Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1957

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by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1957

The best work of Isaac Bashevis Singer is found in his short fiction, and "Gimpel the Fool" is one of his masterpieces. It features a kind of character associated with Singer—"the wise or sainted fool," in Irving Howe's phrase.

Singer subtly subverts the customary associations of "fool" from the very beginning of his story. Gimpel, the main character, realizes that he has been deceived when he initially believes the villagers' statement that "the rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed," but he continues to accept their stories even when they become truly fantastic. He accepts them because in the long run it is conducive to peace and quiet—otherwise they shout at him and disturb the tenor of his life—and as long as he resists, the episode (and its unpleasantness) last longer. But the situation is ironical, too: since he does not really believe what the villagers say and is not taken in, it is he who is fooling them—not the other way round as they think. In fact, Gimpel serves to expose the inanity of the villagers: the folly of spending so much time in cooking up, elaborating, and collaborating on such silly stories, all to trick one man they consider an idiot, is evident.

Singer thus suggests that Gimpel is not the fool he seems to be. His wisdom lies in his forethought and his realistic acceptance of the world as it is. When the community proceeds to force him to marry an unchaste woman, Elka, it may, he realizes characteristically (though the matter is far more serious), make for harmony and an easier life for him if he accepts. Yet the fact is that he himself happens to fancy her. Shrewdness is not lacking either. He and Elka do not do badly, financially, from their marriage. He sees that the village can afford to pay for its fun. They demand and receive a dowry of 50 guilders and a collection. Gimpel possesses practical (if well-concealed) wisdom.

There are, however, more aspects to his wisdom, which is based on goodness. It is emphasized that Gimpel is good-natured, not vicious. He remains so although he is aware of being fooled, aware of people's bad motives, and also aware of his own physical strength. His goodness appears a quality inborn and deeply implanted.

His character goes even deeper. He philosophizes thus on his impending marriage to Elka: "You can't pass through life unscathed, nor expect to." After she has given birth to a child, obviously not his own, four months after their marriage, he thinks, "Shoulders are from God, and burdens too." This perhaps shows Gimpel's acceptance of God's will. (Singer's is, after all, a Yiddish story, set in an eastern European Jewish village.)

Elka does not stop her infidelities after her marriage to Gimpel, but he persists in believing in her primarily because he continues to love her. He desires to indulge her, and his outpouring of affection, of which he obviously has an immense store and which he can afford to expend unreturned, makes him reluctant to deprive himself of the happiness of her presence and that of the child. His realistic acceptance of the world also helps him to accept errors and imperfections—even Elka's rank faults.

The values Gimpel embodies, kindness, love, and the love of living quietly at peace, are life-affirming because they are based on a lack of awareness. His patient suffering of Elka's temper and his cuckolding—he realizes that others would not put up with it and is fully aware of the extent of his own tolerance—is contrasted with the aimless malice of the villagers.

Gimpel's character undergoes significant changes. Elka's confession of her infidelity on her deathbed provokes and tempts him to revenge himself on society. An orphan, a village baker's poor employee, and now a baker himself, he pours a bucket of urine into the dough. He then sees Elka in a dream, reflecting his conscience and belief, and, black-faced, she says, "Because I was false, is everything false too?"—an affirmation of standards that exist apart from the individuals who violate them. Gimpel repents and rejects evil: he buries the bread made with the dough.

Gimpel then decides to leave the village—to liberate himself from his history and to free himself from the pattern of life tied to earning a living at the bakery. When he is older and wiser, "having heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods," he nevertheless discovers paradoxically that "there were really no lies" and also that "the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world." These insights confirm and sanction his earlier behavior: an objective or subjective truth, the phenomenal world and the interior world, govern his life only as much as he permits. Gimpel's acceptance of the situations and deceptions imposed on him have given him just as much control over his own life as he would have had if he had insisted on questioning or rejecting them. Finally, he looks forward to death—because it promises him the happiness of an ultimate, unquestionable reality; but since he is assured of it only in wish-fulfilling dreams, the validity of his belief is left an open question.

Singer himself in this story seems to prefer faith to skepticism. In the final analysis he suggests that faith offers consolation and leads to a positive approach and release from self-tormenting anger and doubt.

Simplicity is the fundamental principle of Singer's narration. It shows itself in this story in two ways—in the form and in his characterization. In the first place Singer appears a master storyteller. In fact he believed that it is the primary task of a writer of fiction to relate a story. He said, "I still believe in the old-fashioned storytelling. The writer should tell a story and the essays should be written by critics." Moreover, he seldom or never attempts to explain the story or character. In this story the choice of the first-person point of view is particularly effective because it leaves matters open: since all is seen from Gimpel's viewpoint, no judgment is given—except by the reader.

The art of this story is wholly without artifice. It is like the art of Chaucer in the great stories of The Canterbury Tales—simple, apparently artless, yet profound.

—D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke