Since he was a child, the people of the town of Frampol have mocked Gimpel for being extremely gullible. However improbable a tale they tell him—the Czar has come to town, the moon has fallen down—he is “taken in” and accepts it. Even when Gimpel does feel skeptical about a story he has heard, the idea that it might be true makes him doubt himself, and he decides to believe, just in case. To his neighbors, this credulity of Gimpel’s is a hilarious weakness, something to be mocked and exploited. Yet while being gullible may seem like a weakness, “Gimpel the Fool” suggests that it is actually Gimpel’s strength by making clear that his inclination to trust, rather than doubt, even when trust seems totally undeserved, is actually a version of the religious person’s trust in a God and afterlife for which there is no hard evidence. “Gimpel the Fool” portrays its protagonist’s credulity as a kind of holy faith and a path to goodness, righteousness, and even wisdom.
First of all, Gimpel’s inclination to believe people reflects his innate kindness and generosity of spirit, while the “smarter” skeptics all around him show a distinct lack of kindness. Gimpel is always wary of doubting people, for fear that, if he is wrong, he will have cast a sort of shadow on their character unjustly. The rabbi tells him that it is better to be fooled all one’s days than for a moment to cause embarrassment to someone else, reinforcing Gimpel’s feeling that it is safer to trust people, because it would be worse to have doubted them and shamed them unfairly. The extreme concern for the well-being of other people at the root of this motive for a belief is a big part of what makes Gimpel such a virtuous, almost holy person. By contrast, those around Gimpel—his neighbors, his wife Elka, and The Spirit of Evil—who ridicule him for being so trustful, are themselves morally and spiritually impoverished by their own lack of faith. It’s no accident that these other characters are both so adept at spotting lies and such competent deceivers themselves. It would not be easy to trick Wolf-Lieb the thief, Elka, or the Spirit of Evil, but that’s because of their own familiarity with evil. Furthermore, while it pains Gimpel to be the cause of pain, these more world-wise people get a kick out of it. The townspeople love to see him fall for a prank; Elka dies with a smile on her face, as if she is proud of her trickery; and the Spirit of Evil certainly seems excited by the idea of making the villagers eat Gimpel’s urine.
Although the other characters regard Gimpel’s credulity as a sign of stupidity, it actually endows him with a special kind of intellectual openness that grants him access to knowledge unavailable to his more narrow-minded neighbors. Early on, Gimpel cites an assertion from The Wisdom of the Holy Fathers (an important book of Jewish thought) that “everything is possible.” This basic premise for evaluating situations makes Gimpel more open than those around him to improbable scenarios that others would simply dismiss. His alertness for unseen complexity is also shared by the Frampol rabbi and his fellow-rabbis, who scour Jewish scholarly literature to make sure they have considered from every light Gimpel’s assertion that he must have imagined it when he caught his wife committing adultery. In a little-known passage, it turns out, Maimonides, a giant of Jewish thought seriously pondered the same (rather implausible) possibility. Furthermore, while many of the things Gimpel believes turn out to be false, his openness is largely validated when he leaves the town of Frampol to explore the world. Outside of the small, insular village, he discovers that many things that his neighbors would almost certainly reject as impossible “had actually come to pass.” The townspeople who in Frampol had seemed so worldly-wise with their skepticism come to look like people whose outlook is limited by a kind of smug provincialism, an inability to believe in possibilities they have never seen, which, living in Frampol, is very little. Gimpel, meanwhile, becomes a worldly person who learns from experience that the world is so vast that many unlikely things do end up occurring. That he had faith in such things even before his travels is a proof of the innate wisdom of his impulse to believe.
Gimpel’s gullibility also has an important connection to his strong religious faith, since faith inherently relies on one’s willingness to believe things without hard evidence. Multiple characters make explicit this tie to religious belief. When Gimpel reports to the rabbi, after being repeatedly deceived, that he’s adopted a new policy of believing everything he hears, the rabbi declares, “Belief in itself is beneficial. It is written, a good man lives by his faith.” Gimpel makes a similar comment while convincing himself that, against all evidence, his wife Elka has been faithful: “today it’s your wife you won’t believe; tomorrow it’s God himself you won’t take stock in.” The Spirit of Evil follows this same logic in the opposite direction when he uses the frequent lying and trickery of people on earth to support the conclusion that even the convictions most sacred to Gimpel—the existence of God and the afterlife—are false, too. The Spirit likens the religious authorities, holy books, and other people of faith to swindlers, and in so doing shows the spiritual peril of doubt and negation.
Ultimately, “Gimpel the Fool” suggests that the people of Frampol are wrong to view Gimpel’s trustfulness as his great weakness. Instead, his belief makes him wiser, kinder, and more pious, while the villains of the story are those who are perpetually doubting, who are always skeptical, a habit directly connected to their faithlessness and evil-doing.
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith ThemeTracker
Credulity as Wisdom and Holy Faith Quotes in Gimpel the Fool
Everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers. I forget just how.
To tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened, but all the same, as folks were talking, I threw on my wool vest and went out. Maybe something had happened. What did I stand to lose by looking?
“It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself.”
‘Enough of being a donkey,’ I said to myself. ‘Gimpel isn’t going to be a sucker all his life. There’s a limit to the foolishness even of a fool like Gimpel.’
And then she denies it so, maybe I was only seeing things? Hallucinations do happen. You see a figure or a mannikin or something, but when you come up closer it’s nothing, there’s not a thing there. And if that’s so, I’m doing her an injustice. And when I got so far in my thoughts I started to weep.
I resolved that I would always believe what I was told. What’s the good of not believing? Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God himself you won’t take stock in.
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.’
I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived, the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference does it make? Often I heard tales of which I said, ‘Now this is a thing that cannot happen.’ But before a year had elapsed I heard that it had actually come to pass somewhere.
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.
No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the real world….Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.