Gimpel The Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1953
The magic trick:
Creating a unique character of unique philosophy
Gimpel is a very, very interesting character. He sums it up himself in his introductory sentences: “I am Gimpel the fool. I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me.”
He is gullible in a sense. He is easily manipulated into foolish actions by the people around him. But he’s not oblivious. He simply has a different kind of life philosophy to most others. When the townspeople try to prank him by telling him that his mother and father have risen from the grave, he figures they are lying to him, that this can’t be true. But he goes to look anyway, saying “What did I stand to lose by looking?”
It’s an admirable philosophy, even as it creates plenty of problems in his life. It certainly makes him a very likable and memorable character. The reader wants to think him heroic for his attitude, and it’s fascinating to watch if the narrative will agree with this assessment. And that’s quite a trick on Singer’s part.
When the pranksters and leg-pullers found that I was easy to fool, every one of them tried his luck with me. “Gimpel, the Czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen; Gimpel, little Hodel Furpiece found a treasure behind the bathhouse.” And I like a golem believed everyone. In the first place, everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers, I’ve forgotten just how. Second, I had to believe when the whole town came down on me! If I ever dared to say, “Ah, you’re kidding!” there was trouble. People got angry. “What do you mean! You want to call everyone a liar?” What was I to do? I believed them, and I hope at least that did them some good.
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This is the most obvious and widespread interpretation of Gimpel, but it’s wrong–and if it were right, then Singer’s story would hardly be worth reading. Gimpel protests again and again that he believes everything, that he has decided to believe everything, and so on; actually, however, he is deceived and abused more and more deeply and becomes more and more bitter. The culmination of that bitterness occurs at his wife’s deathbed confession that she has fooled him his whole life. There immediately follows the scene with the Devil, that is GIMPEL’S Devil: his fury at being made a fool of (אפנארן). He commits a vicious act–pissing in the dough that townfolk will eat. THEN comes his “redemption”: after a vision of his dead wife, he becomes truly “simple.” He gives everything away and becomes a sort of mendicant and storyteller. If one holds to the conventional reading, then Gimpel is changeless from beginning to end–a simpleton. Where’s the virtue, the humanity, or the FUN in that?
It’s certainly a thought.