“Gimpel the Fool” can in many ways be taken as a critique of those who purposely distort the truth and deceive others—a kind of denunciation of the imaginary. Through much of the story, Gimpel has a difficult time establishing facts. His neighbors are constantly telling him tales which he takes as true, only to reveal moments later that they were entirely made-up. Meanwhile, Gimpel’s own wife is able to get him to set aside the evidence of her infidelity that he witnesses with his own eyes and accept her implausible denials. Yet the story’s ideas about the relationship between the real and the imaginary do not end there. An important dimension of the story is also its celebration of imagination. The story does this first through Gimpel’s three dreams, one where he is visited by the Spirit of Evil and two where he encounters the spirit of his deceased wife, Elka. These dreams are as real to Gimpel as the rest of his life, and affect his behavior as much as anything else that he experiences. Second, while Gimpel initially struggles with the effort to discern the real from the imaginary, by the end of the story, he has himself become a traveling storyteller. Gimpel’s transformation is based on a realization that the supposedly “real” world of the living is best understood as imaginary—anything you can make up is probably happening somewhere, or will happen at some point, in waking life or in dreams. And since the “real” world is imaginary, Gimpel, and the story itself, ultimately argue that it is only in the afterlife that people will first encounter what is actually true and real.
Gimpel’s dreams are integrated into the narrative so seamlessly and have such a direct effect on his subsequent actions that they feel as real as the story’s “actual” events. Gimpel describes his encounter with the Spirit of Evil and the ghost of his wife not so much as the stuff of illusion, which one would expect from a dream, but as literal visits from other worlds. The line in the story between the real world and the imaginary world becomes blurred, since it is unclear whether these interactions are genuinely happening. Then, he immediately puts the advice he receives in these dreams into action. When the Spirit of Evil tells him to urinate in the bread, he obeys the instructions as soon as he awakens. When Elka warns him that such a deed will endanger his chances in the afterlife, he immediately abandons the plan. In the third dream (actually a recurring one), Elka has become a saint-like figure and promises Gimpel they will soon be together soon; he appears to be deeply reassured by her presence and her words, even when he wakes up. Gimpel’s dreamworld feels so lifelike when he narrates it in part because he has come to believe that the life of the imagination should be considered as real as what takes place in the external world.
By the end of the story, Gimpel still likely has moral qualms with others’ intent to deceive when they lie, but he has an epiphany that there are “really no lies.” What we think of as lies, to Gimpel, actually represent an important aspect of reality. For one thing, as Gimpel travels around the world, he observes that the world is so vast that all kinds of things that seem extremely unlikely, even impossible, actually do happen. Thus, when the imagination “invents” a “ridiculous” story, it may often be, Gimpel concludes, that the thing it describes really did happen somewhere, at some time, or that it will happen at some date in the future. Furthermore, when Gimpel says that “whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night,” he is arguing that even if the events of dreams never “really” happen, they are, in a meaningful sense, “real.” After all, they reflect our psychological reality, a whole world in which we spend so much of our lives. Meanwhile, in the final paragraphs of the story, Gimpel reveals that he has become a travelling storyteller who regularly recounts highly fanciful stories to people on his travels. This is evidence of how fully he has embraced the world of the imagination, the world of “lies,” to entertain and enlighten.
Gimpel also reaches the conclusion that what we call real life should itself probably be viewed as an imaginary or dreamlife, for it is a mere shadow of the afterlife, which he considers to be the actual real world. While Gimpel feels strongly that the world we live in is a large place with wide possibilities, he does accept that it is finite. He believes that it is just a fragment of the world to come, in which the truth of things will be revealed. Thus, for Gimpel, the “imaginary” has special validity because it goes beyond the limitations of our relatively shallow “reality.” But an essential feature of the afterworld as Gimpel understands it is that its “truth” will be plain for all to see, no matter how complex or magnificent it may be. As a world essentially bathed in truth, Gimpel trusts that the afterlife is a place where “even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”
Over the course of the story Gimpel changes from being a person who struggles to get a handle on reality and views falsehood as the enemy to someone who sees the products of the human imagination, including dreams and lies, not as detracting from but actually helping to complete our picture of what reality is. Reality on earth, Gimpel believes, is small and insubstantial compared to the reality of the afterlife, and thus our openness to stories that inflate the boundaries of everyday life actually help our minds inch closer to what it will be like in the next world, where all things are real. Gimpel at the end of the story is eagerly awaiting his entry to that greater, truer world.
The Real vs. The Imaginary ThemeTracker
The Real vs. The Imaginary Quotes in Gimpel the Fool
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.
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.