“Gimpel the Fool” is widely viewed as Isaac Bashevis Singer’s most popular short story. Singer originally wrote the story for a Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, and then Saul Bellow translated it into English for The Partisan Review in 1953, bringing “Gimpel” and Singer to the attention of American readers. Gimpel is a kind and loving man who seems to be punished for his generosity. His willingness to believe the people around him—and to suffer as a result of believing them—is a virtue and remains one after everything else falls away. As critic Edward Alexander writes of Singer’s wide appeal, “Singer writes almost always as a Jew, to Jews, for Jews, and yet he is heard by everybody.”
Many critics see Gimpel as an example of a Yiddish stock character type, dos kleine menschele (the little man) or schlemiel. Sanford Pinsker, in his The Schlemiel as Metaphor, offers the following definitions of this character type: According to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, a schlemiel”handles a situation in the worst possible manner or is dogged by an ill luck that is more or less due to his own ineptness.” Pinsker’s personal characterization is that when a “schlimazl’s bread-and-butter accidently falls on the floor it always lands butterside down; with a schlemiel it’s much the same— except that he butters his bread on both sides first.”
Pinsker traces the schlemiel character back to the mythical town of Chelm, a Jewish community that is the subject of countless “Wise Men of Chelm” stories. Pinsker recounts one such story with a direct parallel to “Gimpel” in which a troubled Chelmite consults his rabbi because his wife has given birth after the couple has been married only three months. The rabbi assists the man with the following calculation: Since the man has lived with his wife three months, and she has lived with him for three months, and together they have lived three months, then three plus three plus three equals nine months. ‘”So, what’s the problem?'”
In addition to representing the recurrent”wise or sainted fool” of Yiddish literature, Gimpel also represents a “centuries-old archetypal figure of western literature,” according to critic Paul Siegel. Siegel traces Gimpel’s character type back to the idiot of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance who was regarded as being “under the special protection of God.”
The reader knows at some level that Gimpel does not believe the lies the townspeople tell him and that he partially endeavors to believe them out of his goodness, or at least his desire to not make trouble. Siegel writes that in the Yiddish version of the story, this ambiguity is broadcast from the beginning. In Yiddish the epithet used to describe Gimpel in the title and in the opening line of the story is “chochem,” which means “sage,” but which additionally “often has the ironic meaning of ‘fool,’ the meaning in which the villagers and Gimpel’s wife use it.” Gimpel’s readers are thus lost in a “labyrinth of irony” as they watch him deciding when to believe or not to believe. “His belief, then, was in part the wise acquiescence of the butt who must play his role, knowing that otherwise he will never be free of his wiseacre tormentors.”
Like Siegel, Edward Alexander sees Gimpel’s “descent from the schlemiels of the classical Yiddish writers” and also sees that Gimpel differs from them in several ways, namely that he”chooses to be fooled, to be used, to forsake his dignity. This means that not only his creator but he himself is capable of irony about the sacrifices required by faith. Moreover, Gimpel’s folly is connected with his credulity, whereas much of the folly of his Yiddish predecessors comes precisely from their unwillingness to credit unusual and extraordinary events, especially if those events portent evil.” In other words, Gimpel’s literary predecessors were silly optimists, whereas Gimpel would likely believe bad as well as good.
Gimpel’s roots extend all the way back to the Bible, according to critic Thomas Hennings who posits that”Gimpel” is based on the Old Testament Book of Hosea. While understanding Singer’s Yiddish background is essential to understanding “Gimpel,” his Hebraic background is key as well, and the immigrant audience Singer was writing for would be well aware of Biblical allusions. Hennings sees parallels in that both Gimpel and Hosea marry women who are sexually unfaithful and that “Gimpel” follows the four-part structure of the Book of Hosea exactly: first, the marriage; second, the affairs, the birth of the children, and divorce; third, the reconciliation, remarriage, and continued affairs; and fourth, the “social application of it all, that is, the moral and theological implications of the adulterous marriage for the Jewish community.” Like Hosea, Gimpel has a reunion with his repentant wife in a dream and progresses from being a foolish baker to a beloved prophet. Hennings sees that Singer, like Hosea, “deliberately chooses to disturb his readers’ complacent assumptions about God, about faith, love, wisdom, and folly—and about themselves. . . . Singer creates a deeply religious story about a man of simple faith who, because of his faith, has a godlike capacity for love, the ideal Jew, if you will.”
What sets the Yiddish holy fool apart from fools in British or French or Russian literature (e.g. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) is the high value that Jewish culture places on intelligence and learning, says critic Sally Drucker. “The holy fool, a fool who is more than a fool . .. both subverts and augments this value.” Drucker sees Gimpel as a character who displays “a kind of wisdom that does not have to do with ability to reason—which is closer, perhaps, to the Khassidic religious tradition of the heart, than the Talmudic ideal of the head.”
It is also possible to see Gimpel’s actions as part of a successful coping strategy. Janet Hadda takes a completely different approach to “Gimpel,” applying psychoanalytic theory and asking questions in the way she would conduct a clinical case. She notes that while literary critics tend to emphasize Gimpel’s relationship with God, students, on the other hand, tend to view Gimpel as a masochist. Since both views are based on the same evidence, Hadda wonders if perhaps another way of looking at the material might be more to the point. In her view, “Gimpel is not a suffering martyr, although he does experience intense pain Gimpel is a successful man whose subjective reality is undaunted by circumstances that would overwhelm a less daring person.” She believes that “the central fact” of Gimpel’s existence is his orphanhood. When Rietze the Candle-dipper runs into the bakery and tells him that his parents have risen from the dead, Gimpel knows “very well that nothing of the sort had happened,” but, writes Hadda, “if there was any chance of seeing a beloved and deeply mourned parent, what small price to serve as the butt of some much less important person’s joke.”
Indeed, says Hadda, had Gimpel’s parents still been alive, they might have been able to protect him from the jokes and pranks. Because of this loss, Gimpel “turns to others in the hope that they will recognize his vulnerable position and therefore treat him with special tenderness—which they certainly do not; quite the contrary.” In light of his orphanhood, Hadda believes that Gimpel’s seeming masochism can be viewed more as stemming from a”deep need to maintain a bond, no matter at what price.” Thus, he maintains his bond with Elka, despite the seemingly high cost, because she gives him “a sense that he is not alone in the world, that he is no longer as abandoned as an orphan, [which] helps him to maintain his equilibrium.”
Gimpel asks, “What’s the good of not believing? Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in.” Of the connection Gimpel makes between faith in one’s wife (however unfaithful she herself may be) and faith in God, Alexander points out that”Gimpel never takes the analogy a step further to say that the Jewish people have been far more faithful to their God than [God has been] to them, but in the aftermath of the Holocaust there are few Jewish heads through which that thought will not at least momentarily pass when they read this passage.”
A line of schlemiels have followed Gimpel in America, according to Sanford Pinsker, most notably in the works of American Jewish authors such as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. But critics such as Alexander and Ruth Wisse note that few schlemiels other than Gimpel appear in Yiddish fiction after World War II, possibly because of a disturbing connection between the “schlemiel’s innocence or gullibility and the inability or refusal of the majority of Jews ‘to face reality’ when they were being herded into ghettos, concentration camps, and finally gas chambers.” Alexander asks whether it was really the Jews’ religious faith that prevented them from seeing the full extent of the threat to their survival, or whether it was their faith in “‘mankind’ and in the ‘world'” that betrayed them. If the latter, then “Gimpel the Fool” can be viewed as a story written “not in spite of, but because of, Singer’s awareness of the Holocaust. If worldliness is indeed the gullibility that disbelieves everything, then this is the most intense of all Singer’s assaults upon it, for Gimpel is a character who insists on believing everything…. If, Gimpel might say, you disbelieve the nations who threaten to remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth, you will disbelieve anything.”
In the end, after Elka appears to him in a dream saying that her false witness towards him does not mean that everything is false, only that she had deceived herself, Gimpel realizes once and for all that faith is the most important thing. He undergoes a transformation, giving away his worldly possessions and leaving Frampol. What he comes to understand is that”there were really no lies. Whatever doesn’t happen is dreamed at night,” or it happens to someone else, or “in a century hence if not next year.”
According to Pinsker, one of the possible derivations of the word schlemiel is the Hebrew phrase which means “sent away from God”; however, another possible translation is “sent from God,” as in the sense of being a gift from God. It is often Gimpel’s following the dictates of religion which leads him to believe things which at face value are technically untrue. The rabbis reassure Gimpel that to believe is the most important thing. For example, when the townspeople tell him the Messiah has come and his parents have risen from the grave, the rabbi says to Gimpel, “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil.” When Elka has a child only a few months after the wedding, the schoolmaster tells Gimpel that “the very same thing had happened to Adam and Eve.” Gimpel leaves Frampol, continuing to believe even when doing so causes him pain. The longer he lives the more he learns to believe, until even the people around him can see that he is truly wise.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.