Style and Technique

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By having the protagonist narrate his own story, Singer achieves a mixture of humor, realism, and fantasy; what Gimpel narrates is unquestionably happening, but the interpretation of the events is that of a simple, naïve commentator (although Gimpel is not really very naïve when he tells the story, because it may be assumed he is speaking after the events, with his newfound wisdom and understanding). From Gimpel’s own words, the reader comes to understand the kind of person that Gimpel is, as well as the events in his life, in a way that the narrator himself does not completely comprehend. The reader is able to infer that Gimpel is not as intelligent as others; as Gimpel says, “they argued me dumb.” His realization of what others are doing to him is apparent as he comments, “I realized I was going to be rooked”’ and “To tell the plain truth, I didn’t believe her.” His eventual compromise—“But then, who really knows how such things are?”—is a mixture of his attempt to avoid strenuous intellectual debating and his simple faith.

The strong faith, the essential goodness, of the narrator is childlike in its simplicity: He is like a child who does not know how to interpret the incomprehensible things that are told to him by adults. Singer maintains this tone of childlike simplicity by his choice of words and by the unaffected language with which Gimpel expresses his perception of reality.

Historical Context

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The American Decade
''Gimpel the Fool" was first published in English translation in 1953. The 1950s are sometimes called the "American decade" because European political and military power declined in many areas of the world while the influence of the United States increased During this time, American economic growth produced an abundance of consumer goods, the population increased by record numbers, and more people became members of the middle class. For example, the population in the United States doubled between 1900 and 1950, with a record 4.3 million births in 1957. During the 1950s the population also shifted from urban areas to suburbs; the urban population only increased 1.5 percent while the suburban population increased 44 percent.

The United States was also at the forefront of technological development. In 1954, Chinese-American An Wang developed and sold the small business calculator; 1955 saw the distribution of the first IBM business computer. Control Data Corporation produced the first commercially successful "super" computer in 1957, and the microchip was developed in 1959.

The spread of communism was a major concern to the United States during these years. The Soviet occupation forces in Germany set up a blockade between Berlin and West Germany and Czechoslovakia was taken over by communists. In 1950, the United States began a three-year involvement in the Korean War, which was fought between the democratic Republic of South Korea and communist-led North Korea. That same year, Senator Joseph McCarthy started a communist "witch hunt" with his House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Many figures in the entertainment industry were accused of having ties to the Communist Party, and the Hollywood Blacklist, which included some 300 writers, directors, and actors, was compiled. Such popular figures as Charlie Chaplin, Lee Grant, and Arthur Miller were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers. Many were driven to social and economic ruin by the accusations.

During the 1950s, the United States began to experiment with atomic energy. The first thermonuclear test took place on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok in 1951. That same year, atomic bombs were exploded, in the presence of army troops, in the Nevada desert, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission opened the first nuclear reactor. The United States conducted another atomic bomb test on the island of Bikini in the Pacific Ocean in 1954 and also launched the Nautilus, the first nuclear- powered submarine. In 1955, the Atomic Energy Commission denied that radiation had harmful effects on human health, stating "the scare stories about how dangerous this country's atomic tests are simply not justified.'' Nevertheless, Americans were also encouraged to build air-raid shelters to protect them from enemy attack in the event of a nuclear war.

Literary Style

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"Gimpel the Fool" centers on Gimpel, a baker in the village of Frampol. Although he has been heckled and deceived by his fellow villagers since he was a child, he retains his faith in the goodness of others and in life itself.

Setting
"Gimpel the Fool" is set in an indeterminate time in the fictional Jewish shtetl, or village, of Frampol in Poland. Like many of the settings in Singer's fiction, the shtetl of Frampol is presented as a place where life has a mystical quality, the people are superstitious, survival is difficult, and everyday events and concerns revolve around Jewish faith and traditions.

Narrative
The story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of Gimpel and is, therefore, an example of first-person narration. Because readers are only given access to Gimpel's thoughts and feelings and not those of the villagers who frequently make fun of him, they are uncertain how reliable Gimpel's account is and are left to wonder if he is truly a fool. Singer also uses a simple storytelling technique in "Gimpel the Fool"; he relates the events of the story sequentially without much explanation and presents the characters without in-depth description.

Parable
Because "Gimpel the Fool" is intended to teach a moral lesson, it is considered a parable. Parables generally include simple characters who represent abstract ideas. In "Gimpel the Fool," Gimpel represents goodness, innocence, and the common man; the villagers represent malice and deception. Like most parables, the story works on two levels. While it appears to be a simple tale about a town fool, it raises important questions about such universal concerns as the nature of wisdom, faith, and acceptance.

Irony
Singer uses irony, the recognition of a reality different from appearance, throughout ''Gimpel the Fool." Irony is apparent at the very beginning of the story, which starts with the words: "I am Gimpel the Fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me.'' This suggests to the reader that Gimpel may not be the fool he appears to be. In fact, as the story continues, Gimpel tells us that he does not always believe what the villagers tell him even though they think he does. For example, when Elka tells Gimpel that he is the father of the child she bore four months after their marriage, Gimpel seems to accept her explanation, but then admits, "To tell the plain truth, I didn't believe her.... But then, who really knows how such things are?'' It is also ironic that when Gimpel leaves Frampol, where he is heckled and mistreated, he becomes a respected and well-liked story teller. Gimpel notes toward the end of the story, ''The children run after me, calling 'Grandfather, tell us a story.'"

Archetype
The character of Gimpel is an archetype, a character type that occurs frequently in literature. He is an example of the ''common man'' figure that often appears in both Yiddish and Western literature as well as a schlemiel, or "holy fool," a character whose innocence and goodness provides both humor and inspiration.

Literary Techniques

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Singer depends on the technique of local color in his stories; they all contain an East European flavor, and Jewish culture plays an integral part in them. Talmudic study, faith, and matchmakers are essential elements in them. Before "Gimpel the Fool" appeared in print, critics considered Singer a Yiddish writer whose works only Jews could appreciate. The success of "Gimpel the Fool" catapulted Singer into the international spotlight and allowed readers to consider him a writer whose works contained universal themes; yet "Gimpel the Fool" is imbedded in Polish culture and is a work whose plot perhaps could not exist outside a Jewish community.

Singer's characters, often first-person narrators, are very self-conscious; they involve the readers in their stories by directly addressing them. The narrator of "The Unseen" begins the tale by remarking, "They say that I, the evil spirit, after descending to earth in order to induce people to sin, will then ascend to heaven to accuse them . . . But let me tell you a story." Singer's story "Fire" begins: "I want to tell you a story. It isn't from a book—it happened to me personally. I've kept it secret all these years, but I know now I'll never leave this poorhouse alive . . . Here is my story." The most famous story in the collection begins, "I am Gimpel the Fool. I don't think myself a fool." The use of first-person narration provides special insight into the characters; the reader learns a great deal about them not only by the plot, but also by the way they describe the other characters and themselves.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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An important subject for discussion about Singer's work is faith. Discussions should involve the characters' relationships with God and how these relationships affect their lives. For instance, one may wish to talk about the loss of faith in "The Gentleman from Cracow" and "Joy," but also the unfailing faith of Rabbi Moshe Ber in "The Old Man." How does God reward and punish people in regard to their faith in Him? Does God allow people to repent their loss of faith? Is Singer's God a punishing or a forgiving God?

How does Singer portray the women in his tales? He presents some sinful women, such as Elka, Zirel, and Shifra Zirel, yet he also characterizes some women as virtuous, such as Roise in "The Unseen." Does Singer portray women as weaker or more vulnerable than men?

1. In "Gimpel the Fool," Gimpel has been labeled a gullible fool but also a wise and devout man. Which way do you characterize him and why?

2. In several short stories in this collection, devils dupe seemingly virtuous characters. The reader may discern this idea in "The Gentleman from Cracow," "The Mirror," and "The Unseen." What causes these characters to sin? Are these virtuous and innocent people who are deceived by evil forces or are these normal people whom devils target because they are prone to sin? In other words, are the devils responsible for causing the people to sin or do they simply bring out the evil inherent in human nature?

3. In "The Unseen," do you think that Reb Nathan's remorse is sincere? Is he sorry that he has wronged his wife or sorry that his plan to elope with Shifra Zirel has not worked out?

4. What effect does the use of first person narrative have on Singer's stories? How do you think the stories would be different if Singer employed a third-person omniscient narrator?

5. In "The Little Shoemakers," how does Singer characterize the seven sons of Abba? How does he portray their decision to leave Frampol for New Jersey? Is their move a natural and inevitable part of the diaspora or do they sin against their forefathers who lived for countless generations in Poland? The story clearly focuses on Abba, yet the title refers to his sons. Why?

6. Singer scholars have sometimes linked his stories to the Holocaust, suggesting that the Holocaust plays a symbolic and often subtle role in these works. Discuss the role of the Holocaust in stories such as "The Little Shoemakers" and "The Gentleman from Cracow."

7. In "The Gentleman from Cracow," the whole town, with the exception of Rabbi Ozer, lapses into sin. Why is the rabbi immune to the influence of the gentleman? What does the seduction of everyone else indicate about Singer's view of human nature?

8. In "The Unseen," "The Mirror," "Gimpel the Fool," "Diary of One Not Born," and other stories in this collection, the marriages are very unhappy. The results are adultery and sadness. Is Singer questioning the importance of marriage or matchmaking? Is he showing the fragility of relationships when the devil seeks to separate a couple?

Social Concerns

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A significant social concern in Gimpel the Fool is the question of free will and the concomitant question of the place of human beings in the universe. Several of Singer's short stories in this collection relate to a person's relationship with God and the role of faith and patience in that person's life. Several characters— especially those in the stories involving devils—express unhappiness with their place in the world and ambitiously wish to rise socioeconomically. Dissatisfied with what God has chosen for them in terms of their financial wealth and their spouses, they foolishly choose to go beyond what God has ordained. The result is, of course, sin—sin that ultimately leads to great misfortune. In "The Gentleman from Cracow," the pious people in the shtetl (small Jewish town) are healthy and have traditionally given birth to wonderful children, yet they are unhappy because of their poverty. Seduced by the mysterious gentleman's riches and generosity, the townspeople sacrifice their spirituality for money; consequently, they temporarily become richer but quickly lose their money and discover to their horror that the infants in the town have died as a punishment for their covetousness. Instead of having wonderful children, they have no children at all; the punishment arises because they have exercised their free will and have chosen wrongly.

Tradition also plays a major role in Singer's short stories. In the moving story "The Little Shoemakers," Abba Shuster is a devout Jew who comes from a long family history of shoemakers. For many generations (ever since the seventeenthcentury Chmielnicki pogroms), the Shusters (as the cognomen implies) have been shoemakers in Frampol, Poland. Abba (the name means father in Hebrew) has seven sons who continue the tradition by being shoemakers also, yet they break tradition by moving away from Frampol to New Jersey. After his wife dies, Abba cannot leave Frampol, despite his sons' efforts to bring him to America, because the traditional place for him and his ancestors has always been Poland and the traditional language has always been Yidish, not English. Making shoes, going to shul (synagogue), and speaking the language of his ancestors in the old country have been the staple of Abba's existence, but the Nazi invasion during the Holocaust interrupts this traditional way of life. When Abba arrives in New Jersey, he becomes physically and emotionally ill because the way of life differs greatly from his traditions. In an effort to save Abba's life, Gimpel (no relation to Gimpel the Fool), his eldest son, brings him to a shul in New Jersey, but because the customs are alien to Abba, he mistakenly thinks that he is in a church and that Gimpel is trying to convert him to Christianity: "the sexton was clean-shaven; the candelabra held electric lights; there was no courtyard, no faucet for washing one's hands, no stove to stand around. The cantor, instead of singing like a cantor should, babbled and croaked." The marked distinction between prayer in Frampol and New Jersey, exemplified by the differences in the sexton, lighting, building, structure, and cantor, dishearten and dismay the shoemaker, who clearly has difficulty in accepting change. It appears that Abba will die because he is withering away, yet one day he encounters his sack that contains his shoemaking equipment, and he begins to make shoes. This restoration of his occupation, in which he makes his shoes the old-fashioned, traditional way, in turn rejuvenates him, restoring his will to live. All he needs, his seven sons discover, is a return—to a small degree—to his traditional way of life.

The Holocaust is another major issue in these short stories. Abba Shuster escapes the Nazis in "The Little Shoemakers," forcing him to break from his traditional way of life and move to New Jersey. In "Gimpel the Fool," the protagonist's gullibility may symbolize the trusting nature of Jews during the Holocaust when they felt that such a genocide could never occur and that unlike their neighbors, their lives would be spared because they had some powerful Christian friends, because the Nazis would never invade their country, or because the Allies would save them. In "The Gentleman from Cracow," the gentleman may represent Adolf Hitler in the way he systematically destroys the shtetl.

Compare and Contrast

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1953: Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Jewish members of the Communist Party, are executed for espionage. As civilians, their death sentence sparks controversy.

1990s: Aldrich Ames, a high-ranking CIA official, is convicted of spying for the Soviets during his 31-year career. He receives life in prison, the harshest penalty possible. His wife is also convicted, but she receives only a several years imprisonment.

1950s: Roughly 5 percent of children are born out of wedlock in the United States.

Today: More than 30 percent of children are born out of wedlock in the United States.

1956: Polish workers protest the Communist regime. Over 100 demonstrators are killed.

1993: In the wake of capitalist reforms, Poland suffers a surge of violent crime inflicted by organized mobs.

Literary Precedents

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One literary precedent for "Gimpel the Fool" may be Geoffrey Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales (1387- 1400). Gimpel, like John the carpenter, is gullible and too innocent and trusting to accept that his wife is committing adultery. Gimpel has a clue, but he never accepts it totally. Gimpel catches on to the deception eventually, but John never does. In both cases, the men are comical dupes because their wives' adultery is so obvious. Yet both men achieve a sense of dignity by not retaliating against their spouses, despite the embarrassment and scorn they experience at the hands of the townspeople.

The story of the misfortunes of Reb Paltiel in "From the Diary of One Not Born" mirrors that of the tribulations of Job in the Bible. Both are prosperous and devout men who fall upon hard times; they are betrayed by Satan as a test of their faith in God. Also Rabbi Moshe Ber's tribulations in "The Old Man" resemble those of Job. It is the rabbi's unwavering faith in God that allows him to reach his destination in Jozefow. The facts that he becomes a father when he turns one hundred and that he names the child Isaac indicate that Singer derives the story from the Bible. The reunion of parent and child in a foreign country in "The Little Shoemakers" derives from the story of Joseph in the Bible. When the sons meet their father in America, the narrator remarks, "Suddenly he [Abba] thought of Jacob arriving in Egypt, where he was met by Pharaoh's chariots. He felt, he had lived through the same experience in a previous incarnation."

The idea in "The Gentleman from Cracow" of a man who comes to test and to corrupt the morals of the people of an entire town resembles a similar concept in Mark Twain's short story "The Man who Corrupted Hadleyburg." In both works of short fiction, townspeople who, under normal circumstances, are rather virtuous become dishonest when tested by a tempter who causes them to succumb to their ambition and baser instincts.

The four stories regarding the devil are reminiscent of the plays of Christopher Marlowe, especially Doctor Faustus (1592). In these short stories, the victims, like the protagonists in Marlowe's dramas, become overreachers, ambitious people who are discontent with their station in life and who sin and risk their eternal souls in their attempts to succeed. They want to achieve and acquire more than God wants them to have, for which they ultimately pay a huge price.

Adaptations

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"Gimpel the Fool" was produced during the 1970-1971 season by the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, which also produced an adaptation of Singer's story "The Mirror" in January 1973. In "Gimpel the Fool," Henry Winkler, later Fonzie in "Happy Days," played the rabbi. It is interesting that the impotent husband in "The Mirror" also played Asmodeus, King of the Underworld, whom Zirel (the protagonist and wife) meets in Sodom.

Media Adaptations

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''Gimpel the Fool" was adapted for the stage by David Schechter and produced by Bakery Theater Cooperative of New York in 1982.

''Gimpel the Fool" was read by writer Eli Wallach on national public radio station KCRW. Transcripts are available through the National Yiddish Book Society.

A documentary film called Isaac Bashevis Singer: Champion of Yiddish Literature was produced in 1991 by Ergo and is distributed by Ergo Media Inc. In the film, Singer discusses such topics as writing, religion, and Yiddish.

An Academy Award-nominated documentary, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Isaac in America was released in 1994. The film profiles the life of the author and includes readings from Singer's works by actor Judd Hirsch. It is distributed by Monterey Home Video.

Bibliography

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Suggested Readings

Farrell, Grace. “Suspending Disbelief: Faith and Fiction in I. B. Singer.” Boulevard 9, no. 3 (Fall, 1994): 111-117.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Schlemiel as Metaphor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Wisse, Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Alexander, Edward Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction, No. 18, Twayne, 1990.

Drucker, Sally Ann. "I B. Singer's Two Holy Fools," Yiddish, Vol. 8, no. 2,1992, pp. 35-39.

Hadda, Janet. "Gimpel the Full," Prooftexts, Vol. 10,1990, pp. 283-295.

Hennings, Thomas "Singer's 'Gimpel the Fool' and The Book of Hosea," The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 13, no. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 11-19.

Pinsker, Sanford "The Schlemiel as Metaphor," Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Further Reading
Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3, Gale, 1989.
Contains previously published criticism on Singer's short fiction.

Siegel, Ben "Sacred and Profane: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Embattled Spirits," Critique, Vol. VI, No. 1 (Spring 1963): 24-47.
Discusses Singer's blending of Yiddish and Western literary traditions in Gimpel the Fool and The Spinoza of Market Street.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis, and Burgin, Richard Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986,190 p
Interviews with Singer.

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