Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Gimpel the Fool,” opens with Gimpel, the narrator, announcing that he is called a fool but does not think of himself as one. Others see him as a fool, he says, because he is “easy to take in.” He is not a fighter, he reasons, so he tries to ignore them. Even so, he admits that “they take advantage of me,” thus demonstrating he understands how others see him and is not as foolish as he seems. Gimpel is an orphan being raised by a grandfather who is “already bent to the grave,” so the townspeople turn him over to a baker. In such a public occupation, nearly all the villagers have had the opportunity to fool him at least once.
When Rietze the Candle-dipper tells him his parents have risen from the grave and are looking for him, Gimpel knows full well this cannot be, but he goes outside to look just in case: “What did I stand to lose just by looking?” This incident creates such an uproar that he vows not to believe anything else, but that does not work either. He is confused and turns to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi tells Gimpel, “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself.”
Gimpel considers leaving town, but the people will not hear of it. Instead, they decide to fix him up with a wife. He sees several flaws in Elka, his prospective bride, but the townspeople tell him his perceptions are wrong. Elka’s “bastard” son is really her little brother, and her limp is “deliberate, from coyness.” Furthermore, they threaten to have the rabbi fine him for giving her a bad name.
Elka refuses to let Gimpel into their bed after the wedding, and four months later she gives birth to a boy. Everyone knows that Gimpel is not the father; “the whole House of Prayer rang with laughter.” When he confronts Elka about this, she insists that the child is premature and is Gimpel’s. He does not believe her, but the next day the schoolmaster assures him that the same thing happened to Adam and Eve. Gimpel begins “to forget his sorrow” because he loves the child. He steals scraps from the pots that women leave in the baker’s oven for Elka and begins to love her too.
Gimpel has to sleep at the bakery during the week, but one night he comes home unexpectedly and discovers a man sleeping next to Elka. To avoid waking the child he goes back to the bakery and tries to sleep on the floor. He vows, however, that “there’s a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel.” He goes to the rabbi for advice, and Elka denies everything. The rabbi recommends that Gimpel divorce her, but Gimpel longs for her and the child. Eventually he tells the rabbi that he had made a mistake.
The rabbi reconsiders the case for nine months before telling Gimpel he is free to return home, during which time Elka gives birth to another child. When Gimpel returns, he sees his apprentice in bed beside Elka. She tells him to go outside and check on the goat; when Gimpel returns, the apprentice is gone and Elka denies everything.
Gimpel lives with her for twenty more years, during which time Elka has six more children. He continues to turn a blind eye towards his wife’s behavior and professes his belief in everything she says. On her deathbed Elka asks him for forgiveness and confesses that the children are not his. Gimpel imagines that, “dead as she was, she was saying, ‘I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life.'”
One night the Spirit of Evil appears to Gimpel, tells him there is no God, and advises him to “deceive the world” as it has deceived him. Gimpel urinates into the bread dough at the bakery, but later Elka appears to him in a dream with a black face and says, “You fool! Because I was false is everything false too? I never deceived anyone but myself. I’m paying for it all, Gimpel.” Gimpel awakes, sensing that “everything hung in the balance. A false step now and [he’d] lose Eternal Life.” He immediately grabs a shovel and buries the contaminated loaves of bread. Then he divides his belongings among the children and leaves Frampol for good.
Outside Frampol, people suddenly treat him well. He hears “a great deal, many lies and falsehoods,” but eventually he comes to understand that “that there were really no lies.” Whatever does not really happen is dreamed at night. He begins to “spin yarns—improbable things that could never have happened,” and children ask him to tell his stories. In his dreams he still sees Elka, but she is radiant now, and he looks forward to rejoining her in a place “without ridicule, without deception…. [where] even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.