“Gimpel the Fool” is one of those classic short stories that everyone should read by one of the greats in the short story world, Isaac Bashevis Singer. For the most part, the story is a character study of a person who most people take advantage, Reb Gimpel. In about ten pages it surveys his life from birth to old age, but it mostly centers on his relation with his wife. Since the story is not overly complex, I’m not doing an analysis but just provide an extended passage that captures the heart of the story. This passage opens with Gimpel’s wedding night. The wedding has ended and Gimpel is going to the bedroom where his wife, Elka, is closed up. Some background may be warranted. Singer is Jewish and the story was written in Yiddish and takes place in some small town in one of the old countries, presumably Poland. A number of Jewish rituals are referenced, especially the post menstrual bathing ritual, the mikveh. I’m sure you know what a circumcision is.
At night I came where my wife lay, but she wouldn’t let me in. “Say, look here, is this what they married us for?” I said. And she said, “My monthly has come.” “But yesterday they took you to the ritual bath, and that’s afterward, isn’t it supposed to be?” “Today isn’t yesterday,” said she, “and yesterday’s not today. You can beat it if you don’t like it.” In short, I waited.
Not four months later, she was in childbed. The townsfolk hid their laughter with their knuckles. But what could I do? She suffered intolerable pains and clawed at the walls. “Gimpel,” she cried, “I’m going. Forgive me!” The house filled with women. They were boiling pans of water. The screams rose to the welkin.
The thing to do was to go to the house of prayer and repeat psalms, and that was what I did.
The townsfolk liked that, all right. I stood in a corner saying psalms and prayers, and they shook their heads at me. “Pray, pray!” they told me. “Prayer never made any woman pregnant.” One of the congregation put a straw in my mouth and said, “Hay for the cows.” There was something to that too, by God!
She gave birth to a boy. Friday at the synagogue the sexton stood up before the Ark, pounded on the reading table, and announced, “The wealthy Reb Gimpel invites the congregation to a feast in honor of the birth of a son.” The whole house of prayer rang with laughter. My face was flaming. But there was nothing I could do. After all, I was the one responsible for the circumcision honors and rituals.
Half the town came running. You couldn’t wedge another soul in. Women brought peppered chick-peas, and there was a keg of beer from the tavern. I ate and drank as much as anyone, and they all congratulated me. Then there was a circumcision, and I named the boy after my father, may he rest in peace. When all were gone and I was left with my wife alone, she thrust her head through the bed-curtain and called me to her.
“Gimpel,” said she, “why are you silent? Has your ship gone and sunk?”
“What shall I say,” I answered. “A fine thing you’ve done to me! If my mother had known of it she’d have died a second time.”
She said, “Are you crazy, or what?”
“How can you make such a fool,” I said, “of one who should be the lord and master?”
“What’s the matter with you?” she said. “What have you taken it into your head to imagine?”
I saw that I must speak bluntly and openly. “Do you think this is the way to use an orphan?” I said. “You have borne a bastard.”
She answered, “Drive this foolishness out of your head. The child is yours.”
“How can he be mine?” I argued. He was born seventeen weeks after the wedding.”
She told me then he was premature. I said, “Isn’t he a little too premature?” She said, she had a grandmother who carried just as short a time and she resembled this grandmother of her as one drop of water does another. She swore to it with such oaths that you would have believed a peasant at the fair if he had used them. To tell the plain truth, I didn’t believe her; but when I talked it over next day with the schoolmaster, he told me that the very same thing had happened to Adam and Eve. Two they went up to bed, and four they descended.
“There isn’t a woman in the world who is not the granddaughter of Eve,” he said.
That was how it was; they argued me dumb. But then, who really knows how such things are?
I began to forget my sorrow. I loved the child madly, and he loved me too. As soon as he saw me he’d wave his little hands and want me to pick him up, and when he was colicky I was the only one who could pacify him. I bought him a little bone teething ring and a little gilded cap. He was forever catching the evil eye from someone, and then I had to run to get one of those abracadabras for him that would get him out of it. I worked like an ox. You know how expenses go up when there’s an infant in the house. I don’t want to lie about it; I didn’t dislike Elka either, for that matter. 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.
And that is essentially Gimpel’s character, one repeatedly taken for a fool, but one with love in his heart. He prays, he works, he takes in the children. He goes on to stay with his wife, and she bears him six children, none of which are naturally his. At one point Gimpel goes to a rabbi for some advice, and the rabbi delivers the central theme of the story. He says, “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.” Toward the end of the story when Elka has died, and Gimpel is angry at the world, he is tempted to do an evil thing to the entire town, and starts to, but then he stops and doesn’t. The story ends with Gimpel dreaming of being with his wife in paradise where he contemplates, “there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”
If I’ve piqued your interest in the story, it can be found online, here. Do read it.