Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

Isaac Bashevis Singer is known for stories that re-create the lost world of Jewish life in the Polish ghetto. This is the setting of “Gimpel the Fool,” but the story also presents a gently humorous psychological study as well as a thematic analysis of the nature of reality. From the very beginning, Gimpel the narrator cannot quite understand why he is treated as a fool. That he is narrating his own story makes it unlikely that one should consider him foolish in the ordinary sense. He is only partially a naïve narrator; although he is constantly tricked and deceived by others, Gimpel does show an awareness of what they are doing. His apparent “foolishness” consists in his taking the line of least resistance to avoid their teasing: He simply decides that it is easier to believe what he is told than to make an issue of it. In addition, his faith in God makes him believe that many things are possible, so he convinces himself of the improbable. In a sense, his simplicity and naïveté protect him from harm; his narration shows him to be largely oblivious of the viciousness of others’ pranks, and this apparent gullibility leads to relative contentment in his life.

The rabbi’s comment to Gimpel that the others are the real fools, combined with Gimpel’s epiphany on hearing Elka’s words in the dream, show that he may not be the complete fool that others have made him out to be. After his temptation by the Spirit of Evil and Elka’s advice to him, his decision to go out into the world as a beggar, depending on God to provide for him, shows that he has emerged from his temptation with greater faith. His final comments on the illusory nature of life, that it is “only once removed from the true world,” sound profound rather than foolish.

Throughout the story, the narrator shows some understanding of what others are doing to him. Although he does not always realize exactly how terrible things are or might be for him, his attitude of acceptance makes his life bearable. In the final analysis, Gimpel himself has made the decision to believe what he is told, and this decision has led to a life of peace and contentment. The story thus presents an insight into the reality of life, as Gimpel realizes that life is what the individual makes of it.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968

Devils and imps play very significant roles in four stories included in this collection. "The Mirror," "The Gentleman from Cracow," "From the Diary of One Not Born," and "The Unseen" all concern devils and imps who corrupt and betray Jews, destroying them by leading them on the path to sin and away from God. The turning away from God's teachings leads ultimately to their destruction. In "The Mirror," a bored housewife (Zirel) in Krashnik, duped by the first person narrator (a mischievous imp), accompanies him through the mirror to another world. Corrupted by the imp, she leaves her husband, as well as her Jewish religion, traveling to an irreligious and evil place. The imp orders her to "throw the prayer book into the rubbish and spit on the mezuzah [a small box containing scripture that Jews place by the front door of their houses]." She turns away from her Jewish faith and lapses into sin. She discovers, however, that the devil does not cure her of her boredom any more than her husband or God does. In fact, devils start to tear out tufts of her beautiful hair. She wants to return through the mirror but is trapped forever. The honest citizens of Frampol are duped, likewise, by the Gentleman from Cracow. This rich and enigmatic gentleman overwhelms the impoverished Jews of Frampol with his wealth, using his power to coerce the Jews into gambling (playing cards), conducting an elaborate ball, disregarding the advice of matchmakers, and marrying by lots (disobeying the seven day waiting period). The sins of the Jews cause Frampol to be set afire by a Satanic force, and babies are burned to death in their cribs. The Gentleman from Cracow, the people discover, is actually Ketev Mriri, Chief of the Devils (he also appears briefly in "The Mirror"). Although he corrupts the people, turning them away from God, it is the people's fault because they become so obsessed with his money that they allow the gentleman (Satan) to sway their judgment.

In "From the Diary of One Not Born," a devil, created from a spilled sperm, recounts how he has destroyed the lives of people. The devil exists simply to destroy innocent people. One difference between this story and "The Mirror" is that these victims are innocent. In the first of two exploits, the devil narrates how a virtuous but poor man named Reb Paltiel reluctantly begs his brother-in-law for money and returns with a banknote for five hundred gulden. The devil, disguised as a flea, jumps on the wife's nose just as Paltiel hands her the banknote, causing her to drop the much-needed money in the fire. In the second incident, the one in which the devil plays a much more active role, he marries an honest but poor baker. During the night of the wedding, the devil refuses to have sex with her and then complains the following morning to the rabbi and the townspeople that she is not a virgin because there is no blood on the bed after their wedding night. The devil is more persuasive than the innocent woman, who ends up turning away from God and drowning herself after the community ostracizes her.

In "The Unseen," Satan seduces Nathan, an honest man and a rabbi no less, into having an adulterous relationship with Shifra Zirel, his housekeeper. She coerces him into divorcing his wife (Roise Temerl) so that he can marry her instead; but once Nathan leaves his wife and marries her, Shifra Zirel immediately deserts him and steals all his money. Humbled, Nathan returns to remarry Roise, but Satan has acted quickly and she has already remarried someone else. This adulterous affair ruins the happiness of this married couple. One may argue that Shifra Zirel's arrival in Frampol as a housekeeper is but chance, yet she functions in the story as Satan's agent; the devil has arranged this test of Nathan's virtue, and the rabbi has failed it.

Endurance also plays a major role in these short works. Singer includes several stories about people who heroically strive to achieve their goals. In the classic tale entitled "The Old Man," the titular character, Rabbi Moshe Ber, endures incredible hardships as he strives to reach his destination, Jozefow. The rabbi, who is in his late nineties as the story unfolds, remembers with pleasure the Turisk Hasidim in Jozefow, so he decides to return there; he has no family left because he has outlived his children and grandchildren, and thus he has no one to say kaddish (the prayer that remembers and honors the memory of the dead) for him. Singer includes every possible obstacle in the rabbi's way during his journey. Despite incredible hunger, thirst, poverty, and physical ailments, he reaches his destination and marries a forty-year-old deaf and dumb spinster. God rewards his endurance by giving him a son when he is one hundred years old. He names the son Isaac because Abraham also had his son Isaac when he was one hundred years old. Rewarded for his endurance, which Singer likens to faith, the rabbi now has someone to say kaddish for him when he dies.

Endurance plays a role in "Gimpel the Fool" because the titular hero must bear the continuous insults and tricks that others, even the rabbi's daughter, play on him. He must also endure the shame of being cuckolded by his immoral wife.

Another theme is the contrast between city and country life. The Gentleman from Cracow, with his new and irreligious ideas, comes from a big city and corrupts country people. Abba Shuster lives an honest and devout life in the small town of Frampol and feels intimidated in New Jersey. To Singer, the big city represents, to some extent, corruption and worldliness while the small shtetls symbolize humility, faith, and honesty.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Faith
Faith is one of the primary themes in "Gimpel the Fool." Despite being teased and deceived mercilessly by the other villagers as well as by his wife Elka, Gimpel maintains his faith in life, in others, and in God. When Elka continues to nag and bully him, Gimpel simply says, "I'm the type that bears it and says nothing. What's one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too." Gimpel has consciously decided to choose faith over skepticism; through his faith he finds consolation and peace.

Acceptance and Belonging
Singer also examines the meaning of acceptance in the story. Gimpel is never accepted or appreciated by the villagers for what he is: a kind, compassionate, and honest man. But when he leaves Frampol to become a storyteller, he is considered to be wise and is treated well by those he meets. This suggests that acceptance and belonging is temporal: a person may not be accepted in one environment but is welcomed and respected in another.

Gimpel's acceptance of life, despite his hardships, is also a major theme in the story. He is constantly heckled and mistreated, but he accepts the limitations of and negative qualities in others. He also embraces life, appreciating what he does have: a wife, children, and a successful bakery. Instead of getting angry and vengeful, Gimpel simply states, "One can't pass through life unscathed, nor expect to." While Gimpel does momentarily contemplate revenge on the villagers by urinating in the bread dough, he quickly changes his mind, choosing instead to leave Frampol.

Knowledge and Ignorance
Although Gimpel is presented as a fool, Singer suggests through his telling of the events of the story that Gimpel actually possesses a special wisdom. It is not that he simply believes the outrageous things the villagers tell him, but rather, that he chooses to do so. For example, when the villagers tell Gimpel that his father and mother "have stood up from the grave," Gimpel states: "To tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened." Singer also suggests that Gimpel is rather shrewd. He manages to raise a dowry from the villagers for Elka, he becomes a successful baker with his own bakery, and at the end of the story he finds happiness and contentment.

Honor and Integrity
Although Gimpel is considered a fool, Singer presents him as having much more integrity than others in the village. For example, he takes good care of Elka, treats her ten children as if they were his, and, when he has the opportunity to get revenge on the villagers, he chooses not to. This integrity, Singer suggests, is much more valuable and meaningful than what is typically considered intelligence.

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