“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.
“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 Isaac Bashevis 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.
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.
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.
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.'”
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.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.