Gimpel the Fool


Isaac Bashevis Singer

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The Washtub, Uncleanliness, and Washing Symbol Analysis

The Washtub, Uncleanliness, and Washing Symbol Icon

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

The Gimpel the Fool quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Washtub, Uncleanliness, and Washing. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of Gimpel the Fool published in 1983.
Part 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gimpel (speaker), Elka
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gimpel (speaker), Elka
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4 Quotes

‘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.’

Related Characters: Gimpel (speaker), The Spirit of Evil (speaker)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Gimpel (speaker), Elka
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Washtub, Uncleanliness, and Washing Symbol Timeline in Gimpel the Fool

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Washtub, Uncleanliness, and Washing appears in Gimpel the Fool. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Part 2
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
...her boy defecates in his pants, and it is feared that he might end up soiling the Ark (the cupboard where the holy Torah scrolls are kept). The rabbi then orders... (full context)
Part 3
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon nothing. On her deathbed, Elka begs her husband for forgiveness so she can “go clean to my Maker.” She reveals to him that, during their marriage, she had more affairs... (full context)
Part 4
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith  Theme Icon
Punishment vs. Forgiveness  Theme Icon
The Real vs. The Imaginary  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)