Themes and Meanings

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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.

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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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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...

(The entire section contains 1828 words.)

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