“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.
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.
“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.