Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, Gimpel the Fool: And Other Stories
, appeared in 1957 with translations from the original Yiddish by, among others, Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow. Singer himself received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal conditions to life.” Singer’s tales draw upon centuries of Jewish folklore to resurrect the shtetl
, or small Jewish towns of 19th-century Eastern Europe that were decimated by the Holocaust. Demons, dybbuks, and other ghoulish spirits roam his literary landscapes, tempting ordinary people to surrender to all manner of sin and vice.
In the title story, Gimpel of Frampol is the town’s baker and long-suffering target of mockery. His neighbors conspire to humiliate him by arranging a match between him and the village prostitute, Elka. Four months after they marry, when Elka gives birth to a son, the gullible Gimpel accepts his wife’s explanation that the baby is his, just premature. Again and again, Gimpel submits to his neighbors’ and wife’s trickery without complaint or resentfulness because, he reasons, appearance isn’t necessarily truth. When he discovers another man in bed with Elka, he shrugs it off as very possibly a “hallucination.” Elka dies after bearing six children – none of them Gimpel’s. A demon visits Gimpel and suggests he avenge himself on his neighbors by urinating on their bread. Gimpel refuses, and leaves town to become an iterant storyteller. During his travels he dreams of Elka and feels no regrets, convinced this “world is entirely an imaginary world” that thinly veils the true world.
“The Gentleman from Cracow” is also set in the town of Frampol. Drought and famine have scourged the little community when a wealthy doctor arrives from Cracow. He tosses gold coins about, and the town organizes a banquet. During the feast, the doctor decides to choose his bride, then matches men and women at whim for marriage and expansively offers to pay all the dowries. For his own wife he selects a whore. Bewitched by the doctor, who is a devil in disguise, the townspeople fall into a frenzy of debauchery. The heat of sin ignites the town, and it burns to the ground. A new town rises out of the desecration, but it’s tainted by its shameful history.
Pelte is “The Wife Killer.” An unattractive, wealthy man, he buries three wives. He’s rumored to have killed, or at least abused these women, but there’s no proof. When he marries again, perhaps he’s met his match. His fourth wife outwits him and steals his money, but dies of a stroke just as she divorces him. Pelte lives isolated and alone to age 100, and when he finally dies, his fortune turns to dust.
Three beggars take shelter together for the night in “By the Light of Memorial Candles.” One of them, a former gravedigger, tells the others of a terrifying experience that continues to haunt him. As he was about to bury a girl, she lifted herself up and asked for a drink of water. He was aghast, but even more horror-struck by the fear that he may have buried others alive. He hopes he’ll learn the truth of the matter after he himself dies.
Demons themselves narrate three of the tales in this collection. Without offering justification for their punishing pranks, these fiendish spirits simply delight in making unlucky individuals suffer. In “The Mirror,” Zirel admires her naked reflection. The mirror imp lures Zirel through the glass, where he consigns her to an eternity of torment in hell. Satan tells of his triumphs ruining the lives of an elderly couple in “The Unseen.” Nathan, a pious man, has been faithful to his wife throughout their 50-year marriage. But Satan swoops in and upsets the apple cart by inciting Nathan’s lust for a young maid. The narrator of “From the Diary of One Not Born” gleefully recounts his impish exploits overturning bowls of food in a poor family’s house, driving a woman to suicide, and, after taking the shape of a fly, biting the nose of a young rabbi during his first sermon.
In “Joy,” Rabbi Bainish endures suffering like that of Old Testament Job when all his children die. Unlike Job, however, the rabbi renounces his faith after such loss. But he continues to do good works, and even prays. Eventually his daughter comes to him in a dream to announce he’s earned his heavenly reward, and this restores his faith in God. Bad fortune also befalls the protagonist of “The Fire.” A good, selfless man is nevertheless so jealous of his successful brother he’s on the brink of setting fire to his brother’s house. When the house coincidentally does burn down, the man, innocent of wrongdoing, is wracked with guilt that his envy may have somehow ignited the fire.
“The Old Man,” Reb Moshe Ber, is another victim of misfortune. When the two World Wars destroy his home and entire family, he walks across Poland to find refuge in his Austrian hometown. There, he marries again, and at age 100, has a son. “The Little Shoemaker” eventually finds comfort in his sons, too, though initially each abandons his father to find his fortune in America. With the Nazi threat looming, the shoemaker himself flees to America, where he and his sons reunite and continue their shoemaking craft.
Ben Siegel, literary scholar and author of several studies on Singer, argues that “choice” is the underlying theme of the stories in the Gimpel
collection. To make his case, Siegel references the words of Rabbi Bainish, the faith-challenged protagonist of “Joy”: “Life means free choice, and freedom is Mystery. If one knew the truth, how could there be freedom?” The characters in these stories face many temptations that prompt them to make choices. Some choices end in sorrow, others in joy. Because the very fact of God remains a mystery, people are free to choose faith in an ultimate reward, or cast their lot with earthly pleasures.