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In “Gimpel the Fool”, Gimpel’s gullibility becomes the basis for the power of faith as a theme in the text. What Isaac Bashevis Singer’s use of Gimpel’s credulity as the foundation of the short story’s theme does is redefine faith as a belief in possibility. By redefining faith as a belief in possibility, the author heightens the reader’s awareness of the power of faith as a theme in the text particularly through the use of symbolism and characterization; however, this utilization of characterization and symbolism as tools to portray the short story’s theme suggests the influences of Jewish mysticism and the author’s upbringing and personal beliefs on the formation of the power of faith as a theme in the narrative.
Jewish mysticism plays a role in the characterization in of Gimpel in “Gimpel the Fool”. In the text, Gimpel is characterized as being “easy to take in” (Singer 278). Despite being aware of the possibility that the villagers were playing yet another trick on him when they told them that his parents were rising from the dead, Gimpel accepts the claims of the villagers at face value after he reasoned with himself that something “could have very well happened” (278). In turn, this openness to the possibility of the face-value of claims aided in Gimpel’s belief that the young child seen with Elka in her shack was her brother (279), that the child born seventeen weeks into his marriage with Elka was his child but “only premature” (280-281), and that the men Gimpel found sleeping with Elka were only figments of his imagination (281, 284). The easiness of Gimpel’s acceptance of these events are a reflection of the transcendence sought in the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. This transcendence is not to infer a traditional image of God as a benevolent deity that interferes in the daily lives of mortals but of a distant and remote divinity that unveils his existence through his creation (Lee 157). The transcendence of the hidden God is called upon during Gimpel’s statement of the world being “no doubt an imaginary world, but is only once removed from the true world…God be praised; there even Gimpel cannot be deceived” (Singer 286). According to Grace Farrell Lee, this statement by Gimpel of the present world being an illusion removed from the “true world” demonstrates Gimpel’s longing for an ultimate clarity beyond deception but ,due to his inability to find it, forces Gimpel into a state of “exile” where God remains silent in the face of human questioning (157). This vision of God as being a hidden and remote divinity finds itself rooted in Lurianic Kabbalism, where God unveils his existence not through his emanations, but through his sefirot or radiance in the world; in order to make room for creation, God had to conceal himself (157). By concealing himself, God revealed the magnificence of creation which in turn leaves his very existence open to questioning; however, for Isaac Bashevis Singer, this concealment created a world “devoid of the possibility of God”(157). In turn, the author’s characterization of Gimpel as being “easy to take in” suggests that, for Gimpel, the choice to believe the villagers and his wife was not the result of an innate trait in his personality but a conscious, willful decision. For Gimpel, this willingness to always believe what he was told served a spiritual template in his quest for the “true world”, a world where he will finally witness the brilliance of God’s entirety and not glimpses of God’s radiance, as he would in the present world. If Gimpel decides to abandon this spiritual template by accepting the Spirit of Evil’s claims and seeking vengeance against the townspeople, Gimpel would have lost his opportunity to access the “true world” as insinuated by the ghost of Elka’s, “Because I was false is everything false too? I never deceived anyone but myself. I’m paying for it all, Gimpel” (Singer 285). To deny validity to the claims of the townspeople and to the possibility of his wife’s faithfulness to him, is to deny the possibility of God’s existence, which would have ended Gimpel’s opportunity to gain access to a world devoid of deception and full of clarity. If faith is defined as a belief in possibilities, then Jewish mysticism aided in this definition, and in turn influenced the characterization of Gimpel in the text.
Similarly, the author’s upbringing and personal beliefs on human nature influenced the symbolism in the narrative. Just as Gimpel grew up in a Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Isaac Bashevis Singer was raised in between a number of small, Hasidic towns where his father served as rabbi within those communities (Dickstein “Shock of the Old”; Hernandez “Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Yiddish Literary Tradition”). It is within these shtetls that the author saw the contrast between secular aspirations and the religious ideas of the Hasidic sect he was born into; through eavesdropping on disagreements through his older brother, Israel Joshua, who was a rationalist, and his pious father, Isaac Bashevis Singer witnessed the polarity between secularism and religiosity (“Shock of the Old” (42). In a similar way, the division of Elka’s characterization into two archetypes, The Sinner and The Saint, represents the polarity the author was exposed to in his youth when the author began to doubt the validity of the literalness of his religious tradition’s teachings. According to Morris Dickstein in “Shock of the Old”:
He [Isaac Bashevis Singer] began to to think of his rich Jewish mythology as not as literally true but as a set of profound metaphors, dyed into the spirit of the people, for a world that Godhad toyed with or abandoned, where lust, cruelty and deceit would always overwhelm reason and progress.(42)
This transformation from literal belief in the teachings of religion to a view that sees religion as the accumulation of profound metaphors “dyed into spirit of the people” suggests that the symbolism of the struggle between Elka’s dueling archetypes may originate from the author’s view of the negatives of human nature (like lust, malice, and deceitfulness) always overwhelming the goodness of human reason to the point of impacting progress. The author seems to have struggled with this cynicism of human nature, which, according to Morris Dickstein, was common for “writers between the wars” (42). This cynicism may have influenced Elka’s characterization to the point where Elka the Sinner is comprised solely of these negative traits of humanity and Elka the Saint is comprised of traits relating to humanity’s goodness (such as her ability to reason Gimpel out of seeking revenge against the villagers (Singer 285). In turn, Isaac Bashevis Singer unveiled the influences his upbringing and personal views on human nature contributed to the development of the symbolism of the struggle between faith and doubt that mirrored his own struggle with belief and disbelief.
Gimpel’s characterization in “Gimpel the Fool” is shaped by Jewish mysticism, particularly Lurianic Kabbalah, which aided in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s redefinition of faith as the belief in possibilities. Comparably, the author’s upbringing and the cynicism towards human nature demonstrates the influence the his upbringing and personal beliefs on the development of the symbolism in the text. Through references to Jewish mysticism in the narrative and suggestions of how the author’s upbringing and personal life may have contributed to the evolution of the symbolism of the struggle between faith and doubt, the reader is able to gain insight into the formation of the power of faith as a theme in “Gimpel the Fool”.
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