Gimpel the Fool: A Critical Analysis of the Short Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Gimpel the Fool: A Formal Analysis
Many rhetorical devices and other formal features exist within Gimpel the Fool to make it an engaging and effective work. A few such tools include the use of rhymes, references to animals, biblical allusions, foreshadow, and color. The author employs these various tools to create certain effects within the work, which lead the reader to draw specific meanings and morals from the story. Through this use of formal tools, including rhetoric, Isaac Singer, the author, explicates the idea that it is far more rewarding to be innocent, though gullible throughout one’s life than to be unkind, and that those who make others feel ashamed are the real fools.
One of the first rhetorical devices found in Gimpel the Fool is the use of rhymes. The first sentence ends with the word “fool”, as does the next. The fourth sentence ends with the word “school,” and the fifth sentence ends with “fool.” The tenth sentences, just two lines later, ends with the word “school” as well. In this paragraph, Gimpel, the main character, is speaking. The first effect of this use of rhymes is simply to make Gimpel sound like a fool, as the townspeople consider him to be. The word “fool” refers both to one who is unintelligent and most often gullible, and to a person, such as a court jester, who makes jokes and is made fun of for others’ entertainment. Court jesters often employ rhymes to makes their jokes seem funnier. Gimpel’s use of rhymes in this paragraph compares Gimpel to this kind of fool.
This rhyming scheme also has an ironic effect. The two words that rhyme, as aforementioned, are “fool” and “school.” The use of rhymes, here, creates a direct juxtaposition between the two words—one who is unintelligent, or foolish, and one who has gone to school. Gimpel specifically states that he doesn’t think of himself as a fool. It is also worth noting that throughout the story, Gimpel is the only person specifically mentioned as having gone to school. Everyone else in the town simply mocks Gimpel and embarrasses him. As the Rabbi in the story says, “It is…better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil…. He who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself,” (Singer 80). Although Gimpel is gullible and is considered a fool, this use of rhymes drives the idea that Gimpel is the only person in town who is smart enough to treat others with kindness.
The next formal feature of the story is reference to animals. Throughout the work, various townspeople are described either by being directly compared to animals or by making animal sounds. In the first paragraph the gang that teased Gimpel “hee-hawed, stomped and danced…” thus, being compared to donkeys. Paragraph five describes the laughter of some of the townspeople as “cat music.” Later in the story, Gimpel describes his wife as a “sleeping mite,” and her lover as making the sounds of a “slaughtered ox.” The only time at which Gimpel refers to himself as an animal in when he says, “Enough of being a donkey…Gimpel isn’t going to be a sucker all his life. There’s a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel,” (Singer 83). While donkeys are known for being rather stupid, here Gimpel explicitly says that donkeys are suckers and fools, thus showing exactly what the author imagines the townspeople to be when Gimpel compares them to donkeys earlier on in the story.
The effect of all these references to animals shows just how inhumane the townspeople are. In the way they treat Gimpel, they are more like donkeys, cats, arachnids, and dying oxen than humans. Through this rhetorical device, Singer suggests that anyone who treats another human unkindly and causes them to feel embarrassed is no better than an animal. Thus these references progress Singer’s intended moral of the story, that it is better to be foolish than to be unkind.
Biblical allusions add another element of meaning to Gimpel the Fool. When approaching Elka to ask her to marry him, Gimpel says, “I went to her clay house, which was built on the sand…” (Singer 80). This is a reference to Matthew 7:24-27, the story of the wise man who built his house on a rock, and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. The author here compares Elka to the foolish man, as her house is built on sand. Throughout the entire story, Elka treats Gimpel as if he is a fool. She lies to him about her infidelity and causes him to doubt everything he saw and knew to be true. In this biblical allusion, the author explains that Elka is, in fact, the fool, and not Gimpel.
Elka’s house, which is built of clay on the sand, is also a reference to Job 4:19 where it states, “How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth?” (King James Bible, Job 4.19). Through this allusion, Singer explains that Elka’s foundation, or her moral standing, is “crushed before the moth,” or incredibly unsteady and unreliable.
Through both of these biblical allusions, Singer adds more evidence to the moral of his story. He proves that while Gimpel is gullible, Elka is the one who is foolish. She built her life on very shaky ground, causing others to feel shame and embarrassment. Thus, Singer continues the concept that those who treat others with unkindness are the real fools, while those who are innocent, although gullible, are much better off.
The fourth formal feature of the text is foreshadowing. Throughout the story, Singer uses foreshadowing numerous times to foretell the end of the story. One example is the biblical allusion just mentioned. In both scriptural references, the house built on the sand, or dust, does not end well. It either gets washed away or crushed by a moth. Since the house symbolizes the owner’s moral standing, it is clearly foreshadowed that Elka will die and her fate will not be a happy one. Her life was full of deceit and unkindness, and thus, at the end of the story, she was turning black, paying for her sins, as Gimpel dreamed he saw her in the afterlife.
Another occurrence of foreshadowing is clear when Gimpel and Elka were being married. Singer wrote, “The ceremony was held at the cemetery gates, near the little corpse-washing hut,” (81). Not only is that a horrible place to have a wedding, but it foretells the death of Elka, and the death of the marriage as well. As is discovered later in the story, Elka dies after 20 years of marriage with Gimpel, and their marriage is plagued with infidelity and unhappiness, resulting in Gimpel abandoning Elka’s children after she dies.
Both of these instances of foreshadowing combine to prove that it is better to be like Gimpel—innocent and gullible, than like Elka—deceitful and unkind. Elka died, and then was punished in the afterlife for her mortal sins. Because of her, her marriage was unhappy and did not end well at all. Through these fictional events, Singer explains that unkind people are rewarded with suffering, and though the innocent often have to endure suffering, they are rewarded in heaven.
The last rhetorical device used in Gimpel the Fool is color, and the symbolism it entails. Specifically, the colors black and white are used to convey meaning throughout the story. The first use of color is found in the second to last paragraph of section one. In describing the wedding, when the rabbi asked if the bride was a widow or a divorced woman, and the sexton said she was both, Gimpel says this was a black moment for him. Gimpel was fairly certain that Elka was not chaste, but the townspeople had convinced him otherwise; at his wedding he discovered that not only was she unchaste, but she had been both widowed and divorced, which was a source of great shame to him. In describing this as a black moment, Gimpel implies that this was a very difficult and depressing time for him—his reputation was now ruined, and he was married to a woman who was unholy.
The next time the color black is used it describes the moment after Gimpel finds his wife cheating on him with another man. Just as the first instance with the color black, this is a very depressing moment for Gimpel. In his culture, the man was supposed to be the lord and master of his house. His wife’s infidelity throws Gimpel’s role as lord and master of the house into question. The next time the color black is found, it is under the same circumstances of infidelity—Gimpel finds Elka sleeping with yet another man. The third time the color black is used, it describes Elka as Gimpel sees her in the afterlife in a dream. Her face had turned black, signifying her unworthiness and guilt. Each time the color black is used, it describes Elka and her sins regarding chastity. This again builds on Singer’s main concept that those who are unkind and make others feel like fools—just like Elka did in convincing Gimpel she was innocent—will suffer far more than those who are innocent and gullible.
The second color used is white. This color is only found twice in the entire story. It is first used to describe Elka’s lips immediately after her death. When a person dies, the blood recedes from directly under the skin because the blood is no longer circulating, thus making the skin appear white. However, the use of the color white, here, is also symbolic. Elka’s death means that Gimpel is finally free from her abuse and infidelity. The second use of “white” is found near the end of the story when Gimpel says, “After many years I became old and white…” (Singer 88). While this refers to the color of Gimpel’s hair as he aged, it also symbolizes his purity. He spent the last years of his life telling stories to children, remaining the innocent “fool” he had always been, though wiser and more understanding. This whiteness represents his purity as he reached the point at which he could go to heaven and live with Elka in happiness forever. This proves the concept that those who are innocent shall be rewarded.
Isaac Singer’s use of formal rhetorical devices adds meaning to his story beyond what is found at the surface. It constructs the concept that the innocent, though often taken advantage of, are rewarded far more than any who treat others unkindly and make them feel ashamed. This moral gives substance to Gimpel the Fool and teaches a valuable lesson.
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