Gimpel the Fool

by

Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Gimpel the Fool: Part 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Not long after Elka’s death, Gimpel is napping in the bakery. In a dream, he sees the Spirit of Evil—a demonic creature with “a goatish beard and horn, long-toothed, and with a tail” —who advises him to take revenge on all the people who have deceived him. The spirit suggests that Gimpel use his urine to make the bread he sells to his neighbors in Frampol. Gimpel asks whether he would be judged for such a deed in the next life. The Spirit of Evil scoffs and tells him there is no next life, and that, just like the other nonsense Gimpel has fallen for, the afterlife is also a false story. Gimpel then asks if there is a God. God is also a lie, says the Spirit of Evil. Gimpel asks: “What is there then?’”  The Spirit of Evil replies: “A thick mire.”    
The story makes it very unambiguous that this visitor is bad news: he is literally called the Spirit of Evil and looks like every classic depiction of the devil. What he has to say confirms his moral corruption. First, he urges Gimpel to behave in a mean-spirited, vindictive manner. What’s even worse, the next thing he does is encourage Gimpel to reject God and everything he has been told about the afterlife. He presents to Gimpel a distinctly nihilistic view of the universe as being fundamentally empty and meaningless. Nothing exists, says the Spirit of Evil, but a “thick mire”—basically a great swamp of darkness and nothingness. As Gimpel listens to the spirit’s words, the reader is meant to feel that he is in grave spiritual danger, as to adopt this view of the world would constitute the ultimate moral fall.
Themes
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
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Moved by the Spirit of Evil’s words, Gimpel goes ahead and urinates in some nearby dough. He thinks to himself that he has now gotten his revenge for all the times that the people of Frampol have shamed him. While the bread is baking, he dozes off again, only to find himself having another intense dream. This time he sees the ghost of his wife, Elka. “What have you done, Gimpel?” she cries. She warns him that she is being punished terribly where she is, “paying” for everything she did. Gimpel is extremely shaken up when he awakens from this vision and feels that he is perilously close to losing his chance at eternal life. Then he suddenly feels as if God has told him what he must do. He goes into the yard and buries the bread in the ground, while his apprentice, who has just arrived, looks on, astonished.
Gimpel has been overwhelmed by the temptation to punish his neighbors. He feels a certain satisfaction when he urinates in the bread, a sense of spite that Gimpel has not displayed before but which is clearly motivated by the hurt he feels at Elka’s betrayal. It is therefore both startling and fitting that it is Elka who intervenes and makes Gimpel see that he has embraced evil, that he is imperiling his place in paradise. She makes him see that revenge, even in response to evil, is in itself evil. It is an interesting detail that Gimpel chooses to bury the soiled bread in the ground. This act is reminiscent of the Jewish custom of burying a damaged Torah scroll. Perhaps this is symbolically connected to the moment when the rabbi fears that Elka’s bastard child will accidentally soil the “ark,” the cupboard where Torah scrolls are kept. In each case, an object in which people have faith is being preserved from contamination, from both literal physical contamination and the contamination of evil. Finally, it is worth noting how realistic these dreams feel to Gimpel and how directly they influence his subsequent actions. Gimpel, who has been fighting so long to get a good grasp on reality, is starting to embrace the world of dreams,  and to take the things that happen there as seriously as “actual” events in the external world.
Themes
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
The Real vs. The Imaginary  Theme Icon
After burying the bread, Gimpel returns home and divides his money among the children. He tells them he has seen their mother suffering, which shocks them. Then he takes his coat, boots, and prayer shawl, kisses the mezuzah in the doorway, and leaves. He is spotted by some neighbors who inquire where he is going. “Into the world,” he says. These are his last moments in Frampol.
This is quite a painful moment in the story since Gimpel is saying farewell to the children who he has loved so intensely.   Yet his relationship to them probably hasn’t felt the same to him since he discovered the children are not really his. It is also notable how casually he mentions to them his encounter with their mother. The boundary between the dream world and the real world is becoming increasingly fluid to him, and he betrays this by his referring to his vision of Elka as if it had taken place in the “real” world—understandably bewildering the children. Gimpel’s inclusion of his prayer shawl among the few items he is taking with him speaks to his ongoing commitment to his faith, even as he plans to embark on a new life. Finally, Gimpel’s statement that he is going into “the world,” has a few different layers of symbolic meaning. First of all, it represents his departure from the provincial life of Frampol and emergence into the wider “world,” where he encounters all kinds of things that would have seemed fantastical to his old neighbors, with their scant knowledge of the vast range of human experience. At the same time, this transition from one small world into another much vaster one also symbolizes the transition he will eventually make from the limited world of this life to a much richer, more magnificent existence in the “next” world of the afterlife, a place unfathomable to the earthly mind.
Themes
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
The Real vs. The Imaginary  Theme Icon
Gimpel becomes a vagabond, wandering from place to place. He spends years like this, growing old in the process. “Good people” help him on the way, he says. Though he continues to encounter people who tell him preposterous stories, he comes to the realization that there is no such thing as a lie. “Whatever doesn’t happen is dreamed at night,” he reflects. “It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year.” Gimpel himself becomes an inventor of fantastic tales, using them to entertain the people he meets on his travels. His story-telling makes him especially popular with children.
As Gimpel explores the world, discovering how vast it is and how varied and remarkable the events are that take place in it, he has an epiphany about the distinction between “lies” and the “truth.” He comes to the conclusion that the things we identify as lies—because we imagined them or because they strike us as implausible—constitute a significant part of reality. First of all, as Gimpel has learned from his travels, many things that seemed impossible in Frampol really do happen. The world is such a big place and human history has been going on for so long and has such a long future ahead of it, that all kinds of preposterous-seeming things happen, or will happen. Thus, often when we invent what we think is a piece of fiction, it may well be the case that it has actually taken place somewhere; or if it hasn’t happened yet, there is a strong chance that it will happen. And even if it never happens, the fact of our dreaming it up in our heads means it has a place in our mental reality, which plays as significant a role in our lives as the reality of the external world. Thus, lies and dreams, rather than distracting from the truth of the real world, actually give a fuller picture of what the real world is. The fact that Gimpel has also become a travelling story-teller, weaving the same kinds of preposterous tales people used to make up to trick and humiliate him, also speaks to how whole-heartedly he has embraced the world of the imagination. But Gimpel makes up his tales not to deceive, but to entertain and enlighten. Finally, it is worth noting that as Gimpel has left Frampol behind and embraced the life of an itinerant traveler, “good people” of the world support and protect him in a way that the people of Frampol, his neighbors, never did. Gimpel finds that as he more fully and clearly embraces the role of the holy fool, the world has in it space for goodness and kindness, too.
Themes
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
The Real vs. The Imaginary  Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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One day, a little boy complains that Gimpel has repeated himself, that he has told a story they’ve already heard. Gimpel realizes this is true and reflects that his dreams repeat themselves, too. Very often, when he sleeps, he finds himself back in Frampol, face to face with Elka. She is standing by the tub, just like when he met her, only now she looks “radiant” and saintly. She speaks to him in a strange language that he cannot comprehend, but he is happy while he listens. He asks her many questions, and although he is unable to understand her replies, he feels reassured that “all is right” between them. He yearns to be reunited with her, and she tells him to be patient.
While Gimpel has become a much more cosmopolitan person than he once was, a citizen of the world much more than the little village of Frampol, it is notable that his inner life brings him back to Frampol, which shows what a big role it plays in his internal reality even though his external surroundings are now completely different. Meanwhile, his frequent visions of Elka suggest that she may have undergone a significant transformation in the other world. No longer does she appear to him suffocated by her shroud and full of anguish; now she comes in the form of a shining saint, a sort of guardian angel, who brings him solace for his own grief and hope that they will be  happy together in the next world. Although it is unclear whether Elka’s transfigured state represents her real situation in the afterlife or whether this is simply Gimpel’s fantasy, it does seem that Singer is suggesting that she is a changed soul and that through her repentance, as well as her rescue of Gimpel from evil (by persuading him not to through with his revenge plan), she has been granted a place in Paradise. Significantly, she is standing beside the washtub where he first saw her. The washtub is a symbol of the potential for Elka (and other sinners) to be cleansed of evil. While Elka is frequently represented as a dirty or stained person over the course of the story, she is portrayed here as shining and pure. The implication is that her soul has finally become clean.
Themes
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
The Real vs. The Imaginary  Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In his old age, Gimpel is ready, even eager, for death. He has come to the belief that the “world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.” He expects to discover, in the next life, a place where everything is “real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception,” where “even Gimpel cannot be deceived.” 
Gimpel has come to see the world as a huge place where much more is possible than could ever be supposed by the cynics of Frampol, as a place where things that seem like they could only exist in the “imagination” actually often do happen. Yet he has simultaneously come to see the world as itself being, in a sense, imaginary, as a sort of dreamlike shadow of the much vaster, more magnificent afterlife to come. That world, the next world, Gimpel believes, is the real world. Once there, Gimpel believes that the ultimate truth of the world will become plain. No confusion or deception will be possible. Gimpel is not afraid of death because it will mean the end of the limitations of this world shadowy world: he will finally get to know the real truth.
Themes
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
The Real vs. The Imaginary  Theme Icon
Related Quotes