Gimpel as an Unreliable Narrator?

by Matthieu Bourque



In “Gimpel the Fool,” written by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), the narrator presents the story through the eyes of the main character, Gimpel, in the way he sees the world, the way he acts, and the way other people act and react towards him. The first-person point of view is the perspective from which the story is told and we are inside Gimpel’s head from the start of the short story. The primary reason is the voice that is used and throughout the story we hear the word “I” being used; as a result, that makes the narrator a major character and participant in almost every event presented to us in the story. Thus we are only getting one side of the story and can’t help but wonder what is going on with the things we are not being told about. As mentioned in class, the character of Gimpel is often seen as the “schlemiel,” a foolish, unlucky man, common to Jewish folktales, whose follies are delineated in order to present the readers with a moral lesson.


The definition of an unreliable narrator is as follow: “A narrator whose knowledge and judgments about characters or events is sufficiently incomplete or flawed to render him an unreliable guide to the author’s intentions” (1433). The following text will present reasons as to why Gimpel is an unreliable narrator


Since the story is being told from a first-person point of view through the eyes of an individual “I am Gimpel the fool. I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me” (1217). Through the story he explains to us that people consider him a fool, that they constantly play him for one and that he always falls for it and yet, he does not consider himself a fool, he thinks of himself as a passive person who is just nice and does not like violence, so he never rebels against anyone. “I was no weakling. If I slapped someone he’d see all the way to Cracow. But I’m really not a slugger by nature. I think to myself: let it pass. So they take advantage of me” (1217).


His innocence and purity makes him overly trusting and that causes him to fall for almost anything the villagers put him up to. “Every woman or girl who came to bake a batch of noodles had to fool me at least once. “Gimpel, there’s a fair in heaven; Gimpel, the rabbi’s wife gave birth to a calf in the seventh month; Gimpel, a cow flew over the roof and laid brass eggs” (1217). Even when he is told that the dead have risen, and he swore to never fall for anything again he ends up checking if his parents really have come out of their graves, just in case.


Can he be considered such an innocent fool? Even as the village people and his wife lie to him, confuse him, and fool him, he still is aware that they are “playing” him; he just chooses to go along with it and refuses to rebel. For example, at some point in the story, his wife has “his” premature baby. The schoolmaster and his wife end up arguing him dumb about how babies can be born and he let both of them fool him although he knows that it really is not his son.


He says he is perceived by other people in a certain way and then goes on saying that he is perceived that way because he is too passive to rebel against them. Gimpel is not simply a fool but also a wise one. His passivity and trust in the rabbi allow him to go on through his life with a different perspective on reality than most other people would. Throughout the story, we learn that Gimpel believes in the goodness of people and that is the reason why he lets them treat him so badly.


We could not discover this different perspective if it were not for Gimpel’s pint of view and the way the narrator puts us inside the character. He never says he loves Elka, but through his actions, he makes it clear. After her death, and her appearance to him in a dream, Gimpel decides to get back at all the townspeople who have made him a fool by baking bread with urine mixed in it. Then Elka will visit him in a dream, for the second time, and he sees that her face is turning black from being in Hell and because of all the deception she caused while she was alive; as a result, Gimpel changes his mind and buries the bread in front of his apprentice’s very eyes.


Had this story been told from someone else’s pity of view we would not have been able to see that everything he did was because he loved her. In conclusion, Gimpel went along with it because he naďvely likes people and loved his wife