There is a long tradition in literature of “the fool” as one who speaks great truths. Don Quixote, known as “The Man of La Mancha,” was deemed a madman, a fool, a dreamer by his contemporaries, and yet he earned their respect and became literature’s model of one who quests after truth, honor and justice.
In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Gimpel the Fool,” Gimpel is a character of that noble lineage. He is the first-person narrator of a story in which he is gullible and mocked mercilessly by the townsfolk of his native village in Poland.
He is an orphan, and the villagers, instead of showing compassion, make him the victim of their outrageous practical jokes: everything from convincing him that the elderly rabbi’s wife just gave birth, to making him think that his mother and father have arisen from the dead. They go from pranks to matchmaking between Gimpel and the town prostitute, Elka, who, they tell him, is a chaste maiden. Gimpel marries her, loves her and, even when he finds her cheating on him and she treats him shamefully, he stands forever ready to forgive her and to love the children she bears who are clearly not his own.
Can a person be any more foolish than the hapless Gimpel?
Actually, the first lines of the story tell us that the fooled and cuckolded Gimpel is quite lucid: “I am Gimpel the fool. I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary.” He is aware of what others think of him, but he has a mind of his own, which asserts itself throughout the story until what emerges is an alternative philosophy of life.
When Gimpel’s bride turns out to be a vulgar and deceitful woman with “a fierce tongue,” he declares philosophically that “you can’t pass through life unscathed, nor expect to.”
When Gimpel seeks the rabbi’s advice, the reader finally sees a sympathetic character. The rabbi assures him that the townsfolk are the fools and are acting unconscionably; but as he leaves, even the rabbi’s daughter taunts him cruelly. Nowhere, it seems, is safe from the bad behavior of the masses.
When Gimpel’s wife gives birth four months after their wedding, the townspeople insist that the child is his, and his love for the baby overrides his good judgment. He says, “But I’m the type that bears it and says nothing. What’s one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens, too.”
His comments reveal him as alert to the reality but making a conscious choice not to confront the evil surrounding him on all sides.
He lives far from the bakery where he works, so he stays in town and comes home for the weekends. When he returns early one day, he finds another man in bed with Elka.
This outrage he will not accept. He goes to the rabbi, who tells him that he must divorce his wife. But the prospect of being alone again, without a wife and family, is too much. He returns to the rabbi and says that he was mistaken, confessing to the reader: “I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly. I don’t have it in me to be really angry.” His self-awareness is striking, and if more people possessed his “flaw” of being slow to anger and quick to forgive, maybe the world would finally be at peace.
In the process of grappling with his endless predicaments, Gimpel becomes sympathetic and profoundly human in the readers’ eyes. He decides that he must be a believer, no matter what: “What’s the good of not believing? Today, it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow, it’s God Himself you don’t take stock in.” He is making a deliberate choice to be the victim rather than the perpetrator, the gullible one rather than the cynic.
One night, the “Spirit of Evil” appears to Gimpel in a dream and convinces him that “the whole world deceives you, and you ought to deceive the world in your turn.” He is instructed to bake the bread of his bakery with urine. However, true to himself, he destroys all the spoiled bread because he simply cannot behave to them as they behaved to him. Revenge is not for him.
The Spirit of Evil had told Gimpel that there is no world to come, no God, no judgment, only a “thick mire.” Gimpel understands that the alternative to his simple goodness is nihilism. Elka, who had passed away, returns in a dream and reinforces his instincts: “Because I was false, is everything false, too? I never deceived anyone but myself,” she says.
Gimpel leaves the village, finds good people elsewhere, and leaves the reader with his parting thoughts: “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world. When the time comes, I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: There, even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”
The Yiddish literary view
The doyenne of Yiddish literary studies, Prof. Ruth Wisse, points out that the relationship between God and the Jewish people is referred to as a marriage, with the Jewish people often the unfaithful partner. In this story, the roles are reversed: It is God who is portrayed as unfaithful to a trusting and believing people after the war. After the Holocaust, though, many Jews did become disillusioned.
The Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein wrote in “Not the Dead Praise God” that “we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, and in Lublin we gave it back.” (Lublin was the headquarters for the German plan to destroy Polish Jews.)
The story of Gimpel, published after WWII, constitutes the repudiation of Glatstein’s understandable response to the Holocaust. It is an affirmation of life and faith, however great the cost. According to this reading, Gimpel embodies the spirit of those among the Polish Jewry who refused to exchange their belief and Jewish way of life for the emptiness that exists without them.
In an insightful article in Slate magazine, Dahlia Lithwick writes about the Yiddish word “tzebrokhnkayt,” which means “brokenness,” a word that connotes the idea of being broken-hearted without succumbing to hopelessness. It requires the honoring of one’s pain and the willingness to carry “our shattered pieces with us.” It means that even when we are not okay, we can still remain dedicated to surviving and even thriving.
On closer inspection, Gimpel turns out not to be a fool but rather the symbol of a conscious choice to look beyond unjust suffering and hold fast to faith and goodness. Our Jewish Don Quixote represents the survivors who led the way to the future by being tzebrokhn, yet remaining unbowed.
Isaac Bashevis Singer ultimately leaves readers with a weighty choice: If it is “foolish” to choose a life of faith, honesty, love and forgiveness, would we not all rather be fools? ■The writer is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.