31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 6: “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (trans. by Saul Bellow)

May 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories

Gimpel_the_FoolToday, you get a twofer: a story by one of the great Yiddish writers translated by one of the great American writers.

The title story from Singer’s classic 1957 collection showcases many of the author’s key themes and preoccupations: Jewish tradition and folklore, sexual jealousy, and broad – frequently scatalogical – humour. The Polish-born Nobel Prize winner, who died in 1991, was a moralist and a fabulist, and a merciless dissector of the human condition. As Allegra Goodman writes in her introduction to the 2006 edition of Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories:

Singer unfolds events in direct, straightforward fashion and hammers home the morals of these tales with gusto. The resulting work is powerful but rarely subtle. Nuance, understatement, and delicacy are not Singer’s strong suit. Why shade situations with a brush when a mallet will do? Characters and their actions are so consistent they almost calcify: the truly pious remain pious; the aged become so old they almost live forever; folly leads to worse folly, weakness to damnation, lust and avarice and meanness to destruction.

Certainly, Goodman’s assessment holds true for Gimpel, the village idiot of Frampol, a small town in prewar Poland. Gimpel is preyed upon by the entire town, who make sport of what they consider his heightened gullibility. In truth, Gimpel recognizes when he is being tormented more often than not, but chooses not to retaliate:

Then in came Rietze the Candle-dipper and called out in her hoarse voice, “Gimpel, your father and mother have stood up from the grave. They’re looking for you.”

To tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened, but all the same, as folks were talking, I threw on my wool vest and went out. Maybe something had happened. What did I stand to lose by looking?

Gimpel’s credulity is brought to bear when he is tricked into marrying the town harlot, Elka, who manages to convince him the child she gives birth to four months after the wedding is his, despite the fact that the couple never has sex, and rarely even shares a bed (Gimpel sleeps in the bakery he runs in the town). On two occasions in the story, Gimpel walks in on his wife in bed with another man; the second time it is Gimpel’s apprentice in his bakery. On both occasions, Elka claims that Gimpel hallucinated the event, and Gimpel adopts this belief as fact. “I lived twenty years with my wife,” Gimpel says. “She bore me six children, four daughters and two sons. All kinds of things happened, but I neither saw nor heard. I believed, and that’s all.”

What rescues Gimpel from becoming a merely pathetic and ridiculous figure – in both the reader’s eyes and the author’s – is his piety. Gimpel is a believer, in all respects, and he follows the Torah to the letter. When a number of townsfolk try to convince him the Messiah has returned, he responds that it is impossible: “I heard no one blowing the ram’s horn!” He trusts in his rabbi implicitly, and the rabbi assures 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.” Indeed, even the kindly rabbi becomes exasperated when Gimpel retracts his accusation of infidelity against Elka. The rabbi, who had insisted that Gimpel must divorce Elka, changes his mind after Gimpel convinces him he hallucinated everything. “Meanwhile,” we are told, “Elka gave birth to still another child.”

After Elka dies, Gimpel is visited by the Spirit of Evil, who convinces him to get revenge on the town by marinating his baked goods in his own urine. But Gimpel decides not to go through with this scheme when his dead wife appears to him in a dream and tells him that she is paying for her sins in hell. “I never deceived anyone but myself,” the vision of his wife claims. “I’m paying for it all, Gimpel. They spare you nothing here.”

Gimpel’s unwavering belief in divine justice is his salvation. It is this belief that prevents him from giving in to his own evil impulses, regardless of how horridly he is treated by those around him. He is a fool for allowing himself to be deceived so obviously and so frequently, but he is also a loving character, who cares for his bastard children as though they were his own and who stands by his wife even in the face of overwhelming evidence that she disdains and vilifies him. Gimpel is ultimately a hopeful character, for he is stalwart in his belief that there is a better world waiting for him. “When the time comes I will go joyfully,” he muses at the story’s close. “Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception.”

In this way, as Goodman asserts, Gimpel simultaneously embodies credulity and a kind of “baffled, battered, transcendent innocence. Singer fashions him as simply as a child’s toy, and then gives him a human voice.”

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