Gimpel the Fool

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Gimpel the Fool

Isaac Bashevis Singer 1953

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

“Gimpel the Fool,” which first appeared in English translation in a 1953 edition of the Partisan Review, is considered one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s most notable and representative works of short fiction. Singer wrote the story, as he did most of his early works, in Yiddish, and its Jewish themes of the individual’s search for faith and guidance in a cruel world are explored in a parable form with exaggerated details common to folktales. Noted Jewish-American writer Saul Bellow translated the story into English, as he did many of Singer’s early works, thus introducing him to a wide audience for the first time, even though Singer had been writing for many years. The character of Gimpel has been praised by critics as an example of the “schlemiel”— a foolish, unlucky man—common to Jewish lore, whose follies are delineated in order to present a moral lesson. Set in the imaginary village of Frampol, the story centers on Gimpel, a baker, who is continuously heckled and tricked by those around him. Since its publication, critical reaction to “Gimpel the Fool” has been positive, with most reviewers praising its blend of tradition, spiritualism, and realism.

Author Biography

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born on July 14, 1904, in the Polish shtetl, or village, of Leoncin, near Warsaw. His parents were devout Jews who wanted their son to become a religious scholar. Singer’s interests, however, drew him toward literature, and early in his life he began reading secular, or non-religious, books. His strict religious training often conflicted with his secular interests, and this conflict is explored in his fiction through characters who grapple with faith and skepticism. In 1908 Singer and his family moved to Warsaw, where he spent most of his youth. In 1921, his father made him enroll in the city’s rabbinical seminary. Singer remained only one year, and in 1923 he began proofreading for Literarishe Bletter, a Yiddish literary magazine. Later he worked as a translator, writing Yiddish versions of popular novels, including Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

In 1927 Singer published his first piece of short fiction in Literarishe Bletter, and seven years later his first novel, Satan in Goray, appeared in serial form in the Yiddish periodical Globus. That same year Singer emigrated from Poland to the United States, leaving behind his wife and son. He followed his older brother Israel Joshua, who later achieved prominence as a Yiddish novelist. Singer settled in New York City and began writing reviews and essays for the Jewish Daily Forward. In 1940 Singer married his second wife, moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and became a regular staff member at the Forward.

The death of his brother Israel in 1944 had a profound effect on Singer. While he has acknowledged his brother as “a spiritual father and master,” Singer often felt overshadowed by Israel’s achievements, which inhibited his own creativity. Thus, he has admitted to feeling both grief and liberation over his brother’s death. Throughout the 1940s Singer’s fiction was serialized in the Forward, and his reputation among Yiddish-speaking readers grew steadily. In 1950 The Family Moskat appeared in translation, the first of Singer’s novels to be published in English, and in 1953 “Gimpel the Fool” appeared in the Partisan Review, as translated by American writer Saul Bellow. Through the efforts of such admirers as Bellow and critic Irving Howe, Singer was introduced to the American public. Singer won numerous literary prizes during his career, including the National Book Award in 1970 and 1974 as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Singer continued to publish new material until his death on July 24, 1991.

Plot Summary

“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.”



See The Spirit of Evil


Elka, who is known as the town prostitute, marries Gimpel when he agrees to get the town to take up a collection to raise a dowry for her. She is five months pregnant by another man when they are married, but she tells Gimpel the child is his and, when it arrives four months after their marriage, that it is simply premature. Throughout the story Elka commits numerous infidelities and eventually has ten children, none of whom are Gimpel’s. On her deathbed she admits her infidelities to her husband and asks him to forgive her.

The Spirit of Evil

The devil appears to Gimpel the baker and tells him to urinate in the bread intended for the village in order to get revenge for the many injustices the villagers have forced him to endure over the years.


Gimpel is a baker in the village of Frampol. Although he is constantly teased and tricked by his fellow villagers, he continues to believe in the essential goodness of others and to bear life’s burdens. After agreeing to marry Elka, the town

Media Adaptations

  • “Gimpel the Fool” was adapted for the stage by David Schechter and produced by Bakery Theater Cooperative of New York in 1982.
  • “Gimpel the Fool” was read by writer Eli Wallach on national public radio station KCRW. Transcripts are available through the National Yiddish Book Society.
  • A documentary film called Isaac Bashevis Singer: Champion of Yiddish Literature was produced in 1991 by Ergo and is distributed by Ergo Media Inc. In the film, Singer discusses such topics as writing, religion, and Yiddish.
  • An Academy Award-nominated documentary, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Isaac in America was released in 1994. The film profiles the life of the author and includes readings from Singer’s works by actor Judd Hirsch. It is distributed by Monterey Home Video.

prostitute, he states, “You can’t pass through life unscathed, nor expect to.” Gimpel represents the dos kleine menshele, or “the common man” of Yiddish literature; his innocence provides humor and conveys a simple goodness that combats evil.


The rabbi is the spiritual authority in the village of Frampol. Early in the story, Gimpel goes to him for advice after being teased numerous times by the other villagers. The rabbi, who is the only one in the town who recognizes and appreciates Gimpel’s goodness, tells him that “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.” Gimpel again goes to the rabbi when he finds Elka in bed with another man. The rabbi tells Gimpel to divorce Elka and to abandon her children. However, when Gimpel tells the rabbi that he loves his wife, the rabbi finds a precedent in the Torah to allow Gimpel to stay with Elka.



Faith is one of the primary themes in “Gimpel the Fool.” Despite being teased and deceived mercilessly by the other villagers as well as by his wife Elka, Gimpel maintains his faith in life, in others, and in God. When Elka continues to nag and bully him, Gimpel simply says,“I’m the type that bears it and says nothing. What’s one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too.” Gimpel has consciously decided to choose faith over skepticism; through his faith he finds consolation and peace.

Acceptance and Belonging

Singer also examines the meaning of acceptance in the story. Gimpel is never accepted or appreciated by the villagers for what he is: a kind, compassionate, and honest man. But when he leaves Frampol to become a storyteller, he is considered to be wise and is treated well by those he meets. This suggests that acceptance and belonging is temporal: a person may not be accepted in one environment but is welcomed and respected in another.

Gimpel’s acceptance of life, despite his hardships, is also a major theme in the story. He is constantly heckled and mistreated, but he accepts the limitations of and negative qualities in others. He also embraces life, appreciating what he does have: a wife, children, and a successful bakery. Instead of getting angry and vengeful, Gimpel simply states, “One can’t pass through life unscathed, nor expect to.” While Gimpel does momentarily contemplate revenge on the villagers by urinating in the bread dough, he quickly changes his mind, choosing instead to leave Frampol.

Knowledge and Ignorance

Although Gimpel is presented as a fool, Singer suggests through his telling of the events of the story that Gimpel actually possesses a special wisdom. It is not that he simply believes the outrageous things the villagers tell him, but rather, that he chooses to do so. For example, when the villagers tell Gimpel that his father and mother “have stood up from the grave,” Gimpel states: “To tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened.” Singer also suggests that Gimpel is rather shrewd. He manages to raise a dowry from the villagers for Elka, he becomes a successful baker with his own bakery, and at the end of the story he finds happiness and contentment.

Honor and Integrity

Although Gimpel is considered a fool, Singer presents him as having much more integrity than others in the village. For example, he takes good care of Elka, treats her ten children as if they were his, and, when he has the opportunity to get revenge on the villagers, he chooses not to. This integrity, Singer suggests, is much more valuable and meaningful than what is typically considered intelligence.


“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 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

Topics for Further Study

  • Compare Gimpel to the lead character in the 1994 Academy Award-winning movie Forrest Gump.
  • Research Eastern European shtetls of the late 1800s and early 1900s and discuss similarities between life in the shtetls and in Frampol.
  • Gimpel is often described as a “holy fool.” Find and describe other examples of the “holy fool” figure in literature. Why do they fit into this category?

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.

Historical Context

The American Decade

“Gimpel the Fool” was first published in English translation in 1953. The 1950s are sometimes called the “American decade” because European political and military power declined in many areas of the world while the influence of the United States increased. During this time, American economic growth produced an abundance of consumer goods, the population increased by record numbers, and more people became members of the middle class. For example, the population in the United States doubled between 1900 and 1950, with a record 4.3 million births in 1957. During the 1950s the population also shifted from urban areas to suburbs; the urban population only increased 1.5 percent while the suburban population increased 44 percent.

The United States was also at the forefront of technological development. In 1954, Chinese-American An Wang developed and sold the small business calculator; 1955 saw the distribution of the first IBM business computer. Control Data Corporation produced the first commercially successful “super” computer in 1957, and the microchip was developed in 1959.

The spread of communism was a major concern to the United States during these years. The Soviet occupation forces in Germany set up a blockade between Berlin and West Germany and Czechoslovakia was taken over by communists. In 1950, the United States began a three-year involvement in the Korean War, which was fought between the democratic Republic of South Korea and communist-led North Korea. That same year, Senator Joseph McCarthy started a communist “witch hunt” with his House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Many figures in the entertainment industry were accused of having ties to the Communist Party, and the Hollywood Blacklist, which included some 300 writers, directors, and actors, was compiled. Such popular figures as Charlie Chaplin, Lee Grant, and Arthur Miller were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers. Many were driven to social and economic ruin by the accusations.

During the 1950s, the United States began to experiment with atomic energy. The first thermonuclear test took place on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok in 1951. That same year, atomic bombs were exploded, in the presence of army troops, in the Nevada desert, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission opened the first nuclear reactor. The United States conducted another atomic bomb test on the island of Bikini in the Pacific Ocean in 1954 and also launched the Nautilus, the first nuclear- powered submarine. In 1955, the Atomic Energy Commission denied that radiation had harmful effects on human health, stating “the scare stories about how dangerous this country’s atomic tests are simply not justified.” Nevertheless, Americans were also encouraged to build air-raid shelters to protect them from enemy attack in the event of a nuclear war.

Critical Overview

Critical reaction to “Gimpel the Fool” has been positive ever since the story first appeared in translation in the Partisan Review in 1953. It was “Gimpel the Fool,” along with the translated novel The Family Moskat (1950), that first brought Singer to the attention of American reading audiences. The story has been called a masterpiece of short fiction and has been praised for its depiction of Jewish life; its emphasis on spirituality, faith, and morality; its sympathetic portrayal of ordinary people; and its examination of universal themes. Alfred Kazin, writing in his Contemporaries, stated that “it is the integrity of the human imagination that Singer conveys so beautifully,” while Paul N. Siegel noted in The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer that Gimpel “has become representative of poor, bewildered, suffering humanity.” Cynthia Ozick also praised Singer’s talents in The New York Times Book Review:” [Singer’s] tenderness for ordinary folk, their superstitions, their folly, their plainness, their lapses is a classical thread of Yiddish fiction, as well as the tree trunk of Singer’s own Hasidic legacy—love and reverence for the down-to-earth.”

Critical reaction to Singer’s fiction as a whole has also been largely favorable. He was an internationally renowned literary figure who was widely considered the foremost contemporary Yiddish writer. Although he lived in the United States for more than fifty years, Singer wrote almost exclusively in Yiddish. Some critics have faulted Singer for occasional sentimentality and for exploring repetitious

Compare & Contrast

  • 1953: Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Jewish members of the Communist Party, are executed for espionage. As civilians, their death sentence sparks controversy.

    1990s: Aldrich Ames, a high-ranking CIA official, is convicted of spying for the Soviets during his 31-year career. He receives life in prison, the harshest penalty possible. His wife is also convicted, but she receives only a several years imprisonment.
  • 1950s: Roughly 5 percent of children are born out of wedlock in the United States.

    Today: More than 30 percent of children are born out of wedlock in the United States.
  • 1956: Polish workers protest the Communist regime. Over 100 demonstrators are killed.

    1993: In the wake of capitalist reforms, Poland suffers a surge of violent crime inflicted by organized mobs.

themes, but he is widely admired for his powers of evocation, his talents as a stylist, and his renderings of the Yiddish language. In 1978, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal conditions to life.” Singer’s reputation rests largely upon his short stories, most notably “Gimpel the Fool.”


Judy Sobeloff

Judy Sobeloff is a writer and educator who has won several awards for her fiction. In the following essay, she discusses how the character of Gimpel represents the Yiddish archetype of the “schlemiel,” the sainted fool, and notes how the structure of the story compares to the biblical story of Hosea.

“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 butter-side 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

What Do I Read Next?

  • I. L. Peretz’s short story “Bontsha the Silent” centers on a character who, when offered everything in heaven, asks only for a hot roll with butter for breakfast every morning.
  • Sherwood Anderson’s short story “I’m a Fool” is told by a first-person narrator, a racehorse groom, who lies to get what he wants.
  • The 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by American author John Irving centers on a Christ-like hero and examines the meaning of good and evil.
  • Prussian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot centers on the protagonist’s loss of innocence and his experience of sin.
  • James Michener’s Poland (1983) is a fictionalized history of Poland which spans 700 years.

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

“Gimpel’s 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.”

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.

Source: Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Paul N. Siegel

Siegel is an American critic who has written extensively on English Renaissance literature and the works of William Shakespeare. In the following excerpt, Siegel views the protagonist and narrator of Singer’s short story “Gimpel the Fool” as an ironic example of the archetypal wise- or sainted-fool figure in literature.

“Gimpel the Fool,” perhaps the most widely acclaimed work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, has its roots deep in the soil of Yiddish literature. It is concerned with two of what Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg tell us, in their Treasury of Yiddish Stories, are “the great themes of Yiddish literature,” “the virtue of powerlessness” and “the sanctity of the insulted and the injured,” and has as its anti-hero the “wise or sainted fool” who is an “extreme variation” of “the central figure of Yiddish literature,” “dos kleine menschele, the little man.” The wise or sainted fool is, however, not merely a recurring character in Yiddish fiction; he is a centuries-old archetypal figure of western literature. The manner in which Singer handles this archetypal figure, making use of the ideas associated with it, but in his own distinctive way, makes “Gimpel the Fool” the masterpiece of irony that it is. . . .

Gimpel differs from the other representatives of the archetype, the Yiddish ones as well as the others, in that he is the expression of his creator’s own idiosyncratic mixture of faith and skepticism. It is this mixture which, as we shall see in analyzing the story, is the source of its pervasive irony. Singer stated in a Commentary interview on November, 1963 that it would be foolish to believe the purveyors of fantasies about psychic phenomena—just as it was foolish of Gimpel to believe the fantastic lies he was told—yet the universe is mysterious, and there is something of truth after all in these fantasies, at least a revelation concerning the depths of the human psyche from which these fantasies emerged and perhaps something more as well. The need to continue to search for the truth, the realization that this search cannot result in the attainment of the truth, the need to choose belief, the realization that, intellectually speaking, such a choice cannot be defended against the unbeliever—all of this lies behind “Gimpel the Fool.” . . .

Gimpel is the butt of his village because of his credulity. But is he the fool that the village takes him to be? Telling his story himself, he affirms his own folly in his very first words: “I am Gimpel the fool.” In the very next breath, however, he takes it back: “I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me.” As he relates the story of his life, this denial of his foolishness seems to be the pitiful defense of his intellect by an evidently weak-witted person who at times tacitly admits that he is a fool, but a steadily deepening ambiguity plays about his narrative. This ambiguity, present from the beginning, is indicated in the title and the opening sentence of the Yiddish, where the epithet used is “chochem” or “sage,” which often has the ironic meaning of “fool,” the meaning in which the villagers and Gimpel’s wife use it. . . .

His credulity has no limits. Repetition seems to make it easier for him to believe rather than the reverse. We should laugh at this spectacle of the fool continuing in his folly, but we do not, for we have come to wonder if Gimpel, undoubted fool that he has proven himself to be, is not in reality superior to his deceivers. Early in his torments the rabbi had advised him, “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.” The paradox is that Gimpel, born to be a fool all of his days, is not a fool. It is the smart-aleck villagers, devoting their time to playing games upon him, who are fools. . . .

Just as he made a vow before not to believe anything that he was told, a vow which he was unable to keep, so he now makes a vow to believe whatever he is told. “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.” It is undoubtedly laughable that Gimpel makes faith in the sluttish Elka equivalent to faith in the divine scheme of things. Yet Singer himself, during the Commentary interview in November, 1963, in expounding the philosophy of “as if,” the doctrine that all of us must lead our lives in accordance with certain assumptions, such as the assumption that we will go on living, even if these assumptions go contrary to the existing evidence, makes use of faith in one’s wife as an illustration. . . .

Before Elka dies, she confesses to Gimpel that she has deceived him all of their married life. The Spirit of Evil comes to Gimpel as he is sleeping and, telling him that God and the judgment in the world to come are fables, persuades him to revenge himself against the deceitful world by urinating in the dough so that the “chachomim,” the sages of the village, may be fooled into eating filth. . . .

After he has baked the unclean bread, however, and lies dozing by the oven, Elka appears in a dream. She calls him “cho-chem” —ironically wise man and fool—for believing that because she was false everything else is a lie. She had in reality never deceived anyone but herself, and now she is paying for it in the other world. . . .

The “as if that Elka is faithful by which Gimpel had lived is now seen by him to give way, after it has sunk under him, to other “as if’s.” He buries the bread in the ground, divides his wealth among the children—he had earlier casually mentioned in his unworldly way that he had forgotten to say that he had come to be rich—and goes into the world. Before he had regarded his village as the world. Now he finds out that the world has much more in it than he knew. He grows old and gray in his wanderings. He hears many fantastic tales, but the longer he lives the more he comes to realize that there are no lies. Everything, no matter how fantastic, comes to pass sooner or later. The something that was supposed to have happened that he hears and regards as impossible actually happens at a later time. Or even, he says in a sentence omitted in the Bellow translation, a sentence reminiscent of Singer’s comment on the magazines devoted to psychic phenomena, if a story is quite imagined, it also has a significance: why does one person dream up one thing and another person an entirely different thing?

Gimpel thus becomes a representative of that other variant of dos kleine menschele in Yiddish fiction, “the ecstatic wanderer, hopeless in this world because so profoundly committed to the other,” as Greenberg and Howe have put it. He also becomes reminiscent of the Wandering Jew, who according to the legend transmitted through the centuries was punished for having spat into the face of Christ by being deprived of the power to die. Cursed with unwanted life, imbued with the esoteric knowledge he has acquired through having lived through many civilizations, he is generally an evil figure, but he is also sometimes represented as Christ-like in the sustained agony through which he pays for his sin. Longing to join Elka in death, weary from the years of his wandering, Gimpel is transformed by the realization that has come to him from his varied experiences that “the world is entirely an imaginary world,” becoming a personification of the ecstatic wisdom that is attained through the agony of suffering.

Yet the wisdom he has attained is the same that he had when, “like a golem,” he “believed everyone,” reasoning to himself, “Everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers, I’ve forgotten just how.” What had seemed to be one of a number of excuses offered by a fool for his gullibility turns out to be indeed wisdom. The outrageously outlandish stories about miraculous births he had accepted really attested to his perception of the miracle of life. The hallucinations which he told himself he had had really attested to his perception that the world is a dream.

“The outrageously outlandish stories about miraculous births he had accepted really attested to his perception of the miracle of life.”

But now he who had listened to stories of marvels is the one who tells them: “Going from place to place, eating at strange tables, it often happens that I spin yarns—improbable things that could never have happened—about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like.” Sometimes the children who chase after him tell him the particular story they wish to hear, and he satisfies them with a recital of that tale. For Gimpel, it is implied, has come to understand that each one of us has his own favorite fiction to which he is addicted, his own delusion to which he needs to remain faithful. But a sharp youngster tells him that it is really always the same story that he tells. For all of our delusions derive from the dream that is life in this world. The tales which the aged wanderer relates deal with the folk superstitions to which there have been so many references in “Gimpel the Fool “—the windmills, however, seem to be a reminiscence of the illusions of that glorious madman, Don Quixote—but these superstitions, silly as they are, are glimpses of the truth shadowed forth in the dream of life: “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.” . . .

Source: Paul N. Siegel, “Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool,” in The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Marcia Allentuck, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 159-74.

Alfred Kazin

A highly respected American critic, Kazin is best known for his essay collections The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), and On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American prose writing since the era of William Dean Howells. In the following excerpt from a review of Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories, Kazin discusses Singer’s combination of traditional Jewish and modern literary conventions, focusing on his use of the archetypal fool figure of Jewish literature.

When I first read “Gimpel the Fool “. . . I felt not only that I was reading an extraordinarily beautiful and witty story, but that I was moving through as many historical levels as an archaeologist at work. This is an experience one often gets from the best Jewish writers. The most “advanced” and sophisticated Jewish writers of our time—Babel, Kafka, Bellow—have assimilated, even conquered, the whole tradition of modern literature while reminding us of the unmistakable historic core of the Jewish experience. Equally, a contemporary Yiddish writer like Isaac Bashevis Singer uses all the old Jewish capital of folklore, popular speech and legendry, yet from within this tradition itself is able to duplicate a good deal of the conscious absurdity, the sauciness, the abandon of modern art—without for a moment losing his obvious personal commitment to the immemorial Jewish vision of the world.

Perhaps it is this ability to incarnate all the different periods that Jews have lived through that makes such writers indefinably fascinating to me. They wear whole epochs on their back; they alone record widely separated centuries in dialogue with each other. Yet all these different periods of history, these many histories, represent, if not a single point of view, a common historic character. It is the irony with which ancient dogmas are recorded, the imaginative sympathy with which they are translated and transmuted into contemporary terms, that makes the balance that is art.

Gimpel himself is an example of a legendary Jewish type—the saint as schlemiel. The mocked, persecuted and wretched people, who nevertheless are the chosen—chosen to bear a certain knowledge through a hostile world—are portrayed again in the town fool, a baker who is married off to a frightful slut without knowing what everyone else in town knows, that she will bear a child in four months. Gimpel is the fool of the Jews: a fool because he is endlessly naive, a fool because, even when he does learn that he has been had, he ignores his own dignity for the sake of others. His wife’s unfaithfulness, her shrewishness—these are not the bourgeois concealment, the “cheating” on one’s spouse that it would be in another culture, but a massive, hysterical persecution. The child she already has she passes off as her “brother”; Gimpel believes her. When she gives birth to a child four months after the wedding, Gimpel pays for the circumcision honors and rituals, and names the boy after his own father. When he cries out that his wife has deceived him, she deliberately confuses him, as usual, and persuades him that the child is “premature”:

I said, “Isn’t he a little too premature?” She said that she had a grandmother who carried just as short a time and she resembled this grandmother of hers as one drop of water does another. She swore to it with such oaths that you would have believed a peasant at the fair if he had used them. To tell the plain truth, I didn’t believe her; but when I talked it over next day with the schoolmaster he told me that the very same thing had happened to Adam and Eve. Two they went up to bed, and four they descended.

The humor of this is always very real, for these people are rough old-fashioned village types who know their own. The town boys are always playing tricks on Gimpel, setting him on false trails; he is mocked at his own wedding—some young men carry in a crib as a present. His wife, Elka, is a living nightmare, a shrew of monumental proportions, a Shakespearean harridan. Yet in Gimpel’s obstinate attachment to her we recognize, as in his customary meekness, the perfection of a type: what to the great world is folly, in itself may be wisdom; what the world thinks insane may, under the aspect of eternity, be the only sanity. . . .

One night, Gimpel comes home unexpectedly and finds another man in bed with Elka; this time he has had enough, and he separates from her. But the town mischiefs take her side and persecute him, while Gimpel worries whether he did see the man:

Hallucinations do happen. You see a figure or a manikin or something, but when you come up closer it’s nothing, there’s not a thing there. And if that’s so, I’m doing her an injustice. And when I got so far in my thoughts I started to weep. I sobbed so that I wet the floor where I lay. In the morning I went to the rabbi and told him that I had made a mistake.

Elka has another child and “all Frampol refreshed its spirits because of my trouble and grief. However, I resolved that I would always believe what I was told. What’s the good of not believing? Today it’s your wife you don’t believe in; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in.”

Even his superstitions—Singer uses local demons and spirits as dramatic motifs—become symbols of his innocent respect for the world. One night, after covering the dough to let it rise, he takes his share of bread and a little sack of flour and starts homeward. . . .

He returns home to find his wife in bed with the apprentice. Characteristically, he suffers rather than storms; characteristically,“the moon went out all at once. It was utterly black, and I trembled”; characteristically, he obeys his wife when she sends him out of the house to see if the goat is well; characteristically, he identifies himself tenderly with the goat, and when he returns home, the apprentice having fled, the wife denies everything, tells him he has been seeing visions, shrieks prodigious curses. Her “brother” beats him with a stick. And Gimpel: “I felt that something about me was deeply wrong, and I said, ‘Don’t make a scandal. All that’s needed now is that people should accuse me of raising spooks and dybbuks.’”

So he makes his peace with her, and they live together for twenty years. “All kinds of things happened, but I neither saw nor heard.” When his wife dies, she tells him that none of their children is his, and the look on her dead face seems to say to him—“I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life.”

Now Gimpel is tempted by the Spirit of Evil himself, who tells him that it is all nothing.” ‘What,’ I said, ‘is there, then?’ ‘A thick mire.’” And, succumbing to the devil, Gimpel urinates into the risen dough. His dead wife comes to him in a dream— and, when he weeps in shame at his act, “It’s all your fault,” she Ories—“You fool! You fool! Because I was false, is everything false, too?”

When the mourning period for his wife ends, he gives up everything to tramp through the world, often telling stories to children—“about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like.” He dreams constantly of his wife, asks when he will be with her; in his dreams, she kisses him and promises him that they will be together soon. “When I awaken I feel her lips and taste the salt of her tears.”

The last paragraph of the story, Gimpel’s serene meditation before death, is of great beauty. It sums up everything that Jews have ever felt about the divinity that hedges human destiny, and it is indeed one of the most touching avowals of faith that I have ever seen. Yet it is all done with lightness, with wit, with a charming reserve—so that it might almost be read as a tribute to human faithfulness itself. . . .

Singer’s story naturally suggests a comparison with I. J. Peretz’s famous “Bontsha the Silent,” who was offered everything in heaven, and meekly asked for a hot roll with fresh butter every morning for breakfast. One thinks also of Sholem Aleichem’s

“Gimpel’s serene meditation before death is of great beauty. It sums up everything that Jews have ever felt about the divinity that hedges human destiny.”

Tevye the dairyman, who recited his prayers even as he ran after his runaway horse. But in his technique of ambiguity Singer speaks for our generation far more usefully than the old ritualistic praise of Jewish goodness. While Bontsha and Tevye are entirely folk images, cherished symbols of a tradition, Gimpel—though he and his wife are no less symbols—significantly has to win back his faith, and he wins it in visions, in dreams, that give a background of playfulness and irony to this marvelously subtle story.

This concern with the dream, this everlasting ambiguity in our relations with the divine—this is a condition that our generation has learned to respect, after rejecting the dogmas first of orthodoxy and then of scientific materialism. This delicacy of conception unites Singer to the rest of imaginative humanity today: Man believes even though he knows his belief to be absurd, but what he believes represents a level of imaginative insight which shades off at one end into art, at the other into Gimpel’s occasional self-doubt, the thought that he may be “mad.”

It is the integrity of the human imagination that Singer conveys so beautifully. He reveals the advantage that an artist can find in his own orthodox training—unlike so many Jews who in the past became mere copyists and mumblers of the holy word. Singer’s work does stem from the Jewish village, the Jewish seminary, the compact (not closed) Jewish society of Eastern Europe. He does not use the symbols which so many modern writers pass on to each other. For Singer it is not only his materials that are “Jewish”; the world is so. Yet within this world he has found emancipation and universality—through his faith in imagination. . . .

Source: Alfred Kazin, “The Saint as Schlemiel,” in his Contemporaries, Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 283-88.


Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction, No. 18, Twayne, 1990.

Drucker, Sally Ann. “I. B. Singer’s Two Holy Fools,” Yiddish, Vol. 8, no. 2, 1992, pp. 35-39.

Hadda, Janet. “Gimpel the Full,” Prooftexts, Vol. 10, 1990, pp. 283-295.

Hennings, Thomas. “Singer’s ‘Gimpel the Fool’ and The Book of Hosea,” The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 13, no. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 11-19.

Pinsker, Sanford. “The Schlemiel as Metaphor,” Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Further Reading

Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3, Gale, 1989.

Contains previously published criticism on Singer’s short fiction.

Siegel, Ben. “Sacred and Profane: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Embattled Spirits,” Critique, Vol. VI, No. 1 (Spring 1963): 24-47.

Discusses Singer’s blending of Yiddish and Western literary traditions in Gimpel the Fool and The Spinoza of Market Street.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis, and Burgin, Richard. Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986, 190 p.

Interviews with Singer.