When Gimpel firsts meets his future wife, Elka, she is standing by a washtub, and he comes to associate her with that object, envisioning her beside it years after she has died. The washtub symbolizes the potential for Elka—and by extension, a sinful world—to be cleansed of evil. Though Elka is next to the washtub during the first encounter, Gimpel’s overall feeling is that he is in an unclean place (“it reeks,” he says). Gimpel’s whole relationship to Elka is punctuated by the symbolism of the effort to wash a dirty body. Their wedding takes place during a dysentery outbreak, and the ceremony is held just beside the hut where the diseased corpses are washed. When Gimpel first attempts to have intercourse with Elka, she replies that she is having her period. Gimpel protests that in that case she should not have gone the day before, as she did, to the ritual bath, which woman are supposed to do just after finishing a period, to clean and “purify” themselves. If she is telling the truth, it seems that she did not follow the correct procedure for getting clean; and of course, if she is lying, she is even more significantly, morally, unclean.
Elka is again and again associated with uncleanliness. Gimpel likens her hostile words to him to “pitch,” a sticky, black substance (often called resin), and to “sulphur,” a toxic chemical. When she comes to the rabbinical court to answer Gimpel’s accusations of adultery, the child she brings along (himself the product of her sinful infidelity) soils himself, and she is sent away, for fear he might end up contaminating the court’s Ark (the cabinet where the holy Torah scrolls are kept). Such a potential desecration might also be taken as foreshadowing of the later evil soiling that the Spirit of Evil encourages Gimpel to perform, urinating in the bread that will be eaten by the people of Frampol.
There is a part of Elka that is conscious and even ashamed of her moral stains. The reason she gives for deciding, while dying, to confess her years of deception to Gimpel is that she “want[s] to go clean to her maker.” A short while later, the first time Gimpel encounters her ghost, it does not seem that she has managed to leave earth clean: it appears that she is being subsumed by her shroud and tormented by terrible punishment. Yet as a vision in Gimpel’s dreams she ends up making an essential moral intervention that saves Gimpel’s goodness by stopping him from selling the bread he urinated in. And, indeed, in his visions of her after this moment, she takes on a heavenly aspect—she looks as pure and shining as a saint. And importantly, Gimpel notices her standing next to the same washtub from their first encounter. She has finally been washed of her evil, the symbolism suggests.
The Washtub, Uncleanliness, and Washing Quotes in Gimpel the Fool
She swore at me and cursed, and I couldn’t get enough of her. What strength she had! One of her looks could rob you of the power of speech. And her orations! Pitch and sulphur, that’s what they were full of, and yet somehow also full of charm. I adored her every word. She gave me bloody wounds though.
It was all up with Elka. On her whitened lips there remained a smile. I imagined that, dead as she was, she was saying, ‘I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life.
‘Let the sages of Frampol eat filth.’
‘What about the judgment in the world to come?’ I said.
‘There is no world to come,’ he said. “They’ve sold you a bill of goods and talked you into believing you carried a cat in your belly. What nonsense!’ ‘Well then,’ I said, ‘And is there a God?’
He answered, ‘There is no God either.’
‘What,’ I said, ‘is there, then?’
‘A thick mire.’
She is standing by the washtub, as at our first encounter, but her face is shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint, and she speaks outlandish words to me, strange things. When I wake I have forgotten it all. But while the dream lasts I am comforted. She answers all my queries, and what comes out is that all is right.