Near the end of “Gimpel the Fool,” Gimpel receives a crushing deathbed confession from his wife, Elka, that she has been cheating on him for years and that none of their six children are really his. Soon after this revelation, Gimpel is visited, in a dream, by the Spirit of Evil who proposes that Gimpel, a baker, urinate in the bread he will sell to the other villagers to eat the next day, thus deceiving them for a change. It is no accident that the story makes the Spirit of Evil, rather than Gimpel himself, the one to first have this idea. As the story portrays it, the desire to punish is evil. Although it might seem that Gimpel’s revenge would be justified, as his neighbors have already caused him so much pain throughout his life, “Gimpel the Fool” suggests that the correct response to such harmful behavior is not revenge—fighting evil with evil—but forgiveness. Gimpel himself reflects at one point, “I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly, I don’t have it in me to be really angry.” The story suggests that this trait is actually Gimpel’s strength, his literal good fortune, the thing that prevents him from doing evil to others and ensures his own goodness now and in the afterlife.
While it might seem natural for Gimpel to resent and crave vengeance against those who have wronged him, he realizes that doing evil—even in response to evil—is never justified. Early on, the rabbi cautions Gimpel never to be evil: “better to be a fool your days than for one hour to be evil […] he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses paradise himself.” The endless mockery and degradation Gimpel suffers from his neighbors certainly meets this definition of evil. But the problem with the idea of punishing his neighbors for their cruelty is that it would require Gimpel to do evil, too. He would have to willfully bring pain and shame to them. Part of what makes Gimpel such a good person is his extreme reluctance to ever do this. Gimpel does momentarily succumb to the temptation to punish when the Spirit of Evil proposes his revenge scheme. But Elka visits him in a dream and reminds him that such a choice to hurt others is itself a crime, which may jeopardize his place in Paradise. Elka demands, “Because I was false, is everything false?” She calls upon Gimpel to be a beacon of goodness and honesty in a too often corrupt world, to do his part in saving the world from becoming entirely evil. This intervention inspires Gimpel to abandon his plan, a decision the story suggests is crucial for his fate in the next life.
Gimpel is also keenly aware of how easy it is for people to make mistakes; therefore, he finds it difficult to judge them too harshly for doing so. For example, while Gimpel is dismayed to catch Elka cheating, he reasons that making mistakes is an inevitable part of the human condition: “there’s bound to be a slip up sometimes. You can’t live without errors.” If messing up is something that everybody must, at times, do, Gimpel feels that they deserve forgiveness. Gimpel acknowledges that he himself does not always act rightly. His passion for Elka, for instance, has made him into a thief. He is so eager to please her he regularly steals from the bakery, including from the pots of food women bring in to warm in the over. Timidly he expresses a “hope [he] may be forgiven” for this. Just as he would like forgiveness for himself, he feels an imperative to forgive rather than inflict punishment on others. The only one with a right to judge and punish, as Gimpel sees it, is a perfect being—that is, God.
Gimpel’s forgiving attitude ultimately brings him much more satisfaction than revenge or punishment ever could. He is, by nature, not an angry or punishing person. Unlike many of the townspeople, or the Spirit of Evil, it brings him no satisfaction to make others suffer. What Gimpel likes best is to love people. He is miserable when he is apart from Elka, even though leaving her to fend for herself might be an effective way to punish her for her offenses. He always becomes happier whenever they reunite, even though those reunions usually involve her getting off the hook for bad behavior. Furthermore, because people are imperfect, love necessarily requires forgiveness. Gimpel understands throughout his marriage that getting to be with the person he adores requires that he tolerate her significant faults: he showers her with affection despite her constant harsh mockery. He decides to set aside feelings of resentment so that he can get the most out of his love for her.
For Singer, the desire to punish evil is itself an evil. His hero Gimpel, therefore, sets aside the temptation to get back at those who have wronged him, concentrating instead on forgiveness and love. The story’s moral calculus is complex, to be sure, but it suggests that as long as Gimpel continues to be generous to people rather than cruel, he will be happier in this life, and his prospects for the afterlife will be safe.
Punishment vs. Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Punishment vs. Forgiveness Quotes in Gimpel the Fool
“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.”
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.
I thieved because of her and swiped everything I could lay hands on: macaroons, raisins, almond cakes. I hope I may be forgiven for stealing from the Saturday pots the women left to warm in the baker’s oven.
I’m the type that bears it and says nothing. What’s one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too.
Another in the town would have made an uproar, and enough noise to rouse the whole town, but the thought occurred to me that I might wake the child. A little thing like that--why frighten a little swallow, I thought.
‘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.’
A longing took me, for her and for the child. I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly, I don’t have it in me to be really angry.
This was how my thoughts went—there’s bound to be a slip up sometimes. You can’t live without errors. Probably that lad who was with her led her on and gave her presents and what not, and women are often long on hair and short on sense, and so he got around her.
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.