspeople declare, “‘Gimpel, the Czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen; Gimpel, little Hodel Furpiece found a treasure behind the bathhouse,’” Gimpel, in his own words, believes “everything” like a “golem,” but adds, with the assurance of “the Wisdom of the Fathers,” that “everything is possible.”2 Later, when the villagers confuse him to the point that he doesn't “know the big end from the small,” he is sustained by the Biblical injunction that it is “‘better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil’” (p. 5).

Gimpel continues in this way for twenty years, ignorant of his wife Elke's many infidelities. However, her death-bed confession, that none of his six children are really his, forces Gimpel into a spiritual crisis that signals his entry into a state of experience. Gimpel's realization that he has been systematically deceived, that he never really knew the truth, shatters his faith in God and humanity, causing his spiritual collapse into a Blakean condition of experience.

For at the root of Gimpel's desire for revenge on the people of Frampol is a self-concern and self-preoccupation that is his real crime and danger. Alienated from everyone around him, Gimpel self-exiles from the village of his youth, which signifies his loss of innocence. The Voice of Evil, therefore, really evolves from within and represents his own despair: “‘There is no God,’” it says, nor is there a “‘world to come’” (pp. 18-19).

Like Coleridge's ancient mariner, Gimpel's journey is archetypal and may be expiatory for the sin he committed in thought against the Frampol villagers. However, on a deeper level his journey represents a quest for answers to those questions he failed to ask in his youth, epistemological questions which the Romantic poets asked over and over again: what is the nature of truth, and what are its genuine sources. Before Elke's faith-shattering confession, Gimpel, like Blake's chimney-sweepers and black-boys, sustained himself through the power of faith alone. However, in order to transcend this world of treachery and deception Gimpel has to learn that faith must be accompanied by knowledge and understanding, and the acquisition of these latter is the real purpose of his journey-quest as I have suggested. The wisdom finally revealed to Gimpel is divulged at the story's conclusion and, as J. A. Eisenberg states, is Platonic in nature: Gimpel “simply denies the ultimate reality of the world of physical corruption.”3 In Gimpel's own words, the world is “once removed from the true world” which is “real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception.” It is a world where “even Gimpel cannot be deceived” (p. 21).

Surely Singer's imaginative interpretation of empirical reality owes something to the visionary philosophies of the Romantics, who also believed truth to reside in a world apart from organic nature. And from the beginning to the end of the Romantic period, each writer proclaimed his commitment to this belief. While Blake, in the Songs of Experience, emphatically declared his freedom from the world of concrete fact, that is, from “Generation” and “Mortal Life,”4 Keats at the close of the period unambiguously pronounced his faith in the “truth of Imagination” exclusively: “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” he says, “whether it existed before or not.”5 All the Romantics believed that as the mind approached truth its independence from physical nature necessarily increased. Finally, Shelley's declaration in “Adonais” that this world affords only transient visitations of truth or Intellectual Beauty, that we must first pass through death in order to be at one with that which is perfect and unchanging, exactly parallels Gimpel's own metaphysics and his belief in the glory of the afterlife: “The One remains, the many change and pass,” Shelley writes, “Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly … Die / If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek.”6

Surely, Singer's imaginative metaphysics were clarified, perhaps shaped, by the epistemological concerns of the Romantics, and Singer's possible indebtedness in his short story to Wordsworth's well known poem “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known”7 substantiates this. Like Singer's work Wordsworth's lyric poignantly illustrates the fallibility of mortal experience and the theme of deception which constitutes “the leitmotif of Gimpel's story.”8 The narrator's concluding disillusionment in “Strange Fits” corresponds to Gimpel's despair before leaving on his journey, with the falling moon in the former and Elke's confession of her infidelity in the latter representing parallel points.

“Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known” deals with the same problems as “Gimpel the Fool”: with disillusionment, the difficulty of belief in this world of imperfection, and with the relation of worldly experience to truth. It also poses the same questions asked by Singer and stated at the outset of this paper: what is truth, and what are its genuine sources. Like Singer, Wordsworth declares that truth lies apart from the world of mortal imperfection, implicitly suggesting that truth can only be apprehended by the imagination. Significantly, one of the focal events narrated in “Gimpel” repeats in detail the journey described in “Strange Fits.” Returning home unannounced after having changed his mind about divorcing his wife, Gimpel immediately focuses on the moon, the central metaphor for vision in “Strange Fits.” “The moon,” Gimpel says, “was full” (15), and as in Wordsworth's poem it becomes an emblem of the strength and intensity of Gimpel's love. Despite the fact that the “shutter was closed” when Gimpel arrives home—a condition probably referring to Elke's own condition of experience and self-enclosure—“the moon forced its way through the cracks” (15). Even the increased pounding of Gimpel's heart (“‘thump! thump!’”) seems to echo the “quickening pace” of the speaker's horse in Wordsworth's poem as the narrator draws closer to Lucy. Finally, upon discovering Elke in bed with the apprentice, Gimpel expresses his disillusionment in language almost identical to that of Wordworth's narrator. While the latter says, “down behind the cottage roof / At once, the bright moon dropped” (23-24), Gimpel declares that “The moon went out all at once” (15).9

Singer's indebtedness to Romantic epistemology, but particularly to Wordworth's “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known,” is clear; nor should this surprise us. Just as Irving Howe says of Singer, that “no other living writer has yielded himself so completely and recklessly … to the claims of the human imagination,”10 so may we say of the Romantics, in no other literary period was man's sense of his own worth so imaginatively conceived and defined. For at the bottom of Singer's conception of life is a firmness of faith and strength of vision that inevitably would find reaffirmation and inspiration in the literature of the Romantic period. Indeed, Romanticism was the last literary epoch in which nearly all its major writers unambiguously upheld the existence of a transcendent reality and of values that are absolute. In fact, Gimpel is a kind of latter-day Romantic hero whose quest for truth has antecedence in “Endymion,” “Alastor,” and in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to name just a few. Truly, we must include the Romantic period as one of Singer's primary sources and influences.


  1. From Shtetle to Suburbia: the Family in Jewish Literary Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 106.

  2. In Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957), p. 4. All further references are to this text.

  3. “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Passionate Primitive or Pious Puritan?” in Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Irving Malin (New York: New York University Press, 1969), p. 55.

  4. See “To Tirzah,” in Blake: Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

  5. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), I, 184.

  6. Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson and G. M. Matthewes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 11. 460-65.

  7. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. E. DeSelincourt, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944). All references are to this edition.

  8. Sanford Pinsker, The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in the Yiddish and American Jewish Novel (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), p. 69.

  9. Because I use the English translation of Singer's story, his incorporation of Wordsworth's language into the original Yiddish is debatable, for it depends on the literal accuracy of Saul Bellow's translation. However, the real issue of Singer's indebtedness resides more importantly in his exploration of an identical theme through an identical situation. First, both narrators journey toward falsely perceived ideals: two mortal women, their lovers. Second, both questing narrators are disillusioned in identical ways. While Elke's fallen stature results from her discovered infidelity, Lucy's suspected death is more accurately interpreted as a metaphor for her potentially fallen ideality. While Wordsworth never says that Lucy's death is really a moral one, this implication within the poem's context is clear. Finally, both writers use the same metaphor (the moon) to symbolize an ideal perceived by the creative or transcendent imagination.

  10. Introduction to Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Modern Library, 1966), p. vi.

Sheldon Grebstein (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Grebstein, Sheldon. “Singer's Shrewd ‘Gimpel’: Bread and Childbirth.” In Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by David Neal Miller, pp. 58-65. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986.

[In the following essay, Grebstein identifies the controlling metaphors of “Gimpel the Fool” as bread and childbirth.]

Rabbi Isaac said: In the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, we find that bread strengthens the heart.

—Midrash Rabbah

At surface, Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic story “Gimpel the Fool” (“Gimpl tam”)1 might be perceived by the unwary reader as a transparent morality tale rendered appealing by its credulous protagonist, its earthy humor, and—for readers in English—the vibrant style of Saul Bellow's superb translation. Approached in this way, “Gimpel the Fool” has close kinship with both the folktale and the Yiddish shlemiel story. As in the folktale, “Gimpel” utilizes a clearly delineated introduction and conclusion, threefold repetition, contrasting characters (i.e., “good” and “bad”), a seemingly naive method of characterization, a straightforward plot without subplots, and a simple mode of direct presentation which appears to eschew subtlety and variety for the sake of emphasis. Like the folktale's hero, the supposedly weak and gullible protagonist proves superior to those who victimize him. Indeed, “Gimpel” demonstrates seven of the nine principles which define the folk narrative.2

Scholars have also remarked the indebtedness of “Gimpel” to the shlemiel tradition, and its affinities with the work of such Yiddish storytellers as Perets, especially “Bontsha the Silent” (“Bontsye Shvayg”). In its focus on the character of the sainted fool, its unique quality of bitter Yiddish humor (what Bellow calls a mixture of “laughter and trembling”), its use of a shtetl setting, and its illustration of the redeeming power of suffering and love, “Gimpel” could almost serve as exemplary of the Yiddish literary tradition that flourished in the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. In its creation of the protagonist as shlemiel that tradition has also contributed significantly to the splendid harvest of Jewish-American fiction that has so enriched our literary culture during the past thirty years.3

These associations and affiliations provide broad contexts for understanding “Gimpel.” To some degree they also explain our sense of familiarity or comfort, rather than strangeness, upon first encounter with the story. It seems timeless. But we should beware of this too-easy feeling and resist Singer's own claim that he is a mere storyteller who writers to evoke the reader's sheer pleasure. Even the practiced critic is tempted to glide along the fascinating surface of Singer's tales, bemused by their lively narrative line, their vivid evocation of a vanished world, and the seemingly inexhaustible variety of human and supernatural phenomena they display. To the contrary, Singer at his best—and “Gimpel” demonstrates Singer at his best—is an extremely shrewd and resourceful artist capable of the most sophisticated methods. I venture that singer's craft is often almost as difficult to apprehend as his professed and idiosyncratic kabbalism, although the technique is at least accessible to close study, requiring only patience and attention, rather than the possession of a vast body of arcane knowledge.

When we break through the deceptively clear surface of “Gimpel,” therefore, we discover a deep and complex symbolic structure which organizes that action and dramatizes character and theme. The story's obvious and dominant treatment of the trial and ultimate triumph of simple faith is really composed of at least three interwoven patterns of meaning, each of which involves antithetical or opposing principles: male versus female, truth versus falsehood, kindness versus cruelty. Because these themes are embodied in the specific characters, substances, events, and motifs which constitute the work's narrative texture, Singer's method here can properly be described as mythopoeic or archetypal. The thematic dimensions are further expanded and given resonance by frequent ironic reversals.

I propose that the story's most important and fundamental binary motif—its controlling metaphor—is that of bread and childbirth. This primary motif derives from the archetypal roles of male and female, Adam and Eve, as recorded in Genesis: that man shall provide bread under duress, that woman shall bear children in pain. As in all his art, which neither portrays nor even imagines perfection, Singer's concern is with man's condition after the Fall. Of his many stories which deal with the basic tension and opposition between men and women, “Gimpel the Fool” perhaps most explicitly established the kinship between Gimpel and Adam, Elka and Eve. Elka's promiscuity signifies Eve's untrustworthiness. Gimpel's credulity signifies Adam's inherent capacity for faith. Despite abundant evidence of Elka's guile, he mist continue to believe in her as the Jews believe in the Torah. As in Genesis, “Gimpel” implies that it is archetypal for woman to deceive man, but man's concomitant archetypal duty demands the he remain loyal to her. Gimpel's goodness is thus measured by the extent to which he can withstand doubt, despite betrayal and humiliation. In terms of the story's own apothegm: “Shoulders are from God and burdens too” (E[“Gimpel the Fool,” English edition]11, Y[“Gimpl tam,” original Yiddish edition]10). The issue is larger than marital fidelity:

All Frampol refreshed its spirits because of my trouble and grief. However, I resolved that I would always believe what I was told. What 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.

(E12-13, Y12)

One might call it “the Adam syndrome.”

The essence of Gimpel's character, his qualities of faith, love, and constancy, is materially symbolized in the substance of bread. He is a baker; he makes bread. Accordingly, his full manliness and mentshlekhkayt [humaneness] is tangibly enacted by his support of Elka through bread, a deed which expresses his sense of responsibility as husband and father. Even though he is separated from her by rabbinical fiat after he discovers her infidelity, he continues to nourish her and her children: “By an apprentice who was her neighbor I sent her daily a corn or a wheat loaf, or a piece of pastry rolls or bagels, or, when I got the chance, a slab of pudding, a slice of honeycake, or a wedding strudel—whate'er came my way” (E14, Y12). Although he is not the real, i.e., biological, father of her children, he is their true father and her true husband because he so behaves. Elka thrives on his devotion. At first described as gimpy, dirty, smelly, with uncovered head like a peasant, she now becomes “fat and handsome” (E10, Y10), much more the semblance—if not the model—of a respectable Jewish matron.

Faith and bread also define Gimpel's relationship to the village of Frampol. Just as they depend upon his credulity to refresh their spirits, so the villagers depend upon Gimpel for their bread. When Gimpel prospers, he does so by his vocation as a baker. When he succumbs to doubt and despair after Elka's death and allows himself to be momentarily seduced by the devil's incitement to revenge, he defiles the bread with his urine. This act violates not only the community's trust in those who prepare their food, but also those powerful Jewish precepts of kashres which were reverently obeyed by pious Jews as a divine Commandment. To deliberately defile the bread is both to betray one's fellow man and to reject God. The significance of Gimpel's identification with bread is enlarged if we recall that the Bible often uses bread synonymously with sustenance. The rabbis considered bread as the basic food and prescribed strict rules for its treatment. No human food is more surrounded by ancient beliefs and omens, both pagan and Judeo-Christian.

If Gimpel's archetypal role is signified by bread, Elka's is powerfully represented by fertility. Her prowess in conceiving children—seven in a rather brief lifetime—is proof of her utter and primeval femininity. Singer poses his characters' fundamental qualities as an ironic juxtaposition. Adam-Gimpel manifests credulity and constancy; Elka-Eve embodies procreativity and deceit. The baser aspects of her nature are portended by her domicile, a “clay house—built on sand” (E6, Y7). None of the six children she bears during her twenty years as Gimpel's wife is his. (There is even the strong suggestion that they rarely, if ever, mate—another aspect of her talent for dissembling and his for gullibility.) These basic generic attributes are not susceptible to rational analysis. Elka seems as inexplicably compelled to conceive as Gimpel is to believed. She can perhaps be explained naturalistically, as an animal drive by her biorhythms or “seasons.” But she is best understood as a figure combing both the earthly and the mythic: the post-lapsarian woman whose expulsion from Eden made reproduction possible. According to one interpretation of Genesis, only with the eating of the forbidden fruit were Adam and Eve conscious of their sexuality, and only after it were they endowed with the ability to procreate—the major compensation for man's toil, woman's painful parturition, and human mortality.4

Lest it be concluded that Singer's portrayal of Elka, and by extension all womankind, is wholly misogynistic, consider what other attributes she possesses. Gimpel, for all his virtue, is rather dull company. Elka, in contrast, is passionate, intense, unpredictable, lusty tempestuous. She is, in a word, interesting, just as Eve is more interesting than Adam. Her personality corresponds with her concupiscence; she bubbles over with life. The docile Gimpel is fascinated by her:

I don't want to lie about it; I didn't dislike Elka either, for that matter. She swore at me and cursed, and I couldn't get enough of her. What strength she had! One of her looks could rob you of the power of speech. And her orations! Pitch and sulphur, that's what they were full of, and yet somehow also full of charm. I adored her every word. She gave me bloody wounds though.

(E10, Y9-10)

The paradox of Elka-Eve is that she represents at once man's chief source of unhappiness and a major reason for his existence. We recall that “shoulders are from God, and burdens too.”

Indeed, Singer's portrayal of Elka shares much with his frequent treatment of imps and demons. The story's exposition of Elka's ability to bewitch Gimpel out of his senses, despite his direct knowledge that she is unfaithful to him, explicitly hints art her association with the evil and demonic (“pitch and sulphur”), a basic aspect of kabbalistic thought. Yet the ambivalence of this treatment also suggests the redemptive power of woman, just as the kabbalist believed in a feminine element in God—the skhine.5

For ultimately Elka is the agent of Gimpel's salvation, as earlier she had been the source of his misery. She appears to him in a vision after he has defiled the bread and reminds him of his lifelong habit of constancy. In death she becomes his good angel, protecting him from sin and eternal damnation, as in life she had inspired him to extraordinary virtue. When he buries the bread he has just desecrated, by the same symbolic action he also forever buries his doubt. But having once yielded to the devil, Gimpel must abandon the baking of bread. Instead, he goes as a pilgrim “into the world” (E20, Y16). The story also hints that in saving Gimpel's soul, Elka has redeemed herself from punishment. In his subsequent visions of her during his wanderings, Gimpel sees her face not as black (like burned bread?) but as “shining” and “radiant … as a saint” (E21, Y17).

To this point I have isolated and emphasized the story's major structural metaphor. Let us now examine its other most important patterns of meaning and imagery.

The story's treatment of the themes of truth/falsehood and kindness/cruelty is more overt than the bread/childbirth motif but also intimately related to it. These themes can be stated in various ways. The juxtaposition of truth and falsehood also means the real or actual as opposed to the imagined or illusory, or in yet another version, the sane set over against the crazy. Although Singer conveys these themes more by narrative event and direct exposition than by symbolic action, bread still appears as a recurrent metaphor—often in conjunction with some reference to childbirth.

As a boy Gimpel is first deluded about birth when his schoolmates lie to him about the rabbi's wife's supposed delivery. His credulity in this episode (“I never looked at her belly”) presages his naivete about Elka (E3, Y5). When he is a baker's apprentice, the village women tease him about impossible births: “Gimpel, the rabbi gave birth to a calf in the seventh month” (E4, Y6). At his wedding to Elka, who already has one illegitimate child, an old woman dances with a braided chalah—this holy bread emblematic of the intertwining of a supposedly pure man and woman in matrimony—while the wedding gifts include utensils for making bread and a baby's crib. A few months later Elka fills it with her second illegitimate child, which she clams to be “premature.” On may even speculate that the process of conception and the pregnancy elicit subliminal correspondences with the act of making bread: mixing the ingredients, the dough rising, etc. A fire in Gimpel's oven sends him home unexpectedly one night only for him to discover a man in Elka's bed. This episode establishes a symbolic connection between ruined bread and betrayal which foreshadows Gimpel's later defilement of the bread at the behest of the devil. On the second occasion that he finds Elka with a bedfellow, he drops the bread he has brought her—another telling symbolic gesture. She cunningly talks her way out of the situation by accusing him of conjuration—an intolerable threat to a man whose livelihood depends upon bread: “No one will touch bread of my baking” (E17, Y14).

This is only one of several ironic reversal involving bread. For example, before Gimpel forgives Elka and recants his accusation of her adultery in the first instance, he moistens the flour with his tears—as one adds moisture to the flour as the first act of making bread. Later, he urinates on the bread in revenge upon all those who have deceived and mocked him. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is Gimpel's reaction immediately after his is introduced to Elka by the town's matchmakers: “No bread will ever be baked from this dough” (E7, Y7). Yet this is the woman he marries and cherishes for twenty years, and whose children he loves.

In addition to ruined bread as a metaphor connoting betrayal, the theme of falsehood is conveyed by a variety of other means, most notably by excrement and animal omens. On two occasions Singer uses excrement as a dramatic metaphor for deception. At the beginning of the story, when the boy Gimpel is deceived about the rabbi's wife, the town's pranksters give him goat dung instead of the raisins which celebrate an actual birth. Later, when Elka is defending herself in the rabbinical court against Gimpel's charge of adultery, the baby she holds in her arms makes a mess, a pungent commentary on its mother's honesty. Indeed, there is a neat structural symmetry between excrement and deception, in that the story posits three episodes in which excrement is an important factor, just as Elka directly deceives Gimpel three times. We might also speculate that the devil's description of the reality that exists in place of God—“a thick mire”—is the story's ultimate excremental image.6

Congruent with Singer's strategy of ironic reversal, the tale's animal omens function ambivalently. The howling or barking of dogs twice signal deceit and infidelity: very early in the narrative in one of the town's pranks on Gimpel, and again late just before he discovers Elka in flagrante delicto. Yet Gimpel, who fears dogs, is himself also recurrently associated with such patient and innocent creatures as the donkey calf, and goat. The latter association—goat and scapegoat—is emphatic: “The nanny goat was a good little creature. I had nearly human feeling for her” (E16, Y13-14). And as a triple twist of these images, the devil is described in terms which combine goat and dog.

Excrement and animality also cooperate metaphorically to communicate the merged themes of the sane and insane, kindness and cruelty. To state it bluntly as a paradigm: the people of Frampol give Gimpel shit; he gives them bread. The people of Frampol call Gimpel donkey, cow and goat, yet he behaves as a human being and they act like animals. In the story's now-familiar pattern of ironic reversal, sanity is thus affiliated with cruelty and foolishness with kindness. As a function of his optimism and faith, Gimpel sensibly concludes, “A whole town can't go altogether crazy” (E7, Y8). Yet we need only compare Gimpel's conduct when he married Elka and when her children are born with that of the townfolk to determine whether sanity is determined by mass behavior or one's inner conviction. He celebrates these occasions with genuine feeling, as a good Jew, while all the others mock. Instead of the proper reverence for matrimony and birth, they profane both. Especially at the birth announcement in the synagogue, the town lapses into a frenzy of ridicule: “The whole House of Prayer rang with laughter” (E8, Y8). Singer's ironic juxtaposition of prayer and laughter is not accidental.

Even the learned rabbis are implicated in this pattern. In their attempt to find the “truths” by which men should live, they distort holy writ to fit human purposes. Gimpel's heartfelt forgiveness of Elka is not deemed sufficient to end their separation. It takes a rabbinical dispensation, based on “an obscure reference in Maimonides” (E14, Y12). Gimpel, pious and trusting, does not question the inherent nonsense and callousness of the whole situation. Rather, he is exalted by this theological justification for his human instinct: “as far as my heart was concerned it was like one of the Holy Days” (E14, Y13). Again, note the juxtaposition of heart and holy. Typically, he then makes bread, a tangible symbol of his humanity, and carries it homeward to his family. There may be other saints in Frampol, but we do not encounter them. Only Gimpel neither commits a falsehood nor causes pain to another. In Jewish terms, there is no greater sanity.

As Flaubert said of the heroine of his masterpiece. “Madame Bovary, c'est moi,” so Isaac Bashevis Singer has asserted “I am Gimpel.”7 The story's shtetl scene as a microcosm of the world, its fascination with the relationship of male and female, its demonstration of human perversity, and its representation of the supernatural as a tangible reality are all essential components of Singer's fiction. Most important, Gimpel's conclusion expresses Singer's own vision: “There were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year” (E20, Y16).

Surely “Gimpel the Fool” suggests a broader allegory than the triumph of the trusting over the pragmatic. Could Gimpel be a lamed-vovnik, one of the thirty-six humble and righteous men whose existence redeems us until the Messiah comes? In any case, I suggest that the story is a parable about the Jews. Perhaps Gimpel himself communicates Singer's peculiar vision of the Jew, not only as he has been—the world's fool—but also as he ought to be. The Talmud says that there are three partners to every birth: God, father, and mother. This dictum corresponds to Singer's own reverence for life, the same reverence that motivates Gimpel's behavior. As Frampol imposes on Gimpel's goodness and credulity, so a seemingly capricious and even cruel God tests the Jew's faith and decency. Yet as Singer the kabbalist believes, it remains in man's power to help redeem the world by his actions. When Gimpel looks into the face of a sleeping baby, born of his wife but from another man's seed, and yet spontaneously loves it as though it were his own, in that instant he not only becomes the child's true father, he also ascends into the realm of divinity.


  1. All quotations from “Gimpel the Fool” are from the Noonday edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965). Citations are noted in the text after the letter E. Pagination is also given for the original Yiddish of each quotation according to “Gimpl tam,” in Gimpl tam un andere dertseylungen (New York: Tsiko, 1963), after the letter Y.

  2. Stith Thompson, The Folktale (New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1946), p. 456, enumerates these principles.

  3. Irving Howe, “Introduction” to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (New York: Viking Compass, 1965), p. 41; Sanford Pinsker, The Schlemiel as Metaphor (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 64-70; and Ruth Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 60-65; have all commented on “Gimpel” as a shlemiel story.

  4. Edmund Leach, Genesis as Myth (London: Cape, 1965), p. 15. Singe may intend to ironically recapitulate certain aspects of the Fall in the wedding of Gimpel and Elka. The ceremony occurs “at the cemetery gates” and prompts the town's children to throw burrs—commemorative not only of the destruction of the temple on Tishebov but of all the tragedies suffered by the Jews. In this scene the burrs may specifically recall the thorns and thistles Adam was to reap for his toil.

  5. Gershom Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Commentary Classic edn. (New York: Schocken, 1954), pp. 37-38.

  6. There are a number of other subsidiary patterns which could be related to those I have identified: for example, clean/unclean, pure/impure, sacred/profane. A few specific cases illustrate the point. Gimpel sends Elka both black bread and white, indicative not only of the duality inherent in their bond but also of the tensions within Gimpel himself. Archetypally, black signifies falsehood, which can be extended to mean impurity or excrement. Note that their wedding occurs during a dysentery epidemic, a disease which kills by causing excessive defecation. On their wedding night Elka evades Gimpel's embraces by pretending to be menstruating, or in Jewish terms, unclean. The scenarios of Gimpel's discoveries of Elka abed with her lovers are rife with darkness and shadows. In sum, one of the story's most remarkable qualities—the essence of Singer's method—is its profusion of seemingly simple and inobtrusive details which are simultaneously appropriate to the milieu and provocative as images.

  7. Paul Kresh, Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street (New York: Dial, 1979), p. [203].

Sally Ann Drucker (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

SOURCE: Drucker, Sally Ann. “I. B. Singer's Two Holy Fools.” Yiddish 8, no. 2 (1992): 35-9.

[In the following essay, Drucker compares the archetypal figure of the holy fool in Singer's novel Shosha and “Gimpel the Fool.”]

A gantser nar iz a halber novi. A whole fool is half a prophet.
A halber nar iz a gantser khokhem. Half a fool is a complete sage.

(Kumove, 95-6)

These proverbs, seemingly contradictory, are usually interpreted as having ironic import—yet at first glance, their meaning is ambiguous and could imply the wisdom of fools. There are many words for fool in Yiddish and many types of fools in Yiddish literature: clever fools like Hershel Ostropolier, witless fools like the residents of Chelm, and a variety of luckless fools, whether schlemiels or schlimazls. This paper focuses on the holy fool, whose foolish wisdom or wise foolishness reaches transcendent levels. In particular, it compares Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story “Gimpel the Fool” with his novel Shosha.

In Eastern Europe, the popular picture of the Jew, held by Jew and Gentile alike, was true to the Talmudic tradition. The picture included the tendency to examine, analyze, and re-analyze; to seek for meanings behind meanings, implications, and secondary consequences. Deductive logic was the ideal basis for practical conclusions and actions (Zborowski & Herzog 121).

Because Jewish culture placed a high value on intelligence and learning, the holy fool, a fool who is more than a fool, who appears in a number of literary works, both subverts and augments this value. “Bontsche Shweig,” Yoshe Kalb, “Gimpel the Fool,” and Shosha are all works in which a character 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.

“Gimpl tam,” the Yiddish title of Singer's story, more closely translates as “Gimpel the Simple”—a title perhaps too cutely alliterative but with a relevant double meaning. Gimpel spends his early life considered a simpleton by the townspeople, but his philosophy, expressed in the narration, belies actual foolishness. Gimpel lets the mocking of others go with, “Let it pass,” and, “I hope I did them some good.” On why he believes the stories his neighbors concoct to trick him, no matter how outlandish these stories are, he says, “Everything is possible,” and, “Today it's your wife you don't believe, tomorrow it's God Himself you won't take stock in.” On the burdens of the human condition, particularly his own: “You can't pass through life unscathed, nor expect to,” and, “Shoulders are from God, and burdens too” (402, 408, 403, 407).

Ultimately, Gimpel becomes a wandering storyteller of the fantastic, saying,

“The longer I lived the more I understood that there really were no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year.”


Gimpel, a storyteller, an artist, with foolish (by worldly standards) wisdom, becomes a shaman of sorts, someone who mediates between worlds.

As pointed out by Sanford Pinsker, in the derivation of the word “schlemiel,” one of the possible linguistic sources for the word is the Hebrew phrase “sheluakh min ‘el,” which literally means “sent away from God.” However, another possible translation is “sent from God,” in the sense of a biblical messenger (Pinsker 66). Gimpel, archetype schlemiel, holy fool, can be seen as this type of messenger. And, as Ruth Wisse puts it, “In Gimpel our rational prejudice is confronted with an appeal to a deeper truth” (Wisse 64).

Singer's novel Shosha appeared in 1978, twenty five years after “Gimpel the Fool,” and seven years after Wisse's and Pinsker's critical treatments of schlemiels ably covered the ambiguities of Gimpel's foolishness. In Shosha, we have a female holy fool; perhaps the time had come for one. Although there might be female schlemiels in Jewish literature, such as Aunt Rosie of Grace Paley's “Goodbye and Good Luck” (Wisse 82) or the female residents of Chelm, and while there might be legendary female saints and martyrs, female fools, holy or otherwise, do not abound in Yiddish literature as protagonists. Shosha is the closest that we get to one.

In Europe, because women were not expected to participate in learning and scholarship, a female fool would not have had the same power of subverting the ideal. Too much learning or cleverness was considered unwomanly, in any case. A woman might be asked by her husband about an issue, “What do you say?” and her convoluted response would be, “What can a silly woman say? I have only a womanish brain, but if I were in your place …” (Zborowski & Herzog). Gimpel himself repeats the proverb, “Women are often long on hair and short on sense” (408). Traditionally, a man was expected not to be foolish, but a woman was automatically assumed to be so. In Shosha, however, the female fool is the narrator's, and perhaps the author's, double, inspiration, and link to the past. Representing the creative part of his consciousness, she is the neshoma, the soul, of his work.

Shosha, the narrator's double, looks like a shikse: blonde, blue-eyed, straightnosed. The narrator, Aaron Greidinger, is also fair-haired (as are many of Singer's protagonists), but his resemblance to Shosha goes deeper than that. As a writer, he leads the life of a luftmentsh, a schlemiel, if not a total fool. He is a procrastinator who consistently undercuts his own possible success. Furthermore, he writes about dybbuks, ghosts, and goblins, not unlike Singer himself; only when Warsaw is on the edge of capitulation to Hitler, not until things are truly topsy-turvy, does Aaron's escapist literature, particularly the fictionalized biography of the false messiah Jacob Frank, win him popularity. Shosha, who awake or asleep sees her dead sister regularly, also lives in a world that blends dream and reality. When asked what he sees in the childish and childlike Shosha, Aaron says, “I see myself” (81).

Shosha also symbolizes the narrator's past. Aaron was brought up a rabbi's son, on, as he puts it, “three dead languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish.” As a child, he was drawn to the simple Shosha, a neighbor on Krochmalna Street who could barely read. He tells her fantastic stories, and like Gimpel she believes them all. He tells her that he knows a name that contains seventy-two letters, and when it is uttered “the sky would turn red, the moon topple, and the world be destroyed.” Shosha begs him not to say it, and he replies, “Don't be afraid. I will make it so that you'll live forever” (7). Through language, Aaron has the power to destroy or immortalize Shosha and Krochmalna Street.

Twenty years later, when Aaron revisits his old neighborhood, he says, “It was like a deep stratum of an archeological dig which I would never uncover” (16). Aaron begins to visit Shosha and her mother Bashele. Like the street, their apartment seems to exist in a time warp. They wear the same clothes, eat on the same plates, and talk about the same things they did twenty years before. Shosha still has the height and figure of a child, or a girl just reaching puberty. In staying young, she denies death.

At one point, Aaron says: “From the day I had left my father's house I had existed in a state of perpetual despair” (183). For him, a return to Krochmalna Street is a return to innocence. Shosha and her mother still observe Kashruth, the Sabbath, and holidays. As a child, he could always find tastier morsels at Shosha's house than at his own. Now, recently vegetarian, Aaron receives little sympathy for his new diet except from Shosha's mother, who caters to his requirements. When he stays at their house overnight, he sleeps in a tiny, womblike alcove.

Although Aaron finally marries Shosha, he retains his old apartment as a study, without telling Shosha or her mother. Also, while professing love for Shosha only, he presumably maintains some of the many romantic liaisons he had before they re-met. Himself a betrayer, he tells one of his liaisons: “She [Shosha] is the only woman I can trust” (254).

Each previous liaison symbolizes some aspect of his Warsaw life: a communist, an intellectual, an actress, a peasant maid. Shosha, from the world of his childhood, simple, uncomplicated, still a girl physically, is the only one who will not betray him. His only emotional truth is that of the past. In this, Aaron resembles Yasha of Singer's The Magician of Lublin. In that book, it is the simple and sterile Jewish wife to whom the narrator always and ultimately returns, despite his romantic wanderings around different levels of Jewish and non-Jewish society.

Although Aaron is attracted to Shosha for her childlike and childish qualities, she is not completely simple. She often notices details to which she can relate emotionally, such as the interactions of Aaron and his romantic liaisons. She also asks the right questions when he brings up abstract issues—questions that more worldly people would not ask but which get straight to the point.

Aaron talks to her when he is trying out ideas, as a form of “automatic writing,” and she is the listener to “stream of consciousness” monologues. Further, she appears to be precognitive, predicting her own death. In short, Shosha, somewhat of an intellectual blank slate herself, reflects and represents deeper levels of consciousness. She responds to life emotionally rather than intellectually. The worldly, word-slinging Aaron can only approach her simplicity without ever reaching it.

In “Gimpel the Fool,” the protagonist becomes a storyteller of the fantastic, wise in his foolishness—he becomes the artist as shaman, mediator between worlds. In Shosha the female fool does not herself become an artist, but is the mediator between worlds for the storytelling male narrator. The actual female artist in Shosha, Aaron's benefactor and sometime lover, the actress Betty, has male traits and a persecution complex. Ultimately, she survives by teaming up with a rich and crass businessman. Betty is no shaman. Through her money, however, she helps Aaron bribe his way out of Poland, with Shosha at his side. Betty, an adult woman, is an enabler for the writer/narrator in the worldly sphere—a traditional role for a Jewish woman. Shosha, the child-woman, is an enabler of the otherworldly, but cannot survive outside of the actual world that engendered her. Shosha dies on the second day of the journey out of Poland. Yet, just as Aaron tells Shosha that he will make her live forever, Singer immortalizes the world that Shosha represents, and the qualities of innocence and preconscious thought that she represents, in the book that carries her name.

There are, of course, wise fools in the British and French literary traditions and holy fools in texts such as Dostoyevski's The Idiot. What makes the Yiddish holy fool noteworthy is his subversion of the traditional Jewish values of learning and reasoning as an approach to religious transcendence, a concept that appears to incorporate Khassidic influence. When the fool is a “she” instead of a “he,” it subverts the subversion, and actually valorizes the life led by simple women as closer to the essence of spirituality. Singer portrays Shosha in relation to a male narrator, Aaron—a trickster, an artist, a magician of sorts, a shaman, named after the first Jewish high priest, who was the brother of Moses. Singer's Aaron also has a brother Moyshe, who became a rabbi. Again and again, this Aaron is impelled to return to the spiritual essence that Shosha, the fool, represents, in deed, in writing, and in asking for answers.

Works Cited

Kumove, Shirley. Words Like Arrows. N.Y.: Warner, 1984.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Schlemiel as Metaphor. Carbondale: S. Illinois UP, 1971.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel the Fool.” Trans. Saul Bellow. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. Eds. Irving Howe & Eliezer Greenberg. N.Y.: Schocken, 1973.

———. Shosha. N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Wisse, Ruth. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1971.

Zborowski, Mark and Herzog, Elizabeth. Life Is with People. N.Y.: Schocken, 1952.

Anita Norich (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Norich, Anita. “Isaac Bashevis Singer in America: The Translation Problem.” Judaism 44, no. 2 (spring 1995): 208-18.

[In the following essay, Norich examines Saul Bellow's 1953 translation of “Gimpel the Fool,” addressing issues of translation and the preservation of Yiddish.]

Rabbi Yehuda said: “If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar; if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer and a libeller.”

—Talmud, B. Kiddushin 49a

I sometimes suspect that the Universe is nothing but a bad translation from God's original and this is the reason that everything here is topsy-turvy. My cabalist theory is that the Almighty trusted Satan to translate His Creation and it was published before He could correct it. I am not going to make the same blunder.

—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Address to Pen American Center, 1971

Translators and their critics are repeatedly drawn to citing and glossing the Italian epigram “traduttore, traditore” [the translator is a traitor]. Translation seems inevitably to be an act of transgression in which violence is done to one language—to its culturally specific cadences and resonances—so that those who live in another language may find it less foreign. Translation results in a necessary, creative, but nonetheless regrettable act of betrayal; it forces an original text into hiding, compels that text to assume a new identity, and then presents it to a different audience as though no significant transformation had actually taken place. How, readers must ask, is the original text betrayed? Or is it a new audience that is betrayed, duped into accepting the illusion of sameness between an inaccessible source and a version of that source in their own language? Like the common reader, any scholar familiar with both source and target language will affirm that “something is lost in the translation,” although what is gained may be ultimately far more impressive.

Yiddish enters into this perspective on translation in an acutely fraught manner. Neither an ancient language nor a modern language quite like other modern languages, Yiddish has speakers and a lively audience but it does not have either a national or political center. Yiddishists, as well as anyone interested in modern Jewish culture, still debate the question of whether Yiddish is a living language or a curious linguistic and cultural artifact preserved by small enclaves of those who resist its inevitable demise. It is a poignant, at times desperate debate, in which the stakes are extraordinarily high. More than raising questions about fidelity to a text, the act of translation seems to hint at the end of Yiddish culture by suggesting that it has no audience or future. Translation becomes, potentially, a form of obliteration. Never the language of any state, it has always been possible to see Yiddish as a quintessential wanderer only now at rest because it can no longer be activated. The old culture wars in Yiddish asked whether the Soviet Union, Poland, or the United States would be its natural home. These battles sought to locate Yiddish culture within a politics defined by socialism or territorialism or Zionism or secularism, to name only a few. But the debates about political or national centers for Yiddish culture have given way to a debate about survival itself. And, inevitably in modern Jewish culture, that debate evokes the Holocaust. Yiddish, in this context, can be understood as resistance, and translation as an act of collaboration in the destruction of a culture, a betrayal of the language in which it flourished and the millions who spoke it.

Yet at the same time, and in apparent contradiction to this view of translation as a kind of violation, the cultural valence of contemporary Yiddish suggests that translation, too, is an act of resistance to history. Increasingly, everything one does with or in Yiddish—speaking, reading, writing, teaching, translation, scholarship—will be understood as a defiant gesture aimed at preserving the traces of a culture that has undergone startling and dreadful transformations in this century. Faced with an indisputably declining population of Yiddish readers, we cannot ignore the likelihood that Yiddish texts may only continue to flourish in translation. This, in turn, places an extraordinary demand on translators to be meticulously accurate and utterly literal in their translations. Cultural politics, then, imparts an urgency to such demands that most translators will find daunting.

There is a popular view of Yiddish as a parochial culture, tied to a specific past that assimilation and physical devastation have decimated. Such a perspective, oversimplified and even mistaken though it may be, leads to another prevalent question: how can a Jewish language steeped in Jewish ritual and culture hope to be understood in non-Jewish languages? Although such concerns certainly contribute to the anxiety about what is lost in translation, they ignore the cosmopolitan, indeed, international nature of Yiddish literary production in this century.

Parochial in the sense that all languages and cultures are (that is, for a particular linguistic community), Yiddish literary culture was always in conversation with the cultures that surrounded it. Modern, post-Enlightenment Yiddish writers were without exception multilingual, as were the vast majority of their audiences. The history of the Jews in Europe and America and the extent to which Yiddish speakers necessarily adapted other languages (Hebrew, German, Russian, Polish, or others among which they lived) underscores the extent to which a range of literatures and languages influenced Yiddish culture. Ironically, perhaps, the multilingual cultural exchange that has always been the norm in Yiddish may make Yiddish literature peculiarly adaptive to translation.

The very existence of translated texts cannot be taken for granted in Yiddish and is cause for both celebration and uneasiness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most well known and widely translated of Yiddish writers. Any consideration of his Yiddish and English publications must raise questions about the status of the English translations, their success and limitations, the liberties they take with Jewish terms that would have been familiar to a Yiddish audience but must be glossed for an English one. These considerations are always paramount in any discussion of Yiddish translation.

But, in the case of Bashevis,1 we must also explore the degree to which the translations can be considered Bashevis's revisions of his own Yiddish texts, and even the extent to which Bashevis's Yiddish anticipates the English in which he knew he would be more widely read. In addition, we confront a writer who wrote different texts under different Yiddish names all of which are erased in other languages. Bashevis's Yiddish stories, like the journalistic pieces of his pseudonymous Varshavski or Segal, are often indiscriminately combined in English under the name Isaac Bashevis Singer. To complicate aesthetic matters still further, Singer was known to have worked closely with his translators and to have edited, shortened, tightened Bashevis's texts before they made their appearance in English. And subsequent translations into other languages have tended to use the English text and not its Yiddish source as the authoritative one.

Given the tensions surrounding the question of audience in Yiddish culture, these observations require further exploration. Objections to translations of Bashevis are paradigmatic of the objections to Yiddish translations more generally, but they are not primarily about a translator's competence or art. Rather, they point to a greater anxiety about the intended audience and the great divide that separates it from the milieu that is still within living memory. How can contemporary readers far removed from the shtetl or Eastern European Jewish life or even the immigrant experience understand texts emerging from those environments? How can a radically different sense of time and place be translated when we no longer necessarily mark time by the rituals of the Jewish cyclical calendar, or experience space as constricted? How can those who never went to kheyder or had anything like a traditional Jewish education hope to understand the allusions to traditional Jewish sources that abound in the fiction of Singer and his contemporaries? Versions of these questions can easily by constructed for any discussion of the translation from one language and culture into another, but they take on new significance in this movement from Yiddish to English.

In effect, these questions about Yiddish and Jewish culture lament the loss of an ideal reader who, theoretically and practically, does not exist. The ideal reader would not only be someone educated enough to be a rabbi, raised in a Polish shtetl and city, but also one who had left these traditional sources and embraced Western culture. He (and this reader must obviously be a man) may be someone whose biography and sensibilities are very much Bashevis's own. More currently, this ideal may be replaced by the scholarly reader who can compare the English and Yiddish versions and explicate the allusions attenuated over time. But neither of these limited audiences can account for Singer's popularity and the readers he has reached in other languages. At least since the earliest translations of his fiction, Singer was not addressing those who knew at first-hand the culture he invoked but, rather, precisely those who did not. He is so widely read not because he renders the familiar, but because—whether through demons or imps or sexual license or realistic descriptions of the past—he emphasizes the strange and unfamiliar. He speaks authoritatively to readers who are so far removed from the Eastern European world he describes that they have come to long for it, to reify it as the source of their own authenticity.

Singer himself was fond of insisting that he never wrote with any reader in mind.

[I]f I did remember while I was writing that some of my readers were dying and others were not being born to replace them, it might have some influence on me. Writers, as a rule, don't think about their readers while they write. As a matter of fact, thinking about the reader is a terrible pitfall for a writer.2

And, when asked in the same interview if he thinks about those who will read him in a foreign language, he responded: “I take great care not to think about the reader in English or French or any other language. Nothing can spoil a writer more than writing for the translator. He must feel that he writes for people who know everything he knows—not for the stranger.”3

This fundamental question of audience is also central to Walter Benjamin's “The Task of the Translator,” arguably the founding text of modern translation theory. Benjamin also maintains that the writer should ignore the receiver of any work, that the reader is at most incidental to the writer in the creative process.4 An alternative view would argue that the reader is an essential part of any text, completing it and giving it meaning. These perspectives enter into the discussion of fidelity to an original text. If translators need not be concerned about what an audience will know or understand, then they are more likely to remain as faithful as possible to the source language and its context. A greater freedom from the original can be tolerated if the translator's primary concern is the target audience and its knowledge and expectations. Even Benjamin and theorists after him conclude that absolute faithfulness to any original must be rejected in favor of a more nuanced literal rendition united with freedom from the original. “The task of the translator,” Benjamin wrote, “consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.”5 Benjamin's perspective here is precisely that of a much earlier commentator, Maimonides. In “A Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides wrote:

Whoever wishes to translate and purports to render each word literally, and at the same time to adhere slavishly to the order of the word and sentences in the original, will meet with much difficulty. This is not the right method. The translator should first try to grasp the sense of the subject thoroughly, and then state the theme with perfect clarity in the other language … so that the subject be perfectly intelligible in the language into which he translates.6

It is difficult to understand how the problem of audience for Singer (or for any writer or translator) can be distinguished from the problem of “intended effect.” Certainly, Singer's own claim to ignoring his readers in the creative process was disingenuous at best. As is often true of this author's pronouncements about his literary method, in interviews and writing he took positions that seem to contradict a claim to authorial innocence. He was insistent about his role in the translation process and the changes he introduced on behalf of the English reader. He was notoriously dissatisfied with most of his translators, changing them frequently, regretting the necessary losses a writer faced in translation, and asserting that the editorial process was central to the process of translation.7 He was unhappy about the translation follies of his youth when he rendered German, Polish, and Hebrew texts into Yiddish, but as he later lamented, “didn't work as hard on them as I should have.”8 In this early period, Bashevis also translated the Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun, via the German, thus already validating the later common practice of translating his own works through an intermediary language rather than the original.9 In America, when his stories and novels were translated into English, he often worked with collaborators who knew no Yiddish. His revisions were typically so extensive that Singer could claim the English version of his work as “a second original.”10

The differences between the Yiddish and English texts certainly illustrate this attempt to address different audiences and the considerable attention devoted to editing and revising. Any number of examples suggest a similar pattern: Jewish religious terms are erased or glossed, lengthy and often repetitive serialized novels are shortened, whole episodes in the Yiddish may be eliminated in English. One impressive but not unusual example of the scope of this pattern emerges from the translation of The Family Moskat. This novel remains (surprisingly, given the international interest in Singer) the subject of the most thorough comparison of Singer's Yiddish and English novels. I. Saposnik's “Translating The Family Moskat: The Metamorphosis of a Novel” examines Singer's creation of two different novels for different audiences. Saposnik underscores the English version's systematic exclusion of any reference to messianic faith, arguing that Bashevis found such belief inappropriate for his new American audience. The most dramatic difference between the two texts is that the Yiddish version is one chapter longer concluding, as Saposnik convincingly illustrates, with further positive or at least ambivalent references to the faith denied in the English version.11

Any comparison between original and translated texts will underscore the extent to which the act of translation is necessarily an act of interpretation. The Family Moskat, the first of Bashevis's novels to be translated into English, certainly makes this point inescapable in the works of Singer. It has been made even more provocatively in the translation of Singer's most widely anthologized story “Gimpel the Fool” (“Gimpel tam,” 1945; English, 1953). When Saul Bellow translated Singer's story in 1953, he introduced the Yiddish writer to a wider audience than he had previously known and extended to him the mantle of American literary respectability. Bellow's translation begins with a strong difference between the Yiddish and English. Bashevis's “Ikh bin Gimpl tam. Ikh halt mikh nisht far keyn nar” becomes Bellow's “I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool.” But the term tam invokes, as Chone Shmeruk has noted,12 both the four sons of the Passover story (one of whom is a tam, a simple one) and a story by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav about a wise man and a simpleton. Erasing the crucial distinction between tam and nar, Bellow elides the folkloric and religious resonances of tam as well as the numerous linguistic derivations from nar (Shmeruk, p. xxxv). Rather than regarding this as an error, however, we should consider the alternatives Bellow might have chosen. The most faithful translation of Bashevis's Gimpel tam would have been “Gimpel the Simple,” surely an infelicitous choice for an English writer or reader. English synonyms might yield “Gimpel the innocent,” or “Gimpel the naive” as translations of Gimpl tam, all of them suggesting somewhat different views of Gimpel's character than the view Bellow chose when he called the story “Gimpel the Fool.”

Singer, no doubt aware of this interpretive power of translation, insisted on his role as cotranslator following the publications of The Family Moskat and “Gimpel the Fool.” In fact, although he had been in New York for fifteen years by the time the English novel appeared, he claimed to have learned English in the process of working on it.13 He would often take the opportunity to emphasize the collaborative activity in which he engaged with those listed as translators. Signing himself as I. S. (and thus expunging the Yiddish Bashevis) in his 1970 “Author's Note” to A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories, he wrote: “I have translated these stories with the assistance of collaborators, and I find that I do much revision in the process of translation. It is not an exaggeration to say that over the years English has become my ‘second’ language.”14 Despite this claim, of course, and despite the very extensive revisions he undertook, Singer never actually wrote in English. And, ironically, even if English were to be reckoned as a second language, its status had to be considered primary given the audience Singer increasingly addressed.15 It is no wonder that he worked so closely with his translators since he correctly understood his literary reputation and future to rest on the English texts they helped him produce.

George Steiner offers a discerning comment that may illuminate Singer's practice. Referring to those writers who have translated or collaborated on the translation of their own works, Steiner observes that when an author significantly recasts a text in the act of rendering it in another language, he or she may produce “a text which is, in many respects, indispensable to the original.”16 There are, Steiner reminds us, original texts to which we no longer turn because “the translation is of a higher magnitude.” Steiner calls such extraordinarily successful translation “betrayal by augment,”17 a term we might usefully apply to Singer's own collaborative translation efforts and his privileging of the English texts.

Neither a view of Singer's English stories as secondary and derivative versions of Bashevis's Yiddish, nor a view of them as edited improvements on novels that are often exceedingly repetitive and meandering seems apt. Rather, the Yiddish and English texts comment on one another, the latter reworking and sometimes completing the ideational and imaginative work of the former. The English clarifies the Yiddish but for a growing audience it also replaces the Yiddish as the definitive text. This is typical of the history of Yiddish literature in America, but Singer is remarkable among Yiddish writers in the extent to which he contributes to and validates this usurpation of Yiddish by English even as he suggests a different model. He can hardly be expected to celebrate the English triumph—and thus betrayal—of the Yiddish in which he always creates, but he is clearly willing to embrace it, to make it his own, and to give it equal standing. For scholars and those able to read both versions, “equal” denotes parallel rather than hierarchical status, but the popular audience cannot consider these texts alongside one another. Nor should they, since that would inevitably diminish both the Yiddish and English, suggesting that neither can stand alone, as they must.

Critics and scholars may be more concerned with the differences between the Yiddish and English texts than Singer or his translators were. Singer had little tolerance for the work of literary critics and he would most likely have been dismissive of the scholarly interest in comparing his works. In creating his “second originals” for a different audience, as we have seen, he was primarily concerned with the new context and what he believed appropriate to it. His memoir In My Father's Court offers a provocative indication of what might have inspired some of these changes and the direction they took.18 When Mayn tatns bezdn-shtub appeared in the Forverts in 1955, it was signed by the journalistic pseudonym, Yitzhok Varshavsky. By then, the writer was the only survivor of his family, the final interpreter of his own family romance and of the Eastern European world on which it had been staged. The Yiddish text contains eleven chapters that are missing in English19 and the remaining chapters change the sequence of the Yiddish without offering any clear chronological or thematic ordering of events.

Despite the prevalent critical wisdom that points to Bashevis's willingness to depict Eastern European life in often quite literally naked terms, even exaggerating its perversions and ugliness, this memoir suggests that he may have been more guarded in English than Yiddish. While leaving a clear impression of the corruption and perversity that exists amidst the devout traditional Jews of Warsaw, Bashevis excises some of the most unsavory characters of the Yiddish text. He seems most concerned with erasing those scenes that reflect particularly badly on his parents. His father's extraordinary worldly innocence, his mother's unsentimental rationalism, and their less than ideal life together are central to many of these scenes. In the Yiddish but not the English text, he tells of the times when his father spent much needed family money on publishing his own scholarly books (ch. 32). He discusses his father's attraction to anarchist philosophy which evokes messianic Judaism in its rejection of materialism and governmental authority (ch. 31). Also erased in the English is the case involving the ugly lame bride of whose physical appearance his father could not have been aware because, as a pious Jew, he refused to look at a woman (ch. 5). Bashevis creates a different set of decorums appropriate for a Yiddish and an English audience. The latter, more likely to romanticize the traditional world, is offered an idealized core of family reminiscences, one that privileges the view of a people “prepared to suffer in the name of spiritual purity” (p. 230).

Another illustration of the deliberate changes Bashevis wrote into this narrative concerns the depiction of his sister and mother. Devoting a chapter of his memoirs to their problematic relationship, Bashevis observes about his emotionally volatile sibling: “Zi hot khoyshed geven az di mame hot zi nisht lib. Dos iz nisht geven emes, ober s'iz emes az di mame hot zi nisht gekont fartrogn” (p. 158). The published English translation distorts this forceful statement, rendering it as “my sister suspected my mother of not loving her, which was untrue, but actually they were incompatible” (p. 145). A more faithful translation would read: “She suspected that my mother didn't love her. That was untrue, but the truth was that my mother couldn't bear her.” On the further reflection afforded Singer by revision and translation into English, he represses this less discreet assessment of the relationship between Batsheva Singer and her daughter. Such changes should not be attributed to a weak translation or error but rather to the perspective the author assumes at a different time and with a different audience. Singer appears less heymish in the English version, more like a guest in someone else's home who is overly conscious of social niceties and appearances. It is almost as if we can hear, in this and other revisions, the inner voice familiar to Jews entering the wider world that warns “s'past nit far di goyim” [It's not fitting in front of non-Jews].

Surely it is fruitless to argue against such radical changes or to challenge Singer's authorization of them. Rather, they underscore the calculated editing he undertook as well as the vigorous nature of his relationship to his reading publics. This rejection of the notion of utter faithfulness to an original text extends not only to the self-translation of Bashevis and others, but to translation more generally. If we accept the views of translation as the creation of a new work of art and language as dynamic, then translations cannot be held only to the test of fidelity. In making this argument, Walter Benjamin further asserted that translations enter into the literary history of their target languages, informing and even transforming them. Certainly Singer's texts in translation have entered into the canon of Jewish literature in America and of American literature. (We might extend that claim to Yiddish literature in general but that is the subject of a different study.) The relationship is a mutually beneficial one, with Yiddish potentially influencing American and other literatures (Hebrew, in particular) even as it profits from its appearance in these literatures. As Renato Poggioli observes in a comment that recalls for us the contemporary situation of Yiddish: “In modern times, a national literature reveals its power of renewal and revival through the quality and number of its translators. Sometimes it is able to survive only because of their efforts.”20 Similarly, referring to writers of little known literatures—Kierkegaard, Ibsen, Strindberg, Kazantzakis are his examples, but surely Singer belongs in their ranks—George Steiner reminds us that “translation into a world-language can make a general force of texts written in a local tongue.” More than that, he goes on to claim, “translation can illuminate, compelling the original, as it were, into reluctant clarity. … It can, paradoxically, reveal the stature of a body of work which had been undervalued or ignored in its native guise.”21 Surely, this has been true of Bashevis and much of Yiddish literature as it is known in America.

The legend told about the first translation of the Hebrew Bible illustrates how an ideal translation may be attained. The Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Torah—was achieved when seventy-two scholars were summoned from Jerusalem, placed in separate rooms for seventy-two days, and emerged with exactly the same perfect translation. Divine inspiration, the legend indicates, ensured that this translation (or these seventy-two identical translations) was superior to the original. That is the kind of magic Singer would have liked but it is not a standard to which we can hold more worldly translations. The urge to produce equally precise renditions of the Bible has sometimes led, instead, to stilted, word-for-word literal translations that ignore grammar, syntax, and even meaning in the target language.22 The Septuagint did not reproduce the Biblical text in this manner, but rather sought to re-create it23 as a comprehensible, harmonious work. That, surely, is a standard to which contemporary translations can be held.


  1. I follow the writer's own practice of singing his work Yitskhok Bashevis in Yiddish and Isaac Bashevis Singer in English translation.

  2. Joel Blocker and Richard Elman, “An Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer,” in Irving Malin, ed., Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, (New York: NW Press, 1969), pp. 3-4.

  3. Ibid., p. 6.

  4. Benjamin's essay begins with this assertion: “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an ‘idea’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such,” Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” p. 69.

  5. Benjamin, p. 76.

  6. Cited in: Willis Barnstone, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 153.

  7. “There isn't such a thing as a good translator. The best translators make the worst mistakes,” Singer, “On Translating My Books,” The World of Translation (New York: Pen American Center, 1971), p. 110.

    “For years I worked together with the translators on The Family Moskat. … Since that time I have taken part in the translation of every one of my books. I think only in this way can a translation come out bearable. I say ‘bearable,’ because you know just as much as I do that writers inevitably lose a great deal in translation,” Blocker and Elman interview, p. 19.

    Ruth Whitman expressed some frustration with Singer's relationship to her and other translators. His “method of working,” she wrote, “is to translate with his translator, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.” She also cites a 1968 interview in the National Jewish Monthly in which Singer said: “I go through my writings again and again while I edit the translation and work with the translator, and I see the defects of my writing while I am doing this,” Ruth Whitman, “Translating with Isaac Bashevis Singer,” in Irving Malin, ed., Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: NW Press, 1969), p. 46.

  8. Blocker and Elman interview, p. 19.

    See also: Stephen H. Garrin, “Isaac Bashevis Singer as Translator,” in David Neal Miller, ed., Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), pp. 50-57. Garrin agrees with the author's own critical assessment of his translation skills.

  9. For a bibliography of these early translations (and other work) see: David Neal Miller, Bibliography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1921- 1949 (New York: Peter Lang, 1983).

  10. Conversation with Irving Buchen cited in Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal Past (New York: NW Press, 1968), p. xi.

    Seemingly in response to Singer's insistence on the importance of his English texts, Buchen began his study of the author with a provocative (and, no doubt, defensive) claim: “I decided to examine the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer in translation because Isaac Bashevis Singer decided to exist in translation” (p. ix). Most critics do not offer even this attempt at rationalizing their exclusion of the Yiddish originals.

  11. Irving Saposnik, “Translating The Family Moskat: The Metamorphosis of a Novel,” Yiddish (Fall 1973), pp. 26-37.

  12. Chone Shmeruk, Introduction to The Mirror and Other Stories (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1979), pp. v-xxxv.

  13. Blocker and Elman interview, p. 19.

    Singer worked with A. H. Gross on the translation until the latter's death; Maurice Samuel then assumed Gross's role.

  14. The “Author's Note” to An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader (1971), now signed I. B. S., begins similarly: “Though I write in Yiddish, I do most of the revisions of my writings after they have been translated into English by myself and a collaborator. Because of this, I can call myself a bilingual writer and say that English has become my ‘second original.’”

  15. Anita Susan Grossman puts the problem most succinctly when she reminds us that “it was not for his popularity among Yiddish readers that [Singer] won the Nobel Prize in 1978,” Anita Susan Grossman, “The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer: Lost in America and the Problem of Veracity,” Twentieth Century Literature (Spring 1984), p. 41.

  16. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 319-20.

  17. Ibid., p. 298.

  18. Much of the following discussion of this memoir is taken from my article, “The Family Singer and the Autobiographical Imagination,” Prooftexts, A Journal of Jewish Literary History, 10, no. 1 (January 1990), pp. 91-107.

    The text first appeared as In mayn foters bezdn-shtub in the Forverts, Feb. 19-Sept. 30, 1955. It appeared in book form in 1956 as Mayn tatns bezdn-shtub and was reissued in 1979 (Tel Aviv: Farlag Peretz). Citations are translated from the latter edition. An English version of the novel appeared in 1962 as In My Father's Court (New York: Fawcett). Four installments, dated Aug. 13, Sept. 23, Sept. 24, and Sept. 30, appear in the Forverts but in no subsequent edition.

  19. Singer later published four more of these chapters in An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader. He added a curious and rather mysterious explanation for the late appearance of these chapters, claiming that they had been omitted from the translation of In My Father's Court for “technical reasons.”

  20. Renato Poggioli “The Added Artificer,” in Reuben A. Brower, ed., On Translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 147.

  21. Steiner, p. 396.

  22. “The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or idea of all translation,” we read in Benjamin's provocative final sentence of “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin “The Task of the Translator,” reprinted in Illuminations (New York: Shocken, 1969), pp. 82.

  23. A number of scholars pose the problem in precisely these terms. For example: “We want a re-creation, not a reproduction. The shape of the original serves as what archers call point of aim. You do not propose to hit your point of aim, and if you do, you make a wretched shot, but you use it as the guide toward the mark you mean to hit but can not aim at directly,” Richmond Lattimore, “Practical Notes on Translating Greek Poetry,” in Reuben A. Brower, ed. On Translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), pp. 55-56.

    “The goal of translation is not to verify the translator's understanding of the sacred text but to produce a re-creation of it in another language,” Barnstone, p. 41.

Nancy Tenfelde Clasby (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4820

SOURCE: Clasby, Nancy Tenfelde. “Gimpel's Wisdom: I. B. Singer's Vision of the ‘True World’.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 15 (1996): 90-98.

[In the following essay, Clasby considers the connection between the archetypal images of the scapegoat and the trickster or fool and traces Gimpel's journey to wisdom in “Gimpel the Fool.”]

Isaac Bashevis Singer's “Gimpel the Fool” is the tale of a gullible baker, his faithless wife, and the devil who tempts the baker to settle old scores. Singer's theme is that of the wise fool,1 a common figure in literature, but always a bit of an enigma. The fool is a catalyst for reversals and surprises. Gimpel, the fool of Frampol, becomes a prophet, and his unfaithful wife is transformed into a figure of wisdom, holy Sophia. Our expectations, like those of the sages of Frampol, are derailed by the paradoxes of contradictory wisdom. Underlying the tales's crosscurrents is a structure based on the transformation of the fool, or trickster, into a scapegoat and then a prophet. His woman companion tracks his progress, emerging with her own new role as Gimpel changes. Singer develops his picture of the fool's progress by allusions to biblical images and the Kabbala, focusing in the end on a wisdom so luminous that it is incommunicable. It must remain a hidah, a riddle or dark saying.

As the story begins, Gimpel is an orphan apprenticed to the village baker. Because he is so gullible everyone teases him with fantastic stories: “Gimpel, the Czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen.” Although the villagers' tales are richly varied, they center on the first and last things of Scripture: begetting and ending, the command in Genesis to “increase and multiply” and the Messianic promise of a grand conclusion to history. Many of the stories describe imaginary births, “Gimpel, you know the rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed,” or “Gimpel, the rabbi gave birth to a calf in the seventh month; Gimpel, a cow flew over the roof and laid brass eggs.” Other tales focus on the apocalyptic future: a yeshiva student tells Gimpel “The Messiah has come. The dead have arisen.” The candle maker calls out, “Your father and mother have stood up from the grave. They're looking for you.” “Gimpel the Fool” begins in the teeming life of the fold-tale village, and moves to the contradictory wisdom of the prophetic vision.

Gimpel knows even as a boy that the tales told by the villagers are untrue, but he reasons, “Everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers.” He knows too that in a way he cannot articulate, his neighbors need him to believe their tales. They are angry if he resists belief. “What was I to do?” he asks, “I believed them and I hope at least it did them some good.” Gimpel seeks advice from the rabbi, who tells 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.2

When Gimpel is of marriageable age, the villagers turn to matchmaking, selecting Elka as his bride. She is “no chaste maiden,” but they insist she is “virgin pure.” At first Gimpel resists: “No bread will ever be baked from this dough,” he thinks. “I'll never marry that whore.” The villagers are relentless however, and eventually Gimpel accedes. “You can't pass through life unscathed, nor expect to.” Gimpel's marriage recalls that of the prophet Hosea whom God ordered to marry a prostitute as a sign of the broken covenant with Israel (Henning 11). Just as Gimpel's marital mishaps appear trivial and even comic, Hosea's love and suffering and the indignities he underwent appeared pointless to his contemporaries but were deeply expressive of his prophetic message.

When the crowd takes Gimpel to meet his bride she is standing by the well, an ironic reference to the matriarchs, Rebecca, Rachel and Zippora, who meet their bride-grooms at the well. The villagers are afraid of Elka because of her bad temper and her talent for invective. She is barefoot, doing laundry, “dressed in a worn hand-me-down gown of plush. She had her hair put up in braids and pinned across her head.” Gimpel says, “It took my breath away, almost, the reek of it all.” The figure of the bride at the well associates her with fertility, the life-giving quality of water in the midst of the desert.

Elka is fertile but unfaithful: all her children are conceived in adultery. The wedding gifts include a baby's crib. Seventeen weeks after the ceremony Elka is in labor. Gimpel, who has never consummated their marriage, performs the ritual duties of husband and father. He repeats psalms at the House of Prayer, gives a feast in honor of the new baby's circumcision, and names the baby after his own father. Gimpel allow Elka to convince him that the baby is not “too premature.”

As time passes, Gimpel begins to forget these injuries. “I loved the child madly,” he says, “and he loved me too.” He cares for Elka as well. “She swore at me and cursed, and I couldn't get enough of her. What strength she had!” He finds her “pitch and sulfur” tirades “full of charm. I adored her every word. She gave me bloody wounds though.” Other men, he says would have left her, but he is “the type that bears it and says nothing. What's one to do? Shoulders are from God and burdens too.” Over the years, as Elka bears more children, he loves all of them “Immediately—each tiny bone.”

Gimpel continues working at the bakery, sleeping there at night, tending the ovens, and sending gifts of corn and wheat bread to Elka. As the provider of bread he is linked to Adam, a man also sadly tricked by his wife (Grebstein 59). Adam's punishment is to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow (Gen. 3:19). Bread also associates Gimpel with the manna sent to the wanderers in the desert, the Passover bread, the miraculous widow's loaf that sustains Elijah and with other biblical images of bread as signs of divine providence.

Besides representing physical sustenance, the staff of life, bread signifies spiritual nourishment as well. Wisdom sets her banquet table with bread and wine (Prov. 9:3). In Deuteronomy 8:3, God reminds the Israelites that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The association of spiritual bread with wisdom, with the word of God, is further developed in Isaiah 55:8-11:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
          nor are your ways my ways,
          Says the Lord …
For as the rain and snow come down from heaven,
          and do not return there until they have watered the earth
Making it bring forth and sprout,
          giving seed to the sower and
          bread to the eater,
So shall my word be that goes out
          from my mouth;
          it shall not return to me empty,
But it shall accomplish that which I purpose …

Just as God's thoughts are not the thoughts of humanity, so Gimpel's vision differs from that of his neighbors. Nevertheless, Gimpel's labors as a baker provide bread to his family and all of Frampol.

In the eyes of the villagers, Gimpel's life is a charade arranged for their amusement. He is no real father, no true husband. At his wedding an old woman dances mockingly, hugging a loaf of chalah, a Sabbath bread braided to symbolize the union of man and woman. In the conventional wisdom, Gimpel's marriage is an illusion, a joke, but Gimpel still provides sustenance for all. Their comfort is built on his sorrow. He reflects upon their laughter:

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; tomorrow it's God himself you won't take stock in.

Gimpel's awareness that the villagers “refresh their spirits” through his grief points to his role as scapegoat. In ancient Israel, at the feast of the Atonement, a goat was selected to bear the sins of the community (Lev. 16:7-10) and was driven out into the desert to die. The scapegoat bears the sins of the people and suffers so that they might be cleansed. Gimpel's determination to believe his wife is linked to his whole-hearted acceptance of the painful role of scapegoat.

The archetypal images of the scapegoat and the fool or trickster are deeply connected.3 In many cultures carnivals and fools' holidays are observed as celebrations of disorder. The unrest caused by the impositions of social order erupts in rituals where the Lord of Misrule is both celebrated and mocked. Not infrequently, as in the Roman Saturnalia, the carnival king is beaten and abused as part of the festival. In Frampol, Gimpel provides the occasion for a perpetual fool's holiday.

For Jung the trickster is a manifestation of the shadow figure, a projection of all the ego's unwanted, dark propensities (209). But the shadow, as scapegoat, plays a healing, compensatory role, allowing the ego to disengage itself from the evils projected onto the shadow by bringing them to consciousness. Rena Girard sees the scapegoat as an archaic hero figure, suffering to that society may make a new beginning (181). Jung describes the trickster or scapegoat as “a forerunner of the savior, and like him, God, man, and animal at once …” (203)

Biblical imagery links the scapegoat to the sacrificial lamb of Passover and to the sacrifice offered for the firstborn. Joseph, mocked as a dreamer, a sort of fool, thrown into the pit by his brothers, articulates the principle of regeneration coming through suffering: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people.” (Gen 50:20). Joseph's hardships lead to expanded life for Israel's children. In the biblical tradition, the suffering of such prophets as Jeremiah and Hosea is seen as central to their expression of God's word. They experience and symbolically enact God's pain in response to the breaking of the covenant. Isaiah's portrait of the suffering servant, “a man of suffering and acquainted with informity,” who has “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases,” (53:3-4) is associated with messianic expectations both in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Singer was well acquainted with the Lurianic Kabbala, a collection of Jewish mystical commentary on the Torah. The Polish Hasidim of Singer's childhood conceived of the universe as the product of divine withdrawal or exile. In the Zohar, God (Ein-Sof) contracted and drew away in order that the cosmos might appear. His radiance dimmed so lesser lights might appear. Because of God's exile, the material world is the opposite or negative of the divine world, so truth appears as contradictory wisdom.

Ein-Sof sought to manifest himself by sending ten sefirot, emanations or aspects or epithets, to make himself known in the material sphere, but no vessels could be found adequate to give form to the sefirot. The vessels or forms shattered and the light overflowed, remaining invisible to human eyes. As a result, the most important insights can be expressed only as absurd contradictions.4 Michael Fixler's study of the redeemer figure in Singer's work focuses on “the mystery of the covenant, the blessing which is a curse, and the curse which is a blessing” (77). He quotes from the Lurianic Kabbala on the mystery of innocent suffering:

This is the secret why Israel is fated to be enslaved by all the Gentiles of the world: In order that it may uplift those sparks [of the broken divine effulgence] which have also fallen among them … And therefore it was necessary that Israel should be scattered to the four winds in order to lift everything up.

(82-83, Sholem, Trends, 284)

The contradictions of wisdom are sometimes represented by the wise fool, and at other times, by the blind prophet. Such figures as Tiresias or Oedipus at Colonnus represent a wisdom opaque to ordinary consciousness. Their thoughts are not our thoughts. More modern figures, like Candide and Don Quixote, are fools, victims and heroes at once. Fools sometimes appear in counterpoint with figures of hubristic ego. King Lear's fool and the child Pip in Moby Dick are posed against the rigid egoism of Lear or Ahab, undercutting the certainties of rational awareness. Lear's assured common sense insists that “nothing will come of nothing.” The fool knows better.

Images of childlike wisdom are similarly associated with the passage from conventional knowledge to higher modes of perception. Jesus insisted that his followers become “like little children” to enter the kingdom of God. The Romantic poets expressed reverence for the imagination of the figure of the child, who came “trailing clouds of glory.” In Isaiah's description of the apocalyptic age, when God's order will prevail, “a little child will lead them.” (11:16). In Martin Buber's edition of the Hasidic tales of Rabbi Nachman, Wisdom is a great king who cannot be seen by the human eye. His queen is the Shekinah who mediates his blinding brightness, making it assimilable as meaning. The fruit of their union is a glorious child who is a “sheer miracle of beauty” but who cannot speak. When the child is lost, carried off in a great storm, the Shekinah assumes the role of mournful Rachel, searching for the divine child of Wisdom. The reunion of mother and child provides the experience of full presence and undivided meaning.

For twenty years Gimpel the fool lived with his wife, and all sorts of things happened that he neither saw nor heard. He lived by the motto, “Belief in itself is beneficial. It is written that a good man lives by his faith.” One day Elka becomes ill and is soon on her deathbed.

“Woe Gimpel!” she said. “It was ugly how I deceived you all these years. I want to go clean to my Maker, so I have to tell you that the children are not yours.”

Gimpel is bewildered: “Whose are they?” “I don't know,” she said, “There were a lot … but they're not yours.” Elka dies with a smile on her whitened lips as if to say “I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life.” When the period of mourning is over, “the Spirit of Evil himself” appears to Gimpel one night in the bakery:

“The whole world deceives you,” he said, “and you ought to deceive the world in your turn.” How can I deceive the world? I asked him. He answered, “You might accumulate a bucket of urine every day and at night pour it into the dough. Let the sages of Frampol eat filth.”

The devil tempts Gimpel to descend to the world of lies the villagers inhabit. Gimpel wavers, asking about judgment in the world to come.

“There is no world to come …”

“Well then, and is there a God?”

He answered, “There is no God either.”

“What is there then?”

“A thick mire.”

In these lines the Spirit of Evil asserts that there is no meaning, no order. The undifferentiated mire, like the primal chaos preceding the ordering word of Genesis is the only reality. Nothing will come from nothing. Gimpel allows himself to be persuaded, and contaminates the batch of risen dough. He then falls asleep by the fiery oven thinking of his revenge.

Like Satan in the Book of Job, Singer's Spirit of Evil validates the conventional wisdom of the villagers. In Job, Satan supports the false comforters who insist that the relationship between the human and divine is based on just reward and punishment. That, in fact, is Satan's own bet with God: Job blesses God only because he has been blessed. Singer's devil tempts Gimpel to imitate the villagers in their deception and spite. Whatever the professed beliefs of the sages of Frampol their ways of seeing the world are so limited as to allow no genuine view of the divine order. From their perspective, Gimpel's faith is folly. When asked why he used images of supernatural figures in his fiction, Singer said:

The demons and Satan represent to me, in a sense, the ways of the world. Instead of saying this is the way things happen, I will say, this is the way demons behave.

(Howe 106)

Singer's demonic figures reveal evil in the banal workings of the ways of the world.

As Gimpel sleeps that night, Elka comes to him in a dream, shrouded and blackened by suffering. She cries out:

“You fool! Because I was false is everything false too? I never deceived anyone by myself. I'm paying for it all Gimpel. They spare you nothing here.”

Elka contradicts the Spirit of Evil, admitting that her sly and manipulative life was mere vanity, a self-induced illusion. She made the mistake of settling for a clever role instead of a real life as the object of Gimpel's love and faithfulness. Gimpel stands at a moment of choice. “Everything hung in the balance.” He seizes the shovel and buries the spoiled bread in the ground. Then he goes home, divides his goods among his children and bids them goodbye. “Be well,” he says, “and forget that such a one as Gimpel ever existed.” He puts on his short coat and his boots, packs his prayer shawl, kisses the Mezzuzah, picks up his staff and leaves. His astonished neighbors ask where he is going. “Into the world,” and so Gimpel departs from Frampol.

In this new phase of his life Gimpel is a wandering, ecstatic prophet. The old Gimpel lies buried like the contaminated bread of everyday life. The wanderer is still embedded in the world of begetting and dying generations, but now he offers the bread of wisdom. Like the prophet Elijah, Gimpel is an elusive presence among the living. Elijah never died, but was taken aloft in a chariot of fire. He wanders the earth, a stranger, blessing the good people who share a meal with him. Paul Siegel compares Gimpel to the “wandering Jew,” a very old folk tale figure. The wanderer is “punished for having spat in the face of Christ by being deprived of the power to die” (170). He is a sinister figure, burdened by experience and “unwanted life,” but his suffering casts him in the role of victim as well. The wandering Jew may be a shadow figure for Elijah, the deathless prophet whose public return heralds the arrival of the Messiah.

Gimpel tells us that after many years of listening to deceit and falsehoods, he realizes that “there really were no lies”:

Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year.

From Gimpel's new vantage point, the certainties of the world, its truths and its clever lies, are so provisional, so misaligned and partial as to be without any claim to meaning. Even such verities as time and place compress and expand in unexpected ways. Anything can come from nothing.

As Gimpel travels, eating at the tables of strangers, he “spins yarns—improbable things that could never have happened—about devils, magicians, windmills and the like.” The children follow him, begging for stories. Once a little boy tells him, “‘Grandfather, it's the same story you told us before.’ The little rogue, he was right.” The artist's wisdom and the prophet's vision are revealed in stories, amazing, unbelievable narratives, full of color and passion and always the same. The archetypal dragons, maidens and fools are never new, but are made new by the teller. The villagers of Frampol, so sure in their common sense perceptions, spin tales to fool Gimpel. From the prophetic perspective, their vision is so distorted by fear and desire that nothing intelligible can emerge as either true or false. Their very one, two, and three are not the real one, two and three.

In dreams, Gimpel sees Elka, standing by the washtub again, “but her face is shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint, and she speaks outlandish words to me, strange things.” Elka comforts Gimpel, answering his questions, assuring him that all is well. Soon, she tells him, he will be in her world. Her tears cleanse his face, and when he wakens he can taste their salty trace.

Elka has become what Jung calls an anima figure,5 an emblem of soul or life. She represents a vivifying aspect of the psyche, a capacity to go beyond conventional roles, beyond the parameters of ordinary understanding. When Elka moves in the common-sense world of Frampol, her faithlessness reflects its limited reality. She is an especially adept liar and manipulator. In her appearance in the dream warning Gimpel against the devil's wiles, she is no longer at one with the world of lies, yet she is not completely free of the consequences of its powerful pull. Elka's role in that dream is to be the archetypal captive princess, caught in the toils of evil, needing rescue, and calling out to her hero.

The mythic princess often assists the prince, giving him a thread to follow through the maze, or a clue like the glass slipper. In order to free the princess, to complete her transformation into the anima figure, the prince must be willing to lay down his life for her. When Gimpel resists the devil, the archetypal dragon, and buries the unclean bread, he gives up his old life as fool and emerges transformed in the role of the wandering prophet. In myth, the successful dragonfight is followed by the hieros gamos or sacred marriage. Elka's tears represent her new spiritual bonds with Gimpel. In his dreams, Elka stands by the washtub as at their first meeting, but tears fall from her radiant eyes, bathing his cheeks. Her teardrops, purified by suffering, suggest a rarification and heightening of the cleansing waters of the earlier betrothal scene.

Their union is not complete, however, Elka's final state reflects the perfection of the messianic world to come, whereas Gimpel continues to wander in the fallen world. The clearest representation of the anima figure in the Hebrew scriptures in Sophia (Hochma), an image of the divine wisdom that is the proper, though distant, object of the prophet's love.6 Sophia is described in Proverbs 8: 22-31 as a radiant and beloved feminine presence, a divine emanation representing God's creative and ordering activities. She “plays,” or dances before God, his “delight day by day.” Like the divine word, Wisdom emerges “from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3). Elka's speech is difficult to understand because she reflects a transcendent order. Heavenly messengers sometimes speak in riddles, or songs, or are mute, suggesting the distance between common understanding and divine wisdom.

An anima figure often guides the hero to his destination. Beatrice, for example, can lead Dante beyond the lower realms, where Virgil guided him, up to the very spheres of Paradise. Dame Philosophy in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, and Grace Dieu in de Guileville's The Pilgrimage of Human Life play similar roles as counselors and guides. Athena, Minerva, Isis and the Sybil are other examples of feminine sources of wisdom. The artist's muse is also an anima figure, opening the door to higher planes of awareness.

Gimpel's insight that “there really are no lies” is linked to a vision of an infinitely meaningful universe. The Sefir Yezirah, one of the books of the Kabbala, begins: “In thirty-two mysterious paths of wisdom did the Lord write.” Grace Farrell Lee points out that the thirty two paths to wisdom correspond to the ten Sefirot and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet (19). She quotes Gershom Sholem on the expressive nature of the cosmos:

Every existing thing somehow contains these linguistic elements and exists by their power, whose foundation is one name, i.e., the Tetragrammaton, or, perhaps, the alphabetical order which in its entirety is considered one mystical name. The world-process is essentially a linguistic one, based on the unlimited combinations of the letters.

(Kabbala 25)

The biblical world is a text to be read as poetry, infinitely old in its archetypes, intensely familiar in its reflections of the structures of the human imagination, and new with every reader. The truth of poetry, Gimpel suggests, is not in its correlation with practical experience, but in a ceaselessly repeated, perfectly formed iteration of meaningful images. Gimpel's stories are true in the same sense in which the prophets understood the truth, emeth, of Yahweh. Emeth means integrity, internal consistency, being true to others and to one's own nature. Singer's dragons and fools and captive maidens play their true roles in the drama of transformation leading to wisdom.

The attainment of the anima figure, of wisdom, is associated with the breakdown of society's most privileged forms. The hero must pass, like Dante, through the underworld in order to achieve the wholeness of vision represented by the sacred bride. Her rescue requires the acceptance of mortality, of profound change caused by suffering. Psyche surpasses even Aphrodite in beauty because she accepts, as her last task, a perilous gift from Persephone, queen of the underworld. The gift confers an awareness of mortality, and with that, a supreme beauty, unseen by the senses, the product of Psyche's incorporation of the knowledge of death. Gimpel too, must pass through death to join Elka in the world of complete revelation. The plank for carrying the dead stands at the door of his hovel. “The grave digger Jew has his spade ready.” Gimpel will be glad to leave the “imaginary world” of partial vision for the “true world” of complete revelation:

When the hour comes I will go joyfully. Whatever will be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.


  1. See Paul Siegel for a study relating Gimpel to the wise fool in Yiddish tales and in world literature. His comparison of Gimpel to Dame Folly in Erasmus's The Praise of Folly is especially interesting because the speaker, Folly, is, like Gimpel, simultaneously a fool and a sage. “Sometimes,” she says, “a fool may speak a word in season” (172).

  2. The Yiddish word Singer uses, chochem, can mean “sage” but is often used ironically to mean “fool.” (Friedman 191) The contradictory relationship of the “sages” of Frampol and the fool is implicit in the term.

  3. Paul Radin's The Trickster, which contains essays by Jung and Kerenyi, is an important study of the development of the trickster or fool.

  4. See Grace Russell Lee (1-11) on Kabbalist influence on Camus's description of the absurd. See the final chapter in Hans Jonas on gnostic (esoteric) doctrine and twentieth century nihilism.

  5. See Neumann's The Great Mother for the development of the anima figure. See also Hillman, Anima.

  6. See Stephen Harrison for a summary of current scholarship on Sophia (116, 214-5, 326-30). See Clasby, “Dancing Sophia” for application of Sophia image to symbolic language.

Works Cited

Allentuck, Marcia, ed. The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Buber, Martin. “The Master of Prayer,” The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, retold by Martin Buber. New York: Horizon Press, 1956.

Clasby, Nancy. “Dancing Sophia: Rahner's Theology of Symbols.” Religion and Literature, Vol 25.1, spring, 1993, 51-65.

Farrell Lee, Grace. From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Isaac Bashevis Singer. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Girard, Rene. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Grebstein, Sheldon. “Singer's Shrewd ‘Gimpel:’ Bread and Childbirth,” in Miller, 58-65.

Hennings, Thomas. “Singer's ‘Gimpel the Fool’ and the Book of Hosea,” Journal of Narrative Technique, Winter, 13, 1983, 11-19.

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. Third Edition. London and Toronto: Mayfield Publishing, 1992.

Hillman, James. Anima: An Anatomy of a Personified Notion. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1985.

Howe, Irving. “I. B. Singer,” in Malin 100-120.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. (2nd ed.) Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure,” in Radin 195-211.

Malin, Irving, (ed.) Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

Miller, David Neal, (ed.) Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer. Leiden: Brill, 1986.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Sholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York: NAL, 1978.

———. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books, 1961.

Siegel, Paul N. “Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool.” In Allentuck, 159-74.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.

———. “Gimpel the Fool.” in Collected Stories, 3-14. Saul Bellow, translator.

Leslie Morris (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Morris, Leslie. “1968: The Translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's ‘Gimpel der Narr’ Appears in the Federal Republic of Germany.” In Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, pp. 742-48. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Morris investigates the reception of the German translations of “Gimpel the Fool” and the work of the Jewish humorist Ephraim Kishon in Germany, asserting that “The reception of their work in the German popular and critical press can give insight into the discourse about Jews, Jewishness, and the Holocaust in Germany since 1968.”]

The enormous popularity in Germany of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ephraim Kishon provides an interesting perspective on the relationship of non-German Jewish writing to the German (Jewish and non-Jewish) reading public. It inevitably points to the way in which Jewish writing in Germany is filtered through the United States, as in the case of Singer, and through Israel, where Kishon is generally considered the country's national satirist. The reception of the work of Singer and Kishon in the Federal Republic of Germany from 1968, the date of the German publication of Singer's “Gimpel der Narr” (Gimpel the fool), to the publication of Kishon's memoirs Nichts zu lachen (Not a laughing matter) in 1993, can shed light on the larger question of Jewish writing in Germany and the representation of Jewishness in the German context. It also brings up the question of what it means to “export” Jewish culture to Germany. Although there were Jewish authors writing in German in the 1960s and 1970s (such as Jurek Becker and Edgar Hilsenrath), that number is significantly small, and a good deal of the literary production by Jews writing in German took place in countries other than Germany (the cases of Paul Celan in Paris and Nelly Sachs in Stockholm come to mind).

Singer and Kishon are two radically different Jewish writers with radically different conceptions of what it even means to be one. In Germany, Singer's work is generally admired for the picture it paints of Eastern European Jewish life, whereas Kishon, often referred to in the German press as “Germany's favorite Israeli,” is commonly seen as an exemplar of so-called Jewish humor. Both are writers in exile: Singer was a Polish Jew born in Warsaw who lived as of 1935 in New York, and Kishon was born in Budapest in 1924 and moved to Tel Aviv after surviving the war. Both became literary sensations in their country of exile and yet, for their German audience, both remain, or at least are marketed, as somehow quintessentially “Jewish.” Although they have markedly different reading audiences, both Singer and Kishon provided a certain degree of definition for the German reader of what Jewishness and Jewish experience are all about. The reception of their work in the German popular and critical press can give insight into the discourse about Jews, Jewishness, and the Holocaust in Germany since 1968.

Although neither Singer nor Kishon's work could be classified as “Holocaust literature,” the Holocaust is certainly the pivotal event when looking at the reception of both writers' work, from Singer's tales of seventeenth-century Poland to Kishon's “Tiergeschichten.” For Kishon, the Holocaust remains a kind of terra santa, the one event that he cannot and will not satirize, as he has repeatedly stated. The Holocaust also defines his relationship to the German reading public that so strongly endorses him. On the one hand, in interviews he repeatedly underscores that it is both a great irony and a “just revenge” that he should be the favorite writer of the descendants of his executioners (Der Spiegel, Sept. 27, 1993). On the other hand, he insists on exonerating Germans today and building, in the words of a Langen-Müller promotional release, “bridges between the two nations of Germans and Jews.” The reception of Isaac Bashevis Singer in Germany was somewhat more complicated. He was cast by his German admirers as bearing likeness to such diverse figures from literature as Don Quixote and Nathan der Weise, and as providing the final peg in the trajectory of Yiddish luminaries that begins with Sabbatai Zevi (the seventeenth-century Hasidic false messiah who, in the glossary found in the dtv edition of Verloren in Amerika, is described as a “jüdischer Schwärmer”) and extends to the triumvirate of Sholem Aleichem, Mendeles Mocher-Sforim, and Itzak Leib Peretz (Die Zeit, Oct. 13, 1978). Like Kishon, he too became a sort of all-purpose Jew for the German public.

Singer's reception in Germany was always filtered through the United States. The German editions of Singer's work have all been translated first from the American edition, and American-Jewish writing and the American publishing industry played a large role in Singer's success in Germany. In a review of Satan in Goraj in Die Zeit, Salcia Landmann stressed the pivotal role that Yiddish writing in the United States has played for Singer's work, pointing out that many of his novels, although written in Yiddish, were published first in their English translation and only later appeared in Yiddish (Die Zeit, Feb. 13, 1970). Singer's career in the American literary scene was launched overnight in 1953 with Saul Bellow's translation in Partisan Review of “Gimpel the Fool,” and it continued with his winning the National Book Award in 1970 for A Warsaw Childhood and again in 1974 for Enemies: A Love Story. In Germany, however, his reputation was established with the publication of “Gimpel der Narr” in 1968. Prior to that time, his novels had not sold well, and Rowohlt allowed four unsuccessful novels to go out of print. His reputation in Germany was considerably heightened when Hanser Verlag began to publish Ellen Otten's translations of his work. In 1978 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, thus becoming the first Yiddish writer ever to be honored with such high literary recognition.

Singer's Nobel Prize did not go unnoticed in Germany. In fact, Rowohlt continues to cash in on “its” author receiving the Nobel by adding, in press releases and advertisements, the label “Nobelpreisträger” under the bold print of his name. In this way, the German press continues to create, market, and sell a particular Isaac Bashevis Singer. The German press coverage of this landmark event for Yiddish writing is striking in its insistence on portraying the late Singer as the embodiment of the Ostjude, a sort of spokesperson for the shtetel. Singer as Ostjude par excellence: this trope had already been set with the translation of “Gimpel der Narr” in 1968. In countless German reviews, Singer was praised as a chronicler and a “Volksdichter” who successfully depicted the strong and “unbroken” Eastern European Jewish culture, but who also wove in the sensual and the modern (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung [FAZ], Oct. 15, 1968). From the late 1960s—beginning with the publication of “Gimpel der Narr” in 1968—until he received the Nobel award in 1978, Singer was celebrated as a “master of local color, of the specific and the precise” (Die Zeit, Jan. 28, 1972). At the same time, he was seen as portraying “universal” experience—with the “simplicity” of the shtetel as backdrop—and providing characters with whom even the (non-Jewish) German reader can “identify.” Singer's Yiddish-speaking audience, on the other hand, sharply criticized him for his departure from traditional narrative tradition, and for his sensual (often frankly sexual) and markedly modernist leanings. Singer's embrace of modernist aesthetics, and his subsequent difficulty with the Yiddish literary community, is rarely mentioned in the German reviews of his work, when, in fact, it was the basis (as Irving Howe and Cynthia Ozick, among others, have illustrated) of the enormous success he had in the (non-Yiddish) literary world, and of the suspicion and resentment he provoked in his Yiddish readers.

For many German critics, however, Singer remained largely a writer of the shtetel, a chronicler of the nobly decimated, forsaken world of the Eastern European Jew. Writing in Die Zeit on the occasion of Singer receiving the Nobel Prize, Horst Bienek states unequivocally that Singer, despite his immigration to the United States in 1935, never really left the world of the shtetel because the culture of the lower east side of Manhattan was, Bienek maintains, a resolutely Yiddish one. Furthermore, Bienek is adamant in his view that Singer not be considered an “intellectual” writer—that alongside other more “serious” Jewish writers such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Mordechai Richler, Singer represented the more popular, even “folksy,” side of North American-Jewish writing. Bienek cites as Singer's greatest literary achievement his ability to fuse the world of the shtetel with the urban exile experience in New York: “the mixture of Galicia and Brooklyn, of the Talmud and drive-in-movie theaters, of the dybbuk and sexual slavery, of intellect and instinct” (Die Zeit, Oct. 13, 1978). Indeed, in many ways the “Amerikabild”—or rather, the distinctly Jewish “Amerikabild”—that Singer offered his German readers is another cause for the enormous success of these books in Germany.

An exception to this sentimental vision of Yiddish and Eastern European Jewish culture in the German reception of Isaac Bashevis Singer is Jorg von Uthman's thoughtful review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine of Singer's life and work, written on the occasion of his death in 1991 (FAZ, July 26, 1991). Von Uthman insisted that although Singer always placed the fate of Eastern European Jews and of shtetel life at the heart of his fiction, it is nonetheless reductive to characterize him as having been a Jewish propagandist or an “illuminator” of the ghetto. Although Singer wrote about messianism, Hasidism, and kabbalist mysticism, von Uthman quite correctly stresses Singer's vehement secularism and his conscious turn away from the Orthodoxy of his childhood. In this context, he cites the often-quoted Singer dictum “The truth is that there is no truth” and concludes that in this regard Singer was reminiscent of Lessing's figure Nathan der Weise.

The German press is forever comparing Singer to literary figures throughout history, creating the impression that Singer was as much a fictive construct as his own Gimpel (or Sholem Aleichem's Tevye)—that there is a sort of wholeness or continuity between Singer as an Eastern European Jewish writer and the Jewish/Yiddish world he, along with other Yiddish writers, depicts in his writing. In his Laudatio to Isaac Bashevis Singer in the Frankfurter Allgemeine (written on the occasion of the “Woche der Brüderlichkeit”), Günter Kunert writes as well a sort of Laudatio to the Ostjude and the (now dead) culture of Eastern European Jewry. He describes the figures in Singer's fiction as people whose “thinking and feeling is not yet deformed or corrupted, whose spirit is not yet fully formed or limited, whose compassion is not yet crippled or perverted, whose souls have not been made into a dangerous vacuum by continuous discipline; in short, people who are still driven or consumed by passion” (FAZ, Mar. 11, 1981).

Singer himself, however, was certainly intent on throwing some kinks into this picture of happy, harmonious Yiddish culture. His reflections on the role of Yiddish writing provide a good counterpoint to the German critics: “Yiddish must strike out boldly in two directions. First of all it must become what it was intended to be—an instrument of Jewishness. And, secondly, it must go forth and encounter the vanities, illusions, temptations and risks of the world. … A contemporary literature intent on awakening and binding together all Jews dares not restrict itself to a vision of hamlets nor can it cultivate merely primitive attitudes. The Jew is not a primitive. He may come from a village, but he is not a villager. His nature is dynamic, not static” (Singer 1985a, 146-47). An insistence on the “static” nature of Eastern European Jewish life, however, dominates many of the German reviews. For instance, in a review of Mein Vater der Rabbi (1972) in Die Zeit, Gabriel Laub laments that the German translation via the American translation, and the fact of Singer's exile from Poland, causes the Polish place names in the novel to be somewhat imprecise—but he adds, with an oddly derisive tone, that this “imprecision” is about as significant as if they were the names of excavated Assyrian cities (Die Zeit, Jan. 28, 1972). In a review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine of “Gimpel der Narr,” one critic describes Yiddish culture as “strong and unbroken” yet at the same time laments that the German edition of “Gimpel der Narr” does not provide a glossary—the need for which, in fact, demonstrates that the continuity of the culture, the “static” quality to which Singer refers, has in fact been broken.

Singer's insistence on this fundamental split within the culture of the shtetel—that the Jew may come from the village or shtetel, but that he is not a villager—counters, complicates, and problematizes the inclination of many German critics, such as Horst Bienek and Günter Kunert, to relegate Yiddish writing—and the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer in particular—to the irretrievable, past, and harmonious world of the shtetel. Singer's renown in Germany as a literary figure is based partly on the fact that critics have been able to place him “there,” in the shtetel that embodies and defines the (German) reconstruction of Eastern European Jewish experience. And yet the shtetel is also a mythical and fictive place, especially for the post-1968 German reading public. Contrary to Horst Bienek's belief that despite his 1935 immigration to New York Singer never really left the shtetel, the shtetel experience in Eastern Europe was not nearly as uniform as critics like Bienek would have us believe.

It is not the “unbrokenness” of Eastern European Jewish life that most clearly characterizes Singer's fiction, but rather the language in which he wrote, Yiddish. Singer repeatedly states the obvious but vital fact that “Yiddish is homeless,” and this “homelessness” is what lies at the very heart of Isaac Bashevis Singer's work. For Bienek, the fact that Singer continues to write in Yiddish is his most marketable quality: “it [Yiddish] belongs to his authenticity, to his bearing witness” (Die Zeit, Oct. 13, 1978). Yiddish is certainly the language of exile, in many ways a lost language. In his Nobel Prize speech, Singer observed that Yiddish is “a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics: a language that was despised by both Gentiles and emancipated Jews” (Singer 1985b, 171). Again, Singer himself provides a more complex and interesting perspective than his critics. His Nobel Prize speech ends with the following: “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and kabbalists—rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of the frightened and hopeful humanity” (172).

Isaac Bashevis Singer's political and aesthetic identities remained somewhat invisible, then, to his German readers and critics: he was first and foremost the Ostjude who writes of the shtetel. Kishon's acclaim in Germany, on the other hand, cannot be separated from his politics, in particular his avowedly conservative and anti-intellectual stance. If the Germans love him, then he in turn professes to love not only the German reading public that buys his books, but also the country, which he praises for being consistently pro-Israeli (in contrast to the United States, which he indirectly criticizes). In an article in the Hamburger Abendblatt in 1990, for example, he insists that Germany's pro-Israeli sentiment is the result neither of guilt nor of a desire to make reparations, but rather is due to the policies of its chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the fact that millions of German tourists have visited Israel in the forty years of its existence. This in turn, says Kishon, has promoted a “friendly” spirit between Germany and Israel (Hamburger Abendblatt, May 12, 1990). This folksy sort of bonhomie not only about political matters, but also about questions of gender or sexual equality, is perhaps also a part of his appeal for this audience. For instance, he almost always appends the epithet “die beste Ehefrau von allen” (the best wife of all) when his wife Sara is mentioned, and in a questionnaire published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung he responded to the question, “Welche Eigenschaften schätzen Sie bei einer Frau am meisten?” (Which qualities do you value most in a woman?) with “Die Hüften und die Beine” (The hips and the legs). In general, his appeal is predicated on precisely this sort of “boyish” and determinedly folksy—indeed, kitschy—kind of humor. His status as an Israeli author and Holocaust survivor is certainly a large part of his success in Germany, but one wonders why others who would fit this bill, such as Aharon Appelfeld or S. Y. Agnon, are not the same sort of household words as Kishon. Indeed, Kishon is synonymous in Germany with a Jewishness that is palatable to the German reading public in part because of his endorsement of Helmut Kohl's belief in “the grace of being born late,” and his prevailing desire for reconciliation between Germans and Jews.

In some respects, Kishon's journey has been an odd one, and ironically it has always included Germany in some form or other. Born Ferenc Hoffmann in 1924 to an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest, he describes himself as corresponding to Goebbels's Aryan prototype so much that under the Horthy regime in Hungary, he was summoned to an elite paramilitary unit until his Jewish identity was revealed (FAZ, Jan. 29, 1994). He credits his survival in a work camp to his skill as a chess player: while in Jolsva, a high-ranking camp official discovered this talent and granted him the special status that ultimately enabled him to flee the camp. In earlier years, Kishon expressed a greater ambivalence toward Germany than his recent statements might indicate: in 1952, for instance, as a recent immigrant to Israel, he actively opposed the establishment of cultural relations with Germany. His first book, published in Germany in 1961, was the volume Drehn Sie sich um, Frau Lot! (the English version, incidentally, was the New York Times Book Review's “Book of the Month” selection in 1959). Since that time, his “Kishonsche Komik” has become familiar to the German reading public. He has been extremely prolific not only as a humorist and satirist, but also as a playwright and screenwriter, and his creative pursuits have earned him numerous awards and prizes, including the Israeli Herzl Prize, the Jabotinsky Prize, the Nordau Prize for Literature, and the Sokolov Prize for outstanding journalism. He is often compared to such politically diverse German-Jewish satirists as Kurt Tucholsky and Erich Kästner, as well as to James Thurber and Mark Twain.

Kishon, “the Germans' favorite Israeli,” feels that the recent right-wing violence against foreigners in Germany has been overplayed in the media, and he claims not to have experienced any anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. This generous exoneration of Germans is perceptible in his work as well. As Martin Doerry observed in a recent Spiegel article on Kishon, “The colorful mixture of contemplative and cheery anecdotes enables the reader to decide whether he will be moved, amused, or both, all at the same time. There is not a single line where Kishon forces the reader to acknowledge guilt” (Der Spiegel, Sept. 27, 1993). The German-language press makes much of his second residence in Appenzell, Switzerland (whose peaceful surroundings he sees as a sort of refuge from the hectic pace of Tel Aviv), and of the fact that he learned German from collaborating on the translations of his own books. (Friedrich Torberg, and later Gerhard Bronner, were the original translators of his work, until Kishon felt he knew enough German to work on the translations himself.) And yet he forcefully disavows that Switzerland could ever be a “zweite Heimat” for him; he instead stresses his Israeli identity and that his relationship to Switzerland and Germany is ultimately that of a tourist: “I'm just a tourist in Germany” (Der Spiegel, Sept. 27, 1993). His relationship to Austria is also celebrated in the press as that of the native Hungarian exhibiting “monarchical feelings” for the “Habsburg” cities of Vienna and Budapest (Illustrierte Neue Welt Wien, Dec. 11, 1990). He has enjoyed a close friendship since 1967 with his publisher, Herbert Fleissner, the arch-conservative (“the rightist right winger”; FAZ, Jan. 29, 1994) owner of Ullstein Langen-Müller. Fleissner also published the confessional memoir Ich war dabei by Franz Schönhuber, the founder of the Republikaner party, whose book defends his career in the Waffen SS.

Kishon's complex position as a Jew in relation to Germany cannot be separated from the fact that his greatest success has come from his German, Swiss, and Austrian readers, and that Ullstein Langen-Müller is the publishing house that has brought Kishon to this reading audience. Of the roughly 38 million books by Kishon that have sold worldwide in thirty-one different languages, 24 million books have appeared in German translation. It is not insignificant that Ullstein Langen-Müller, headed by Herbert Fleissner, has become Kishon's publisher. Axel Springer, who was, among other things, a strong supporter of Israel, bought Ullstein in the early 1960s, and his legacy lives on in scandals such as the one surrounding the publication of Schönhuber's book. Kishon, incidentally, defended Fleissner—and, indirectly, Schönhuber and the Republikaner—by claiming that if a member of the Republikaner party were to declare himself a Nazi or anti-Semite, he would be ousted from it immediately (Der Spiegel, Sept. 27, 1993). In light of this, the recent publication of Kishon's memoirs, Nichts zu lachen, and its reception in the German press become even more interesting. Because Kishon's greatest success as a writer has come from his German audience, the emergence of this volume in 1993, and with Ullstein Langen-Müller, comes as no surprise. There is already a German market for the Jewish and non-Jewish Holocaust memoirs, and the Nichts zu lachen entered this already established marketplace with, significantly, the Ullstein stamp on it.

Although this book stands apart from his others in that it deals directly with his Holocaust experience, some critics nonetheless see Kishon making the same tired jokes in this book—jokes about taxes, monogamy, and modern art that have become the staple of his writing. In a review of Nichts zu lachen in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Hannes Stein suggests the unique role that Kishon, as the “literary representative of Israel,” has played for Germany in his insistence that the younger generation in Germany does not bear any direct responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis (FAZ, Jan. 29, 1994). Stein states that for many Germans, Kishon has long since embodied the “good Jew,” which he aptly describes as the “Jew who does not bear a grudge.” Kishon's memoirs, in which he openly asserts his identity as a Holocaust survivor, nonetheless display the same characteristic blend of sarcasm, self-irony, and, for Stein at least, the same tiresome tirades against modern art and intellectual life (FAZ, Jan. 29, 1994). There is a refrain throughout reviews of his autobiography that Kishon does not blame the Germans, that he believes the Hungarians and the Slovaks did not behave any better than the Germans, and that he is not certain that he would have acted any differently than they did (Der Spiegel, Sept. 27, 1993).

Kishon's role as a writer whose greatest success has come from the descendants of those who once pinned the yellow star on his sleeve is, in a certain sense, both logical and predictable. Kishon makes things easy for a German audience, and it is for this, as much as for his merits, that he has been rewarded—with large book sales and even, one could argue, with the Bundesverdienstkreuz (the Federal Republic Cross of Service) that he received in 1993. Kishon is a Jewish writer who both asserts his Jewishness and denies the particular and automatic relationship that this Jewishness obtains in the German context. He is the model Jew, a sort of latter-day Jewish Axel Springer who not only refuses to blame the Germans but also provides this same German audience in his Holocaust memoir with an “unknown side of Kishon” (as a Langen-Müller press release states) that is somehow compatible with his previous work. Perhaps Kishon's restraint (if that is what it is) in not bringing the Holocaust into his earlier writing is why this volume has been so well received: it is as if Kishon, having proven his “good will” to Germany over and over again, can now tell the other, “unknown” side of his story. Despite—or perhaps precisely because of—his experience in World War II, he nonetheless exonerates the Germans by creating a cozy and folksy camaraderie between himself and his reader, between the now-Israeli Jew and the (largely) non-Jewish German reader. If he is in fact the tourist he claims to be in Germany, then he is a tourist who is not simply taking in the sights. In a sense, the reception of Kishon in Germany is relatively simple: as the embodiment of the Ullstein-Autor, he appeals to that segment of the German reading public that, while perhaps receptive to Jewish culture (in fact, at times even philo-Semitic), is comfortable with the sort of political stance once espoused by Axel Springer and now, conveniently perhaps, by a Jewish writer, Ephraim Kishon.

Perhaps the most significant and interesting aspect of the success in Germany of Ephraim Kishon and Isaac Bashevis Singer is the insight this success provides into the importing and marketing of “Jewish” literature (written in the two “Jewish” languages) in Germany from the late 1960s to the present. Rather than a harmless cultural exchange of the sort celebrated in media events such as the “Woche der Brüderlichkeit” (week of brotherhood), the success and endorsement of Hebrew and Yiddish writing in postwar Germany, and of Kishon and Singer in particular, ultimately points to the complex and difficult relationship the German reading public and German literary critics still have to the many aspects of Jewish life and culture. Despite a few critical voices to the contrary, the German press has played an instrumental role in maintaining the view that Kishon bridges the gap between Germans and Jews with his “befreiendes Lachen” (cathartic laughter), and that Singer paints the “unbroken” and somehow timeless or universal life of the shtetel. That an Israeli author would find his largest audience in Germany, and the works of a Yiddish writer would be so well received there, is ironic and yet, at the same time, entirely fitting.

Works Cited

Ephraim Kishon, Drehn Sie sich um, Frau Lot! (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1961).

———, Essen ist mein Lieblingsspeise: Gesammelte Satiren. Satiren um die zweitschönste Sache der Welt (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1992).

———, Das Große Kishon-Buch (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1993).

———, Nichts zu lachen (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1993).

———, Über die Schweiz (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1992).

———, Undank ist der Welten Lohn (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1990).

———, Wie unfair, David! (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1967).

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Eine Kindheit in Warschau (Munich: dtv, 1976).

———, Feinde, die Geschichte einer Liebe (Munich: Hanser, 1974).

———, Gimpel der Narr: Ausgewählte Erzählungen (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1968).

———, Ich bin ein Leser: Gespräche mit Richard Burgin (Munich: dtv, 1988).

———, Jakob der Knecht (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1965).

———, Mein Vater der Rabbi (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1971).

———, “New Yiddish Frontiers,” Yiddish 6 (1985a): 141-48.

———, “Nobel Lecture,” Yiddish 6 (1985b): 169-72.

———, Satan in Goraj (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1969).

———, Verloren in Amerika (Munich: Hanser, 1983).

———, Der Zauberer von Lublin (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1967).

Alice R. Kaminsky (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1765

SOURCE: Kaminsky, Alice R. “Gimpel.” In Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Vicki K. Janik, pp. 215-19. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kaminsky provides an analysis of the central thematic concerns and the critical reception of “Gimpel the Fool.”]


Isaac Bashevis Singer (July 14, 1904-July 24, 1991) was born in Leoncin, Poland, the son of a rabbi, Pinchos-Mendel Singer, and a rabbi's daughter, Bathsheba Zylberman. He lived in Warsaw and was a proofreader for a Yiddish literary magazine, which helped inspire him in 1917 to write in Yiddish himself. In 1935 he moved to New York City and became a free-lance writer for the Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward. His first wife gave him his only son, Isaac. He lived the rest of his life with his second wife Alma. In 1933 he began to write the novels and stories that earned him a Nobel Prize in literature in 1978.

“Gimpel Tam,” “Gimpel the Fool,” Singer's most famous and most anthologized story, was written in Yiddish in 1945 and translated into English by Saul Bellow in the Partisan Review in 1953. It belongs to the tradition of the schlemiel school of comedy of Yiddish writers, such as Sholom Aleichem's Menahem Mendl or I. L. Peretz's Bontsha. A schlemiel is a foolish and powerless but sometimes also wise and saintly individual. Ruth Wisse claims that the most important fact about “Gimpel” is its date of composition. It is “a rare example of the schlemiel figure in post-war Yiddish fiction” (60).


The story is told from Gimpel's point of view. Since we are often able to know what Gimpel really thinks, we understand at the outset that Gimpel is no simple fool. On the one hand, he is the exemplar of the gulled character whose credulity makes him the source of humor in the tale. On the other hand, he is the insightful narrator who comments on the events and characters in his shtetl, the East European town of Frampol. So we have the oxymoronic protagonist, the wise fool who in his wisdom chooses to be a fool, reminding us, in this single way, of the fool in King Lear.

Gimpel tells us in the first line of the story, “I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary.” He remembers the names he was called in school: “fool, imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny and fool.” He is considered a fool because he believes everything he is told. His credulity becomes the source of entertainment for the townspeople. They enjoy lying to him because he is so gullible. Gimpel explains, however, that he believes everyone because everything is possible and because the townspeople will be angry if he does not believe them. In other words, to preserve the peace, he believes them, and he adds, characteristically, “I hope at least that did them some good” (300). Clearly Gimpel is a pragmatist; he pretends to believe in order to keep the peace. In this sense he is not a mere simpleton. When Rietze tells him that his father and mother have arisen from the grave, Gimpel, who does not believe that this is possible, “takes a vow to believe nothing more” and plans to leave Frampol (301). Obviously Gimpel is at times a schlemiel who knows he is being manipulated.

Then Singer incorporates into the story the classic farce of the shrewish wife and the cuckolded husband. The people of Frampol hound Gimpel into marrying Elke, hiding from him the fact that she is a smelly, loud-mouthed whore whose little brother is really her bastard. She gives birth to a son who is not his, but she swears that the child is premature. “To tell the plain truth,” Gimpel admits, “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” (304). Gimpel cannot refute the logic of the statement that all women are the granddaughters of Eve. “But then, who really knows how such things are?” (304). Gimpel's skepticism is transformed by the emotion of love. Even though he is often the battered husband because his wife curses him and gives him bloody wounds, he tolerates her behavior because he loves her and his child. But when he discovers Elke in bed with another man, Gimpel chooses not to believe anymore. He is not going to be a sucker all his life. “There's a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel” (306).

But even this self-awareness does not prevent Gimpel from longing to return to his family after the rabbi orders him to divorce Elke for her adultery. Love makes him rationalize his wife's betrayal: he was hallucinating and did not actually see what he thought he saw.

With the introduction of the authority of Maimonides, Singer moves the tale onto another level dealing with the role of authority in relation to faith and skepticism. The rabbis agree that Gimpel can return to his wife because an obscure reference in Maimonides favors his case. “Maimonides says it's right, and therefore it is right!” Gimpel resolves to always believe what he is told. “What's the good of not believing? Today it's your wife you don't believe; tomorrow it's God you won't take stock in” (307-308). The rabbi has told him, “Belief in itself is beneficial. It is written that a saint lives by his faith” (310). Thus the tale moves from a consideration of belief in a secular sense to its ultimate meaning, religious faith.

Elke and Gimpel have six children during the twenty years of their marriage. Before Elke dies, she confesses that Gimpel is not the father of any of her children. The spirit of evil, or the Devil, convinces Gimpel that he should seek revenge for this deception, and for a while Gimpel believes the Devil, who assures him that there is no God and no afterlife. As a baker, Gimpel seeks revenge by urinating on the dough he makes to bake bread. But when Elke in a dream warns him not to be false as she was, Gimpel buries the contaminated dough, thereby avoiding the loss of eternal life. He makes a choice, believing in God rather than the Devil.

After Gimpel leaves Frampol, he becomes the Wandering Jew, experiencing the good in people and telling stories about the improbable, devils, magicians, and windmills. As he grows older, he resolves the issue of faith and skepticism. Whether this makes him a fool or a wise man is left ambiguous in an open ending. Gimpel contends that there really are no lies. Everything that can possibly happen will happen either in reality or in dreams. “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world but it is only once removed from the true world. … When the time comes, I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived” (313). Thus Singer seems to say that truth exists only in the true world of God where no man is a fool.


Inevitably, critics have interpreted the story in different ways. Although Singer himself characterizes Gimpel as a comedic character whom we pity (Conversations 39-40), many readers view Gimpel as a very serious spokesman on the meaning of life (Malin, Isaac Bashevis Singer 72). For Paul Kresh, Gimpel “is the quintessential Jew taunted and dispossessed but preferring to wait for his reward in the next world rather than seek revenge on his tormentors in this one” (204).

Ruth Wisse suggests that Gimpel's innocence and gullibility parallel the refusal or inability of the Jews “to face reality” when they were being herded into and annihilated in concentration camps. The Jews' faith in God made them disbelieve in the possibility of their extermination. Thus Wisse accepts the view that the Holocaust victims believed and thus were like Gimpel, who believed despite the evidence to the contrary (66-67).

But Edward Alexander denies that religious faith betrayed the Jews. It was not their faith in God but rather their faith in mankind and the world that destroyed the Jewish people. “If, Gimpel might say, you disbelieve the nations who threaten to remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth, you will disbelieve everything” (52-53). Thus in Gimpel, Singer is attacking worldliness that disbelieves everything, for Gimpel believes everything.

These contradictory and convoluted interpretations are based on the either/or view that Gimpel either believes everything or disbelieves everything. But as we have seen, Gimpel sometimes believes and sometimes does not believe.

Grace Farrell Lee argues that Singer was influenced by the Zohar Lurianic Kabbalah. The Kabbalistic view is that the empirical world is insubstantial. “The mere mention of ‘God’ in a Singer story, then, serves not to affirm a traditional religious transcendence, as it is so often presumed to do, but rather to suggest cosmic exile, inscrutability, concealment and silence. It evokes a universe which remains a riddle, a teasing puzzle which we long to comprehend but never can” (15). “Gimpel the Fool” is a “sophisticated dialectic in which, while Gimpel moves steadfastly in the path of faith, the reader is pushed along a counterpath of skepticism and disbelief until the paths cross and both character and reader must face the central question of faith” (17). This question of faith in the existence of God is a baffling problem not resolved by the ending.

Is Gimpel a fool because he acknowledges the existence of God? Or is Gimpel ultimately the wisest of men because he accepts “a greater and eternal reality that transcends human mortality” (Malin, Critical Views 118)? What is indisputable is that “Gimpel the Fool” is a prime example of how schlemiel humor can be converted into religious epiphany.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel tam.” Yidisher Kemfer 24, whole no. 593 (March 30, 1945): 17-20. Signed Yitskhok Bashevis.

———. “Gimpel the Fool.” Trans. Saul Bellow. Partisan Review 20 (May l953): 300-313.

Secondary Sources

Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Kresh, Paul. Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street. New York: Dial, 1979.

Lee, Grace Farrell. From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Malin, Irving. Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972.

———, ed. Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: New York UP, 1969.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis, and Richard Burgin. Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

Wisse, Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.

Tamar Yacobi (essay date May 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3339

SOURCE: Yacobi, Tamar. “Package Deals in Fictional Narrative: The Case of the Narrator's (Un)Reliability.” Narrative 9, no. 2 (May 2001): 223-29.

[In the following essay, Yacobi compares the reliability of the narrator in “Gimpel the Fool” and William Thackeray's Vanity Fair.]

The authors of Vanity Fair, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, or “The Overcoat”—to cite a few notable examples—partly divest their narrators of reliability, though leaving them as variously omniscient as George Eliot's. … Whatever logic or theology may lead us to expect, there are no package-deals in narration.

—Meir Sternberg, “Varieties of Omniscient Narration,” in Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction

As my epigraph points out, there are no package deals in narrative, least of all between surface forms or features and their effects. Instead, given the endless variability of context, the same form or formal pattern can always serve as means to different effects, and vice versa.1 One must not, therefore, confuse even typical or plausible configurations in literature with categorical rules. Yet their plausible look and their occurrence in certain well-known examplars often drive scholars toward reducing the vast set of choices open to the literary practitioner to a short list of familiar options.

Within narratology, a major case in point is the narrator's positioning between the reliable and the unreliable extreme. In current accounts of the issue, quite a few old dogmas still persist, however questionable in theory and false in practice. High among them stands the dogma that embodied voices from within the tale's fictional world (so-called homodiegetic narrators) are alone fallible. By a kindred wide consensus, the presence or absence of such fallibility supposedly depends on a full-length portrait of the teller—as if there were a necessary linkage between the teller's overall make-up (existential, psychological, etc.) and the (un)reliability of the telling. There ensue two ready-made narrative identikits, so to speak, one modeled on the supernatural figure throughout, the other human-like. However, each of them forms at most a likely correlation, but neither an imperative nor an exclusive linkage, as my previous work has demonstrated and as I would reemphasize here.2

Clean against the fixed identikit model of the narrator, I would argue that the judgment of a narration as unreliable—or otherwise—is always an interpretive, hypothetical move. As such, further, it always has competitors that suggest a reading of the data along lines that need not involve, much less target and determine, point of view. (Un)reliability is one of five types of hypothesis or integration-mechanism, whereby we readers account for textual incongruities. Confronted with these incongruities, we may always appeal instead to at least four alternative logics of resolution: the genetic, the generic, the existential, and/or the functional, as I call them. What distinguishes the perspectival mechanism, or the unreliability hypothesis, is that it brings discordant elements into pattern by attributing them to the peculiarities of the speaker or observer through whom the world is mediated. This mediator's deficiencies, we then go on to explain—e.g., incompetence, untruthfulness, unawareness, misjudgment—are manipulated for a variety of ends: rhetorical (notably irony of some kind), psychological, thematic, etc. And by a reverse hypothesis of congruity, we deduce reliable narration.3

From the reader's viewpoint, however, the alternative integrating lines are always available. This versatility explains and legitimizes interpretive disagreements within a common theoretical frame, even a common single mechanism, disabling anything like a fixed correspondence between trigger and mechanism. For the same textual signs of tension, the same deviances from whatever norm we bring to the reading (ideological, actional, psychological, grammatical, etc.), may in principle be resolved via any logic(s) of integration. Thus, a narrator's delay of relevant information may be referred to personal constraints and desires that expose unreliability and/or to authorized devices: generic conventions, as in the detective story, functional values like surprise, etc.4

Nor does the perspectival or unreliability hypothesis itself automatically relate to other traits of the narrator or to any a priori poetic goal—psychological, thematic, ideological, what you will. We may of course begin reading in the light of such stereotypes, figural or functional, but must be prepared to qualify, even invert, them at any moment in response to the text's specific disclosures. Yet narratologists continue to divide tellers between polar portraits: the heterodiegetic, omniscient-and/hence-reliable vs. the homodiegetic, who is limited in knowledge and/hence inherently unreliable, along with the rest of us humans.

Examples of this “narrator-portrait” fallacy abound. Here is how Wayne Booth approvingly summarizes the assumption: “Though it is most evident when a narrator tells the story of his own adventures, we react to all narrators as persons” (273 my emphasis). Accordingly, while we know better than to confuse the narrator with the author (or the lyric persona with the poet) we tend or ought, as it were, to envisage and evaluate fictional narrators in reference to an all-embracing character type. By such assimilation of narrative features to overall portraiture and of art to life, William Riggan attributes “inherent fallibility” (21) to flesh and blood narrators. “Precisely because the narrator sits before us as a human being—albeit a fictionalized one—we naturally react to him in varying degrees in human terms and not just as a disembodied voice providing us with information” (20). Polar linkages ensue as “axiomatic principle[s]” (19). On the one hand, human restriction and consequent unreliability are the lot of Riggan's Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns. On the other hand, there is the reliability of omniscient “disembodied voices,” such as Tolstoy's narrator in War and Peace (19). Either way, the fusion of the two issues—reliability and knowledge—neither begins nor ends with Riggan. Thus Booth encapsulates the linkage in his reference to the frustrating narrative commentator “who claims omniscience and reveals stupidity and prejudice,” and to “the tradition of the intruding narrator, omniscient or unreliable” (221).

The binarism—at least on this front—continues with James Phelan and Mary Patricia Martin some decades later. They limit the issue to “unreliable homodiegetic narration” (“Lessons” 88 my emphasis), as if the teller who exists and speaks outside the fictive world were immune from reliability judgments. Even where literary examples (e.g., Fitzgerald's Nick) suggest that what the theory considers “paradoxical” does happen, and “an author may also create an effective homodiegetic narrator who fluctuates between being unreliable and being (apparently) omniscient,” (Phelan, “Reexamining” 105), the binary montage of (un)reliability and knowledge persists. Although the device shows itself “rhetorically effective” (105) as well as feasible, the theorist's response is not to abandon the problematic assumptions but to add ad hoc twists as above. Yet why should “being unreliable” contrast with “being (apparently) omniscient” in the first place?

By fiction's own logic, indeed, no such fixed contrast holds. It does apply in some contexts, to be sure, yet it needn't and elsewhere doesn't. The most evidently limited teller may speak for the implied author, or for ourselves, while the unlimited may prove untrustworthy. Ultimately, it all depends on whether or not the (un)reliability hypothesis offers us a way of resolving tensions in the text by attributing them to the narrator's shortcomings. And even when attributed, those shortcomings—like the tensions they resolve—need not bear on the information available to the object of our judgment. Other issues, from the social to the aesthetic, may rank higher in the narrative.

To substantiate my claim, let me briefly compare two examples. They complement each other in refuting the predetermined narrator's identikit, especially the automatic linkage between knowledge and reliability.

The tale “Gimpel the Fool,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, begins thus: “I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in” (9). Throughout, Gimpel manifests his extreme simplicity, on which the entire town plays and trades. Just before her death, the wife that he had been lured into taking confesses that he didn't father any of their six children. To the reader, who has learnt that Gimpel's first child was born four months after the marriage ceremony, this hardly comes as a surprise. On Gimpel, the discovery has such a shattering effect that he is tempted to take a cruel revenge on the townspeople, and is only saved at the last moment by his better judgment. Or rather, his better feelings, since Gimpel is unable to weigh the pros and cons in abstract ethical terms. Hence, the temptation is embodied in the Spirit of Evil who appears in a dream. Then his dead wife appears in another dream, and her sufferings in hell for her sins prompt him to abandon his revenge. As this turning point suggests, whatever his informational and intellectual deficiencies, they are more than counterbalanced by his moral sense: the tensions are ultimately resolved in favor of the simple teller.

This rank order, and with it the resolution of conflicting values, mean that Gimpel breaks the typical mold as narrator and character at once. The tale implies a hierarchy of norms, rather than any standard divide that would mark him as negative by one yardstick of telling or conduct and as positive by another. The informational factor does not equal and oppose the ethical, but ultimately ranks below it: artistic originality apart, this makes quite a difference to the hero's evaluation in either role.

The implied hierarchy is nicely summed up by the town's rabbi. In answer to Gimpel's complaint against his tormentors, he says: “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” (10). Ironically, the religious leader fails to transmit this upside-down ideology to his own daughter, who makes fun of Gimpel the minute he leaves the rabbinical court. Gimpel, on the other hand, foregoes revenge, gets rid of all his earthly possessions, and becomes a wandering teller of tales who awaits death with equanimity. His last words express his simple faith: “When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there [in heaven], it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived” (23).

These words evoke nothing if not respect. So Gimpel refutes the narratological stereotype. For all his limitations, you cannot reduce him to the main butt of irony without reducing yourself to the town's level of cheap, wicked smartness. Where we laugh at him—and who can help it?—we feel guilty ourselves by association. Since the narrative as a whole implies the priority of moral fiber over wit and access to data, Gimpel's narration is better integrated within a hypothesis of ultimate reliability—despite appearances—than in terms of apparent folly.

My second example, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, breaks the inverse linkage. The narrator certainly manifests, even declares his omniscience. Yet is he consequently, or invariably, reliable? For brevity, let me focus on his commentary toward the end of Chapter Eight (“Private and Confidential”).

Earlier, the chapter quotes a letter of Becky Sharp, conveying to Amelia Sedley her first impressions of the baronial household that she has newly joined. In response to her sarcastic portraits of the family, the narrator dissociates himself from Becky Sharp as a judge of human nature, and proceeds to generalize by way of analogy on the relations between addressor and audience. His analogues include a priest, a clown, an Italian street-corner storyteller, French actors, English impresarios, and thriller-writers. Their common denominator is the passing of judgment on characters and their deeds. But the passage is notable for the abundance and complexity of its internal incongruities. These include (1) the disparity between Becky's “crimes” so far and the violent criticism leveled against her by the narrator; (2) the discrepancy between the stated purpose of the analogies and their actual effect; (3) tensions between adjacent narratorial statements within this passage as well as with other parts of the novel.

First, Becky's transgressions have so far been confined to husband-hunting and sharply observing the vanities of her fellow humans. Her letter to Amelia thus satirizes all the members of the Crawley household she has just entered. And the narrator himself will soon admit that her “accounts” were apt descriptions, “not caricatures” (121). At this early stage, moreover, Becky has neither snubbed the Sedleys, her former benefactors, nor exploited her husband, nor ignored her son. The religious negatives (“Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless”) used to judge her performance, therefore, sound in context like gross exaggerations (117).

Second, the narrator juxtaposes two illustrative anecdotes to puzzling effect. In the first, an Italian street-teller “work[s] himself up into such a rage … with some of the villains” of his tale, that the audience join him in “a roar of oaths and execrations against the fictitious monster” and fill his hat with coins (116). So the Italian fictionmaker profits by excessive condemnations. In the second tale, the French actors join their spectators not only in cursing the villains of the piece, but in the purity of their motives. For their salary is cut because they refuse to play the wicked parts (“such as those of infames Anglais, brutal Cossacks” [116]). Thackeray's narrator explains the point of the doublet: “I set the two stories one against the other, so that you may see that it is not from mere mercenary motives that the present performer is desirous to show up and trounce his villains; but because he has a sincere hatred of them, which he cannot keep down, and which must find a vent in suitable abuse and bad language” (116-17). A dubious explanation, this, because the narrator's self-alliance with the high-minded French actors against the commercial storyteller clashes (inter alia) with the professional analogy that emerges here. It is rather the latter performer—called “a brother of the story-telling trade,” “preaching to a pack of good-for-nothing honest lazy fellows”—who would appear the more analogous to the showman of Vanity Fair vis-à-vis his own audience. But, if the folk-teller belabors the villain for a few more coins, one cannot help wondering about the motives of our narrator in exaggerating Becky's crimes, particularly when he later admits the accuracy of her portraits. So, regardless of omniscience, does the self-defeating analogy imply an ironic narratorial mask or an ironized narratorial slip?

Finally, in the very last paragraph, an outright inconsistency appears to mar the narrator's rejection of Becky's satirical vein: “Otherwise you might fancy it was I who was sneering … it was I who laughed … whereas the laughter comes from one who has no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success. Such people there are living and flourishing in the world—Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless; let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main. Some there are, and very successful too, mere quacks and fools: and it was to combat and expose such as those, no doubt, that Laughter was made” (117). How are we to reconcile the preacher's attack on “sneering” and “laughter” with his praise of “Laughter”? Do the opposed postures suggest that the laughters vary in kind, or that the narrator speaks tongue in cheek, or that the author dissociates himself, though in different degrees, from both Becky and her showman?

To integrate the passage, then, the reader must choose or shuttle among three alternative perspectival constructs at least: (1) The narrator is somehow reliable in context and the characters alone are morally deviant. (2) The narrator assumes an ironic mask, pretending to share the failings of his characters. (3) The narrator, like the heroine, betrays the unreliability of the Fair. And knowing Thackeray's artistic temperament, we can add the genetic mechanism: (4) The sloppy or ambivalent author, instead of tightly organizing his materials, has left incongruous elements in his text.5 But whatever you decide, the teller's superhuman knowledge remains unchanged, just like Gimpel's vulnerable and endearing ignorance. There are neither shortcuts nor package deals in explicating, or theorizing, literary texts.


  1. Diametrically opposed to package dealing, this “Proteus Principle” has been theorized by Sternberg as the first law of communication, narrative or otherwise, and applied on a wide front: to reported discourse (e.g., “Proteus”), sequence (e.g., Expositional; “Telling”), group portraiture (Hebrews), as well as point of view (e.g., Expositional, esp. 254-305; “Mimesis,” esp. 172-86).

  2. A more rigorous analysis of the trait-packaging approach would be: “The fixed anthropomorphic categorization of the possessor of the trait [of (un)reliability] determines or influences its conception as a component of a portrait that is marked by statistical, logical and psychological probability. Accordingly, the semantic feature of plus-reliability automatically goes together with omniscience, veracity, existence outside the fictive world and (sometimes) explicit commentary. And minus-reliability as ‘properly’ belongs with limited range of knowledge, intentional mendacity and unintentional distortion, and existence within the fictive world” (Yacobi, “Fictional” 119-20). For elaboration of related points, see my articles in Works Cited and further references there.

  3. The means-end relation implied by unreliability is yet another domain of automatic linkage, as though it were predetermined. Thus Wall lays down that “the purpose … of unreliable narration is to foreground certain elements of the narrator's psychology” (21); and Nünning follows suit (59). As both my examples below will illustrate, there is no such functional monopoly.

  4. By the same token, however, to view a narratorial device as authorized, generically and/or functionally, is not yet to judge the narrator reliable beyond it. In Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, withholding the truth is thus doubtless “a point on which the ‘norms and values’ of author and narrator are in sync: it is clever and deceptive to give the narration to the murderer. They collude, as it were, to create the most effective means of rendering the story” (Wall 21). From this point of collusion, however, one must not jump, as Wall does, to the absence of ironic distance between them on other points, far less to the dismissal of authorial “norms and values” as the measure of the narrator's (un)reliability.

  5. See the numerous genetic facts and lapses documented in Sutherland.

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961.

Nünning, Ansgar. “Unreliable, Compared to What: Towards a Cognitive Theory of Unreliable Narration: Prolegomena and Hypotheses.” In Grenzüberschreitungen: Narratologie im Kontext/Transcending Boundaries: Narratology in Context, edited by Walter Grünzweig and Andreas Solbach, 53-73. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1999.

Phelan, James. “Reexamining Reliability: The Multiple Functions of Nick Carraway.” In Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology, 105-18. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1996.

Phelan, James and Mary Patricia Martin. “The Lessons of ‘Weymouth’: Homodiegesis, Unreliability, Ethics, and The Remains of the Day.” In Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis, edited by David Herman, 88-109. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1999.

Riggan, William. Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel the Fool.” In Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, translated by Saul Bellow, 6-23. New York: Avon, 1966.

Sternberg, Meir. Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978.

———. Hebrews between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1998.

———. “Mimesis and Motivation: The Two Faces of Fictional Coherence.” In Literary Criticism and Philosophy, edited by Joseph P. Strelka, 145-88. University Park: Penn State Univ. Press, 1983.

———. “Proteus in Quotation-Land: Mimesis and the Forms of Reported Discourse.” Poetics Today 3 (1982): 107-56.

———. “Telling in Time (II): Chronology, Teleology, Narrativity.” Poetics Today 13 (1992): 463-541.

Sutherland, J. A. Thackeray At Work. London: Athlone Press, 1974.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. 1847-48. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Wall, Kathleen. “The Remains of the Day and Its Challenge to Theories of Unreliable Narration.” Journal of Narrative Technique 24 (1994): 18-42.

Yacobi, Tamar. “Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem.” Poetics Today 2 (1981): 113-26.

———. “Interart Narrative: (Un)Reliability and Ekphrasis.” Poetics Today 21 (2000): 708-47.

———. “Narrative and Normative Pattern: On Interpreting Fiction.” Journal of Literary Studies 3 (1987): 18-41.

———. “Narrative Structure and Fictional Mediation.” Poetics Today 8 (1987): 335-72.

William A. Reinsmith (essay date fall 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2170

SOURCE: Reinsmith, William A. “Literature and Life: Helping Students See.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 3, no. 1 (fall 2002): 10-15.

[In the following essay, Reinsmith relates the experience of teaching “Gimpel the Fool.”]

In twenty-seven years at my small university I have never had the pleasure of teaching English majors. The focused students who appear in my classroom will be going into various health care professions. If they persevere in a difficult curriculum they will become pharmacists, physical or occupational therapists, physicians' assistants, biologists, toxicologists, science teachers. Yet they all must take a required number of humanities courses, one of which is Introduction to Literature in the second semester of their freshman year. I have fashioned this course so that it deals largely with short fiction.

Not having English majors, I found early on that it useless to expound on literary theory of any kind. These attempts leave my students either mystified or bored. What does work with my students is the rather old fashioned process of applying what we read to their lives, to the world that exists around them. I have discovered that the short story is ideally suited to this endeavor for a number of reasons: First, most obviously, because it is short. Since their time is limited my students are not immediately put off by the length of a read. Thus, they approach their assignment in a more positive frame of mind. Second, as Isaac Bashevis Singer has so clearly put it, the short story is by necessity efficient: “Unlike the novel, which can absorb and even forgive lengthy digressions, flashbacks and loose constructions, the short story must aim directly at its climax. It must possess uninterrupted tension and suspense. Brevity is its essence.”1 Again, this is appropriate for my students—they are likely to be more attentive to their reading. Third, in light of the above characteristics, the short story more readily bears a second reading—which in most cases is a necessity for deeper understanding.

Over the years, I have had success initiating discussions wherein I not only help students see the structure and deeper meaning of a given story, but also guide them to apply these insights to different aspects of living in society. And since the best stories always “show” rather than “tell” they allow for discussions which have the further advantage of being non-judgmental. As Joseph Conrad announced in his famous essay on the writer's art: “My task which I am trying to achieve is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is before all to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”2 This should also be the task of the teacher in regard to the student and the text. Seeing leads to understanding and then insight, which goes beyond mere opinion or judgment in regard to a story. Thus, light is shed on life through the prism of literature. What students read reveals both the world around them as well as their relation to it.

Often my students need to be led to see through a second reading. But once they connect they do come alive in class. What seemed at first a simple, or even an incomprehensible tale, draws its lesson—one very close to home. So the events that conspire to violence in Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” are not so strange and distant after all—especially in the light of Stanley Milgram's experiments. The lack of closure in Margaret Atwood's “Death By Landscape” is precisely how life often is—the mystery of Lucy's disappearance is never resolved. Once the sequence of events is teased out in “A Rose for Emily” we more readily understand both her need and her perversity—and can share the mixed emotions of the townspeople. At the end of “Rocking Horse Winner” we wince in recognition when we see to what extremes the need of a child to buy love can go. We identify with the conflict of a young soldier torn between friendship and duty in Frank O'Connor's “Guests of the Nation”—especially in an age of terrorism and hostage taking.

I have noticed that some of the strangest stories work the best in teaching short fiction to my students, possibly because their initial bizarreness allows for a multitude of interpretations during discussions. background information or the creation of context will be necessary: A brief account of the place of the hunger artist in the society of Kafka's time; the Latin American writer's penchant for fantasy and myth as in Marquez's “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”; the sophisticated use of flashback technique in “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (though students are familiar with it from films like The Devil's Advocate and Sliding Doors). Explaining the place of women in Victorian times is crucial to a successful discussion of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as is understanding the clash of cultural values (Chinese/Chinese American) between generations for Amy Tan's “Rules of the Game.”


Perhaps the most successful short story we cover in class is I. B. Singer's masterpiece, “Gimpel, the Fool.” Yiddish folk tales are an unfamiliar genre for my freshmen. Even the few Jewish students in the class have no direct acquaintance, being two generations removed. However, this is not necessarily a disadvantage. The story's strangeness and novelty along with the simplicity of the narrator's manner allow for a relatively easy first read. The word “fool” itself can generate a lively discussion: What do we mean by a fool? How would they define a fool in their world? Is Gimpel really a fool? Why are the townspeople so cruel? Why does he allow himself to be had? Is his extreme gullibility an asset or disadvantage?

When the main discussion ensues a number of customs need to be explained: the obligation on the part of the shtetl community to provide for an orphan; the central place of the Rabbi in Yiddish culture; the rules for obtaining a divorce; the status of the Nogid or rich man. I provide this background on the run, so to speak, in order for it not to impede discussion. What makes “Gimpel” work is that it resembles a folk tale closely enough to appeal to the imagination, yet contains sufficient real world relevance for students to connect. After all, as we have too readily seen, bullies still abound in our society. Gentle people are often put upon or used. Revenge is quite tempting and often taken. A contemporary reader can readily understand how Gimpel would give in.

The extreme gullibility of the main character creates a strangeness to the story, in the same way as does the fasting of the hunger artist or Paul's mad night rides on his rocking horse. This explains to some degree its fascination for my students. But beyond this, the story works so well because it deals with ultimate issues in life. Gimpel, the naïve baker almost succumbs to the temptation to revenge the evil done him by the townspeople by contaminating their bread. He ultimately resists thanks to a dream in which his recently deceased wife (who cuckolded him six times) appears, now paying the price for her evil deeds. And the rabbi's admonition of long ago comes back to him: “… better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil” (p. 745).

Thus, a transformation takes place in regard to our perception of Gimpel. His foolishness, his penchant to believe anything told him (so ridiculous to a modern ear) turns out to be a wisdom in the end. The purity of Gimpel's soul remains untarnished. Instead of constantly playing the fool for the citizens of Frampol, he leaves his shetl and becomes a world-wanderer, the wise old fool, spinning yarns for anyone who will hear him—“improbable things that never could have happened—about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like” (p. 755).

“Gimpel, the Fool” may, in the end, be a metaphor for the story teller, for Singer himself and the ultimate truth of the tale—the purity of truth, no matter in what guise. I can't always take my students this far, but most of them finally see what Gimpel means when he says that there are really no lies, no falsehoods in life because sooner or later everything comes to pass:

Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed of at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make? Often I heard tales of which I said, “Now this is a thing that cannot happen.” But before a year had elapsed I heard that it actually had come to pass somewhere.

(pp. 754-55)

What a wonderful moment this is! Here a multi-layered world is broached—a world far more interesting than the one dimensional world of information and linear fact that my students move in much of the time. As a curative for strictly right brain thinking I can offer no greater antidote than reading and discussing a story like “Gimpel, the Fool.” The idea that there are really no lies expands students' horizons immensely—as exposure to all great literature can. But reading “Gimpel” does it in one shot, opening for the reader a perspective that is dizzying in its effect.

At this point, I find it useful to contrast the open-hearted faith of Gimpel with the closing of horizons which takes place in Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, a companion piece which can be treated as a kind of parable. Brown, we note, goes to his grave a bitter, gloomy man convinced of human depravity, totally devoid of hope. Gimpel, in contrast, waits for death on his beggar's bed of straw. But he says he will go joyfully. For whatever may lie on the other side, “it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived” (p. 755).

The question of whether Gimpel's faith will be rewarded can be an open one. Taking my students a step further I ask: “What is the author's attitude in regard to his protagonist.” (Needless to say, it is important that we teach our students to recognize that there may be a distance between a tale's first person narrator and the author's state of mind.) Does Gimpel's gullibility persist even in death? Is his faith merely a “longing for transcendence” for which there is no real surety. Critics have examined Singer's use of the medieval Kabbalah to explore the modern vision of an absent God to maintain “a precarious balance between the biblical and the secular, between belief and disbelief.”3 Singer himself, in an interview, agreed that he wrote with the artifice of “as if” because he firmly believed that we all behave “as if.” But far from being an illusion, he felt such behavior was actually natural and healthy.4 This is subtle and thought provoking. Such an allowance for all possibilities frees my students' minds from assuming there can only be one outcome, one right answer. In discussion they are urged to examine options, to keep their minds open to alternate meanings. We hear much today in higher education about the need to train our students to think critically, logically, clearly. Much less is said about their inability to think creatively, to move off from the world of information and fact into the multitudinous realm of the imagination—a realm which as children they easily inhabited, but seem to have lost in their obsession with pragmatics and careers. Stories like “Gimpel, the Fool” which traverse different worlds (as Singer's tales do) filled with the strange, the grotesque, the quasi-mystical—with devils, whores, fanatics, villains and saints—stimulate the imagination and offer a counter-weight to the often dry, stultifying vision of learning which constitutes education for so many today. They make the world again a wondrous place.

This may be the greatest of the many boons reading imaginative literature holds for university students. Through a given work we can challenge them to see, to use faculties that are in danger of atrophy. If we succeed they may find, in the words of Conrad, according to their deserts, “encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all that you demand—and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”5 For students at schools like mine, short fiction serves as the perfect vehicle for such a discovery—a discovery that is life itself.


  1. Singer, I. B., (1981). “Author's Note” in Collected Short Stories. (New York: Farron, Straus, Giroux, 1982), p. vii.

  2. Conrad, J., (1897). “Preface” to The Nigger of the Narcissus (New York: Random House), p. ix.

  3. Lee, G. F. (1987). From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), p. 12.

  4. Blocker, J. & Elman, R. “An Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer” in Malin, I., ed. (1969). Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: New York University Press, p. 7.

  5. Conrad, “Preface,” pp. ix & x.

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