Religious Imagery in “Gimpel the Fool”

by Justine Thoury

 

“Gimpel the Fool” is the story of a man who believes everything he is told, and whose genuine faith in God enables him to undergo patiently the characters’ lies and tricks. Religion, and more precisely Judaism, is the philosophy that binds the story together and justifies Gimpel’s actions and thoughts. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story is flooded with religious imagery, and no less than sixty-five references to religion can be found throughout the narrative. They can be divided into several categories, which all give us clues to understand the character of Gimpel.

First, let us focus on the setting and consider Frampol as a typical Jewish village, a community deeply rooted in religious tradition. Singer helps the reader enter the daily lives of the people by making discrete, yet constant, allusions to religious traditions such as the “good-night prayer” (Singer 1217), the “raisins they give when a woman’s lying in” (1217), the “Sabbath” (1219), or the “Holy Days[1]” (1223). All these details create the context of Gimpel’s story. Others are more abundantly developed or affect directly the course of Gimpel’s life, such as his wedding (1219) and the circumcision of his son (1220). Therefore, although Gimpel may at first appear as the “fool” the villagers laugh at, he is no rebel and behaves as an honest, pious man, acting in accordance with his Jewish education and environment.

Other religious images that appear in the story consist of the characters themselves, among whom two stand out: the rabbi, and his foil, Elka. The rabbi is the only one who is not an antagonist. He is present at crucial moments to encourage and guide Gimpel, and so he influences Gimpel’s actions and the unfolding of the plot itself through his genuine advice and wise statements: “‘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 neighbour to feel shame loses Paradise himself’” (1218). Gimpel waits for his “verdict” (1221) and kisses his hand to thank him (1222). Sometimes the characters just refer to the rabbi as a knowledgeable figure in the background who is in charge of the law: “‘we can take you to the rabbi and have you fined’” (1218), “nine months passed before all the rabbis could come to an agreement” about Gimpel’s divorce (1222). The rabbi, as the representative of God, is both a public figure who interprets the ways of the Torah[2], and a private adviser who helps Gimpel throughout the story until he finds his own truth.

As for Elka, the not so pure “virgin” (1218), “‘both a widow and divorced’” (1219), she embodies what are commonly acknowledged as pagan values: lust (she cheats on Gimpel shamelessly, leaving him with animals or rising dough as companions), gluttony (“she ate and became fat” (1220)), lying (“‘Drive this foolishness out of your head! The child is yours’” (1220)), greed (“‘I want a dowry of fifty guilders’” (1218)), and disrespect (“‘You hateful creature! You moon calf!’” (1223)). The only times when she displays religious talk or appears as a “saint” (1226) are in Gimpel’s dreams after her death (1225-6). It is only through death and redemption (“‘I’m paying for it all’” (1225)), or faced with death (“‘Forgive me’” (1219, 1224)) that she gains religious wisdom. Strangely enough, it is her ghost who prevents Gimpel from getting his revenge (1225), whereas, when she is alive, she rather suggests “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: “‘whoever tries to twist you up, may the end of his nose take a twist’” (1218).

Throughout the story, Gimpel refers many times to the basic Judaic texts and episodes: the “Wisdom of the Fathers” (1217), the return of the “Messiah” (1218), the story of “Adam and Eve” (1220) or “Maimonides[3]” (1222). Gimpel also calls on mythological imagery derived from traditional Jewish folktales that form the Kabbalah[4]: “golem[5]” (1217), “the evil eye” (1220), “abracadabras[6]” (1220), “the demons” (1223), “dybbuks[7]” (1224), or the “Spirit of Evil” (1224). These figures appear deliberately in Singer’s short story and are designed to bind it to this mythological literary tradition in Jewish culture. Thus, “Gimpel the Fool” can be read as a tale or a religious allegory.

Last but not least, religious imagery is present implicitly through Gimpel’s statements or thoughts and gives him a deeper, more complex aspect than that of the foolish, good-natured, naďve scapegoat. He loves his enemies: “I believed them, and I hope at least it did them some good” (1217). He displays patient religious resignation: “I’m the type that bears it and says nothing. What’s one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too” (1221). He firmly believes in life after death: “A false step now and I’d lose Eternal Life” (1225). He even appears as a Christ figure when faced with Elka’s insults and lies: “she gave me bloody wounds” (1220), just like Jesus after resurrection, showing the bloody wounds on his hands and feet. Eventually, the “old and white” Gimpel (1225) becomes a prophet (Lee 161). After experiencing a period of temptation (urinating in the dough (1225)) and facing the question of faith (“‘Is there a God?’” (1225)), he chooses redemption through endless wandering and storytelling as a way of exorcising what he has suffered from all his life (being told lies), for “there were really no lies” (1225). He has found religious transcendence; his life is complete and he has nothing but Paradise to wait for: “When time comes I will go joyfully. […] God may be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived” (1226).

 

WORKS CITED

 

“Abracadabra.” Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 1996.

“Dybbuk.” Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 1996.

“Golem.” Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 1996.

Lee, Grace Farrell. “‘Gimpel the Fool’: The Kabbalic Basis of Singer’s Secular Vision.” Essays in Literature Vol. 3 Issue 1 (Spring 1996): 157-66.

Neusner, Jacob. The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism, Second Edition. Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company. 1974.

---. Judaism, The Basics. New York, NY: Routledge. 2006.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel the Fool.” Trans. Saul Bellow. Fiction 100, An Anthology of Short Fiction, Eleventh Edition. Ed. James H. Pickering. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 2007. 1217-26.



[1] The calendar of holy days […] governs the passage of the year [and] embodies the great events that Scripture records. […] Five great occasions basic to Judaism are […] the Passover Seder, a home banquet […] in springtime, […] the Days of Awe, a synagogue rite […] in the autumn. […] Then […] comes the Huppah or marriage canopy, the quite private rite of marriage of two Jewish individuals, and the rite of circumcision, than which there is no more personal rite—or more public one; and eating a meal.

Each rite recapitulates a segment of the Judaic narrative sustained and framed by the Scripture. (Neusner, Judaism, The Basics 35)

[2] The mythic structure [of Judaism] finds expression […] in […] action-symbols […] that are set forth in the halakhah. This word is normally translated as “law” [or] “the way”: the way man lives his life, the way man shapes his daily routine into a pattern of sanctity, the way man follows the revelation of the Torah and attains redemption.

For the Judaic tradition, this way is absolutely central. (Neusner, The Way of Torah 29)

[3] Moses Maimonides (1141-1205) […] was at the same time a distinguished student of the Talmud and of Jewish law in the classical mode, a community authority, a great physician, and a leading thinker of his day. (Neusner, The Way of Torah 52)

[4] The Kabbalah, which simply means “tradition”, is a collective term used for a variety of esoteric teachings based on the Torah and developed for generations by Jewish mystics. (Lee 157)

[5] In Jewish folklore, an artificial figure constructed to represent a human being and endowed with life. […] Golems sometimes helped their creators but often became uncontrollable and had to be destroyed. According to one formula for making a golem, the word EMET (“truth”) was to be written on the creature’s forehead. To destroy the golem the first letter of the word had to be eliminated, leaving the word MET (“death”). The basic idea of the golem has been adapted by many authors and has appeared in various forms in literature, notably in […] Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Golem. (“Golem”)

[6] A cabalistic charm, supposedly constructed from the initials of the Hebrew words […] Father, […] Son, and […] Holy Spirit, and once used as an antidote against various physical ills. (“Abracadabra”)

[7] In Jewish Folklore, the migrating soul of a dead person that enters the body of a living person in the form of a malevolent spirit and renders him mad or corrupt. The dybbuk could be exorcised but only at great peril to the body it inhabited. (“Dybbuk”)