Through clever characterization, underlying symbolism, and an in-depth point of view, the short story “Gimpel the Fool”, written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, clearly reinforces the age-old concept that repentance, along with good deeds, will ultimately be rewarded in time. Gimpel’s whole-hearted yet gullible characterization weaves an important pattern in the story’s meaning. The deeply embedded religious connotation and use of dynamic symbols both aid in allowing the reader to pick out the lesson learned in the story. With the help of the first person point of view, the reader can better understand the main character and his thought processes, tying all three fictional elements together to help the reader interpret the true significance of the story.
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Singer uses a couple of different ways to create the character Gimpel. Although Gimpel appears to be a fool, he is really a wise man and can even be characterized as a saint. He shows he is wise by loving the children that are not his, is an avid believer in his religion, and is not swayed by the temptations of the Devil. First of all he uses what other characters say about him and do to him. The other kids at school say he is a fool, and take advantage of him for their own entertainment. This is not used to make him into a foolish character, but rather a victim, a sympathetic character. He has an honest personality as well, and it shines through when introduces himself to us at the beginning. He doesn’t even try to make it sound as if it was even hard to fool him. He just tells it the exact way that it took place; they told him a lie and he didn’t even question it, he just believed it. “In the first place, everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers.” He doesn’t try to make the lie sound any more believable than it was either; he is very honest and straightforward. He also gives your insight on his thought process, which is very open and unguarded. After his second example of “foolishness” Gimpel says, “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.” These are not words of a fool, but they are words of a very trusting, wise, and reliable character.
Next, Gimpel’s descriptions of himself do a big part of creating his character. In the opening lines he says, “I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary.” And to support that, in the last few sentences, he acknowledges the fact that the kids are taking advantage of him. It really makes Gimpel out to be not a fool, but into some kind of martyr. He may look and act like a fool because of his innocence and naivete, but it’s his good heart that makes him never want to let anyone suffer, not even himself. The rejection of the devil is shown by his beliefs in God, along with the references of him visiting and consulting his rabbi and paying respect and homage to his church. Also his good and understanding heart, and the fact that he forgives everyone of what they did to him, reveals his god-like temperament. The fact that he learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness and that his children are bastards and not his own and still supports and loves them undoubtedly reveals another one of his saint-like characteristics
Thirdly, the actions of the narrator, him being a nonviolent person, make him out to be above that kind of behavior, which doesn’t make Gimpel a fool at all. It makes the townspeople the fools. The main reason why Gimpel is portrayed as a fool is because the fantastic stories like “Gimpel, there is a fair in heaven”, “Gimpel, the rabbi gave birth to a calf in the seventh month”, and “Gimpel, a cow flew over the roof and laid brass eggs” that the townspeople are constantly telling him and that, more importantly, he continues to believe. He reveals that his wife physically abuses him and he endures the brunt of her attacks, along with her “brothers” assaults, withstanding them both with compassion and patience.
Throughout the story, many “normal” figures can be represented with much more in-depth and symbolic meanings. Take, for example, when Gimpel decides to leave Frampol. His leaving can be interpreted on two levels. The first is obvious, that he needs a change of scenery or perhaps simply wants to get away. When taking a closer look, it represents a cleansing he is undergoing, an emotional revival and that he is no longer a fool that can be taken advantage of at will. “I wandered all over the land, and good people did not neglect me.” Strangers are accepting him at the end, ironically, a feeling he hadn’t felt his whole life. “It is many years since I left Frampol, but as soon as I shut my eyes again I am there. And whom do you think I see? Elka. I weep and implore, ‘Let me be with you,’ and she consoles me and tells me to be patient. The time is nearer than far.” Within this scenario Elka, another dynamically changing character throughout the book, is also finally accepting Gimpel. She represents an immoral but repentant sinner. Ironically it is Gimpel, the saint-like figure, that saves her soul by being understanding, patient, and continually loving towards her. His illegitimate children represent the sins his wife wrought throughout her life and symbolically when Gimpel finds out they are not his and still care for them and divide his fortune among them, Gimpel is really forgiving Elka for her sins.
“One night as I lay dreaming on the flour sacks, there came the Spirit of Evil himself”. When the Evil spirit approaches Gimpel he is, at first, persuaded to do his bidding and “punish” the townspeople for all their wrongdoings. What its really doing is showing his emotional growth when he rejects the spirit, showing that he is developing and growing and he won’t be pushed around forever. It shows he has forgiven the townspeople for their wrongdoings and torture to him and he is moving on.
The beauty of first person narration is that you get a first-hand view of what’s going through the mind of the main character. “Gimpel the Fool” does just that, giving you a behind-the-scenes tour of the mind of Gimpel. You get to see into his true character, his emotions, and his thought processes. We learn that he is forgiving when he pardons his wife for cheating on him repeatedly: “A longing took over me, for her and for the child. I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly, I don’t have it in me to be really angry.” We learn he is gullible and “easy to take in” from the many anecdotes told about the townspeople who attempted to “try their luck with him”: “Every woman or girl who came to bake a batch of noodles had to fool me at least once.” We learn he is submissive and willing to please when he consents to marrying the village whore and elaborates on why he doesn’t retaliate against the townspeople’s torments: “If I ever dared say, ‘Ah, you’re kidding!’ there was trouble. People got angry. What was I to do? I believed them, and hope at least that did them some good.” This example also shows his selflessness for others, his unselfish character.
We can all learn an important lesson from Gimpel. He teaches us that you get what you give, and you really shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Singer uses techniques like well thought out characterization, intense symbolism, and a profound point of view to successfully get his point across and arrive at the meaning of his story. “Gimpel the Fool” allows us to extend beyond our limited mindsets and steadfast judgements and move into uncharted territories, places that teach us compassion, whole-hearted love, and an unbiased approach to the world around us.
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