The publication of “Gimpel the Fool,” in a translation from the Yiddish by Saul Bellow, launched Isaac Bashevis Singer’s career. During the 1950’s and thereafter, his work appeared widely in English, and throughout the history of Singer studies, “Gimpel the Fool” has held a place of honor. Gimpel belongs to a brotherhood of literary characters—that of the schlemiels. In this work, Singer explores the nature of belief, which, in the modern, secular world, is often considered foolish.
Gimpel believes whatever he is told: that his parents have risen from the dead, that his pregnant fiancée is a virgin, that her children are his children, that the man jumping out of her bed is a figment of his imagination. Gimpel extends his willingness to believe to every aspect of his life, because, he explains: “Everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers, I’ve forgotten just how.”
When, on her deathbed, his wife of twenty years confesses that none of her six children are his, Gimpel is tempted to disbelieve all that he has been told and to enact revenge against those who have participated in his humiliation. His temptation is a central crisis of faith. His faith in others, who have betrayed him, is challenged, as is his faith in himself and in God, because among the stories he has believed are those pertaining to the existence of God. Gimpel’s belief has always been riddled with doubt; only after he concretizes his spiritual exile by becoming a wanderer does he resolve his faith.
In Singer’s fictional worlds, God is the first storyteller who, through words, spoke or wrote the world into being. Belief in God is linked to belief in stories. Thus, when Gimpel is tempted to disbelieve in God, he responds by becoming a wandering storyteller. In so doing Gimpel links himself with the great storyteller and transforms what was once simple gullibility into an act of the greatest faith. As a storyteller, Gimpel opens himself fully to the infinite possibilities of the divine word as it is transformed into the world. At the end, Gimpel still yearns for a world where even he cannot be deceived. He never finds this world. Despite the void he may face, he chooses to believe, and he finds, in his final great act of suspending disbelief, a faith to which he can firmly adhere.
Like many of Singer’s stories, “Gimpel the Fool” takes place in a shtetl, or Jewish village, in Poland, at an unspecified time before the Russian Revolution. Although it is full of details reflecting life in such a village, the story has the universal quality of a moralistic folktale, including the appearance of an evil spirit and a visitor from beyond the grave.
From the beginning of the story, it is indicated that someone called a fool in this world may not really be a fool by other standards. After he introduces himself as “Gimpel the Fool,” the narrator and protagonist proceeds to disagree with the appellation that he has been given throughout his life. He is not really a fool, he says, but simply a man who does not suspect others and, when he finds that he has been deceived, does not like to attack them. In other words, he is trusting and forgiving. Such qualities, Singer’s story suggests, should be valued, not mocked.
In the first section of the story, Gimpel describes all the tricks that were played on him during his youth, when, after he was orphaned, he became a baker’s apprentice. No matter what impossible event that he was told had occurred, he would run outside to see. Because he could be deceived so easily, everyone called him a fool. As the rabbi whom Gimpel consulted told him, however, the real danger in this world is not being a fool, but being evil. Gimpel is not evil.
When the community decides to get Gimpel married, he is certainly not deceived about the character of the...
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