Gimpel, the narrator, introduces himself by the nickname he has long been called in the village of Frampol: “Gimpel the Fool.” He does not agree that he is a fool but explains that people think he is one because of his reputation for believing whatever he hears. It all started when he was a school-boy. Some classmates (falsely) told him that, since their teacher’s wife was giving birth, school was canceled. Gimpel took their word for it and stayed home—only to find everyone laughing their sides off at him the next day, amazed that he fell for their trick so easily.
This opening immediately connects Gimpel to his reputation in Frampol as an extremely gullible person. “I am Gimpel the Fool,” he says quite simply. Yet already in this paragraph, the reader is meant to feel a tension between Gimpel’s acceptance of the clownish role his town has assigned him and his own private resistance to that persona. He confides that, in spite of public opinion, he does “not think [himself] a fool. On the contrary.” When he shares the origin story of the nickname, he makes clear that he does not believe it was really so idiotic of him to take his classmates’ story at face value. These kids are astonished that Gimpel did not have any doubts. The important reason, however, that Gimpel does not suspect any trick is because he is not a trickster himself. This is an early instance of the story’s connection of the habit of skepticism with the ability—or even a proclivity—to cheat and deceive.
These kids taunted him taunting him endlessly, even going so far as to fill his hands with disgusting goat’s droppings that they told him were raisins. Gimpel reflects that he could have made his classmates regret their cruelty, as he was a very strong boy and might have punched them hard; but he has never been the retaliating type and simply “let it pass.” Gimpel realizes that this aspect of his personality encourages people to take advantage of him, since they know he won’t fight back.
In this anecdote, the merciless cruelty of Gimpel’s classmates stands in strong contrast to his own gentleness. Importantly, none of them suspect that Gimpel, who seems so weak and ridiculous, would be capable of injuring them himself. As will be the case throughout the story, nobody guesses Gimpel’s hidden strength. This moment also demonstrates Gimpel’s impulse to forgive rather than punish. Although he would have been able to wound the kids who pranked him, he explains that he doesn’t really have it in his nature to hurt others. This aspect of his character is one of his major moral strengths, and his commitment to it is what ultimately allows him to triumph over evil at the end of the story.
Gimpel recalls another incident from his boyhood that helped create his reputation as a “fool.” One day, as he was walking home from school, he heard what sounded like a dog barking. Even though he was not afraid of dogs, he ran in the other direction, reasoning that if the animal happens to be rabid and then also happens to bite him, he could get very sick. Moments later, Gimpel once again found all his fellow-villagers laughing at him. It hadn’t been a dog at all, but only the village thief, Wolf-Lieb, pretending to be one. Another trick.
Everyone thinks Gimpel flees from the dog because he is a wimp who fears everything. But Gimpel’s concern is somewhat more subtle than his neighbors suppose, more than a simple gut reaction to a loud animal. Instead, he is being extra cautious about an unlikely but possible scenario (that the dog has rabies and could infect him). Unlike Gimpel, the townspeople of Frampol do not spend much time pondering unlikely situations. While they see his earnest contemplation of the improbable as a sign of stupidity, of a failure to understand how reality actually works, the story suggests that it is in fact an indication of Gimpel’s intelligence and his greater alertness to the complexity and unpredictability of life.
Since those first successful tricks, his neighbors in the village have been constantly pranking him. They tell him outlandish stories: the Czar is coming to Frampol; the moon has fallen down; a little girl found a treasure behind an outhouse; the rabbi gave birth, prematurely, to a calf. Gimpel believes each of these tales. He reasons that, as it says in the famous book of Jewish ethics The Wisdom of the Fathers, “everything is possible.” Further, he finds it impossible to reject a story when everyone in Frampol insists that it is true.
That Gimpel believes this list of utterly absurd stories is a useful illustration of just how trustful he is. While he is conscious of how far-fetched these tales are, he is simply too open-minded to reject them instantly, since, theoretically, “everything is possible.” It is noteworthy that these words come from a major work of Jewish ethics, The Wisdom of the Fathers (also known as Pirkei Avot). Here, as well as elsewhere in the story, it is made clear that Gimpel’s extreme openness to unlikely possibilities, while mocked by the people of Frampol, has much in common with traditional Jewish thought. Meanwhile, Gimpel’s sense here that he has no choice but to believe a story when everyone says it is true is a typical instance of his inclination to think well of everyone and of his difficulty accepting that there could be so many mean-spirited, lying people in the town.
Gimpel explains that he is an orphan and spent his childhood living with his sickly grandfather. When his grandfather died, Gimpel was apprenticed to the village baker. One day, when Gimpel is working in the bakery, a student from the Yeshiva comes in and tells him that the Messiah has finally come. He and other townspeople tell Gimpel that all the dead, including Gimpel’s parents, have risen from the grave. They urge him to come see. Gimpel knows that this is almost certainly not true, but he decides he has nothing to lose by taking a look. Of course, when he steps out, the villagers are all there, heckling him as usual.
The fact that Gimpel is an orphan, who has basically never had anyone in town to love or protect him, contributes significantly to his position as a particularly isolated, vulnerable member of the community. Gimpel frequently refers to his orphanhood over the course of the story, and it is clear that he feels his parents’ absence as a profound loss. Thus, it is terribly heartless of his neighbors to make believe that the Messiah has come, and that (as is supposed to coincide with the Messiah’s arrival), the dead have been restored to life. They are preying on one of Gimpel’s deepest sorrows; they are also trivializing one of the most fervently anticipated events in Judaism by acting as if it ever actually happening would be ridiculous. They are, in other words, revealing their own spiritual impoverishment. Gimpel, on the other hand, gives the story a chance in part because of his earnest religious faith, which teaches him to believe that this incredible event really will someday occur (though he is skeptical that it is happening at this moment). His open-mindedness and kindness are once again on display when he figures that no harm can be done by checking, whereas it might be harmful to his neighbors to accuse them of deceit.
Gimpel, embarrassed and frustrated by all the mockery, goes to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi declares that the only important thing is to be a good person. He says that it is “better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools.” These words comfort Gimpel. On his way out, the Rabbi’s daughter tells him that he has forgotten to kiss the wall, and that it is the law to do so after every meeting with the Rabbi. Gimpel has never heard of such a law but dutifully follows her orders. The girl starts wildly laughing.
The rabbi’s advice here might be taken as the central moral message of the story. To be foolish, the rabbi declares, is not to be gullible, like Gimpel, but rather to be cruel, deceptive, mean-spirited and to willingly commit the sin of injuring another person. Ironically, moments after this speech, it becomes clear that the rabbi’s own daughter, with her lie to Gimpel about the need to kiss the wall on the way out of the religious court, is, by her father’s definition, one of the world’s evil fools. Her invention of a phony religious law indicates her lack of seriousness about religious things, whereas Gimpel’s acceptance of the rule points to his extreme faithfulness, his intense eagerness to do whatever God requires, however arbitrary it might seem. Importantly, while the rabbi’s speech serves to strongly condemn the behavior of Gimpel’s neighbors, the sentiment it expresses will also be what prevents him from punishing them later in the story (even if they deserve it), since doing so would be replicating the same kind of evil harm that they caused him.
Gimpel decides he has had enough of the village, but just as he is on the point of leaving, his neighbors start insisting that they have the perfect bride for him. The woman they propose, Elka, does not seem to Gimpel to be a good match: he has heard she is sexually promiscuous; that the little boy she lives with, Yechiel, is believed to be her bastard son, by a lover; and also that she has a limp. The villagers protest that she is a virgin, that the child is her younger brother, and that she walks with the limp intentionally, as a bit of innocent playfulness. They tell Gimpel he should be ashamed of himself for calling her a “whore.” This makes him feel guilty, and he agrees to pay her a visit. He thinks to himself that he would probably enjoy being a husband.
Naturally, it is great fun for the townspeople to try to convince Gimpel that Elka, a woman widely considered to be among the most tainted and immoral in the town, is actually a pious virgin. Gimpel knows about Elka’s reputation and does not want to let them trick him. Yet while he wishes to reject their assertions that she is pure and to demonstrate his awareness of what her history probably has been, his conscience stops him. It would be a terrible crime, Gimpel thinks, to have wrongfully shamed her by insisting on a sexual history he cannot know the truth of—once gain he opts to protect others rather than to disbelieve what he is told.
The villagers are in high spirits as they lead Gimpel to Elka’s house. However, they are too afraid to actually go inside with Gimpel, for they fear Elka. She is a tough woman with a “fierce tongue.” Gimpel enters and finds Elka standing barefoot by the washtub in a “worn hand-me-down gown,” doing the laundry. The place “reek[s].” Gimpel asks Elka if there is any truth to the rumors about her and tells her she should be honest with him, as he is an orphan. Elka responds that she is an orphan, too, and would hate to see anyone make trouble for Gimpel. Yet she ignores his original question, informing him instead how much money she expects from him as a dowry (fifty guilders). He protests that the bride, not the groom, is supposed to give a dowry. She ignores this and demands “either a flat yes or no.”
It is notable that the townspeople are too terrified of Elka to confront her themselves. Gimpel, by contrast, is brave enough to meet her and indeed will end up showing himself fit enough to endure much worse from her than the unpleasantness his neighbors fear. She does indeed prove quite intimidating here, speaking crudely and brashly to Gimpel about their potential marriage, and deftly controlling the conversation so as to ignore all of his concerns. The interior of Elka’s home and her own appearance are suggestive of poverty and uncleanness. The dirtiness of everything, alongside the washtub by which Elka is standing, functions symbolically to indicate that Elka is a spotted, corrupted woman, in need of a spiritual bathing. The washtub is going to become an ongoing symbol in the story, closely tied to the theme of forgiveness, of the potential for a sinful person to become cleansed and redeemed.
Gimpel’s neighbors enthusiastically pitch in to raise the money Elka requires. During the wedding ceremony (which takes place during a dysentery epidemic, with the corpses of those who succumbed to the illness being washed nearby), Gimpel is humiliated to learn that his bride, whom everybody promised was a virgin, has already had two previous husbands (one died, one she divorced). Yet Gimpel feels it would be inappropriate to desert Elka at this point. So, he goes through with the wedding and ends up heartily enjoying himself at the rest of the festivities. Among the very many wedding presents the new couple receives, there is a crib. This confuses Gimpel, since he and his new bride are not yet expecting a child.
This is the first occasion on which Gimpel discovers that Elka has tricked him. Though he is shocked, he proves his decency by choosing not to humiliate her by leaving her under “the chuppah” (the canopy under which a Jewish bride and groom are married), regardless of the fact that she has already humiliated him. Gimpel’s enjoyment of the rest of the wedding and his optimism that he could still have contentment in this marriage are the result of what will be his ongoing inclination to seek love and happiness with Elka, despite her frequent misconduct, rather than resent and punish her. Also of note here is the presence of the corpse-washing hut. This is another occurrence of the imagery of a diseased or contaminated body in need of washing, symbolic of the sinful soul (especially Elka’s) in need of purification.