Lorraine Balint---- Intro. to Literature---- September 15, 2003


1.) "According to Brown, Gimpel's relationship with Elka demonstrates the conflict between social virtue and wickedness. Do you agree with her assessment? Are there other ways to interpret this relationship? Explain."

1.) Gimpel's relationship with Elka seems actually a reversal of the more usual occurence of a well-meaning wife with a mentally and physically abusive husband. The latter has always been more acceptable to society, even if on the surface, there are some laws and moral precepts against it.

Either, the woman, having little or no authority over the disposal of her own person, is made to wed and submit to whatever humiliations are put upon her, or, in more modern societies, by some flaw in her upbringing and/or character, believes she is unworthy of better treatment, and thus finds satisfaction in such a union that is incomprehensible to outsiders. In either case, there is generally also pressure from family, friends, religion, etc., which often conspires to make the couple keep the commitment, even when it is harmful to one or BOTH of the partners.

Granted, there ARE husbands who are abused in similar ways by wives, but in all the literature about any type of spousal abuse, it's probably safe to say that "Gimpel the Fool" is one of the few that examines an extreme case of all-around abuse in such broad symbolic and universal terms. Ms. Brown and even the author himself, I.B. Singer, may hold that this is the story of the virtue of a little man holding out against the cruelty of the world by clinging to an almost delusional faith in what he is told by those closest to him. We the readers are supposed to be lulled back into again and again into sympathizing with the well-meaning baker. But is this a positive identification?

We realize that ANYONE, even ourselves, sometimes "play the fool" for love and acceptance, and make seemingly senseless compromises to remain in good standing with those whose opinions matter most to us, and that ANYONE, also including ourselves, can take advantage of another's desire to please, often at great cost to both parties. However, these tendencies are not conquered by continued denial of reality, self-indulgence, and refusal to stand one's ground in the face of a wrong, which seems to be both Gimpel's AND Elka's problems

Gimpel has had a deprived childhood and brought up to have little assertiveness because of his orphanhood, thus having to "depend on the kindness of strangers". He gets enough to survive and thrive, but at the price of being the target of constant (and almost psychotic!) teasing and tricking at the hands of neighbors who have known him all his life. However, partly because he has seldom been physically mistreated, and partly due to his essential character, he continues to hope for the best, and and trusts others. Elka, too, though the story doesn't delve much into her background, is also an orphan, but one who has obviously gone through negative experiences, which have developed the worst in her character, and left her hostile, promiscuous, and mistrustful of true kindness.

Instead of being at the opposite ends of the poles of social virtue and personal wickedness, Gimpel and Elka have both been victims of their society's expectations, while using them (in Gimpel's case, seemingly unconsciously and/or ingenuously) to their advantages. Gimpel complains and chafes at times at the villagers' treatment, but he's become used to it, has sought and found justification for it, and can cope without bitterness. He even engages in thievery to support his ungrateful spouse, which, one might think, in a small village, might have been noticed, yet after some years, not only does he escape without punishment, he becomes prosperous in his baking business.

Elka, meanwhile, though so corrupt, even Gimpel at first refuses to have anything to do with her, soon has this reliable man to support her and even protect her from the consequences of her behavior. Unpleasant and crude as she is, it still doesn't keep the village males (aside from her despised husband) from sleeping with her and begetting numerous offspring with her. And, though her first son, pre-Gimpel, grows to abuse his stepfather as much as Elka has, Gimpel makes no such charge against the children she has borne after the marriage. This angle is not explored, but one might infer two possibilities: Either, he has been a bigger influence on them than their mother, or their mother has brought them up to at least tolerate their father of record, if for no other reason than the fact that he has faithfully supported all, and disowned none.

The manner in which Elka continually denies her most blatant infidelities becomes as much a device to erase the incidents in her own mind, as a means of brainwashing her "foolish" husband--- even if it's too much to accept that she felt true "guilt" as confessed while on her deathbed, there was SOME kind of inner conflict going on. After all, Elka and Gimpel WERE brought up in the same village, under similar conditions, knowing the same people, and facing the same sets of laws and traditions. Their very existences defied convention. Their responses to these circumstances were different as two sides of a coin and separate as two train tracks, yet were part of the same coin and, linked like tracks, ran in the same direction. They were BOTH being played with and used by those around them

It seems, then, there WAS something in the relationship that unified both partners, even if it was mystifying to others in their village, and to the reader, which goes beyond the influence of society. At one point, the religion Gimpel so respects DOES offer him a way out, practically paving the way for a divorce, yet, despite overwhelming evidence, and terrible hurt, he doesn't take it, and remains with Elka until her death.

In the time of the Bible, Elka would have been not only divorced, but stoned to death for her adulteries. One gets the idea that Gimpel might well have tried to stop it, to the point of getting himself clouted with a few stones in the process, at which point the stoners would have been forced to cease entirely, though for different reasons than when Jesus of Nazareth stopped a similar incident. Jesus shamed those earlier villagers by pointing out their hypocrisy--- they were sinners no better than the sinner they were about to take out.

The latter-day villagers, no less hypocritical, would have stopped because they needed a innocent and compliant Gimpel as the butt of their sick humor (exaggerated for the sake of the story, but born, it might be surmised, of their own frustration and boredom at their limited lives in Frampol) and he would have refused to put up with it without the anchor of an Elka, who, Gimpel states baldly at one point, is the earthly standard of his faith in God. Elka doles out a lot of pain and a minimum of pleasure, seemingly without rhyme or reason, as does God, but Gimpel has become content even with negative attention, and lives with the evergreen hope that both parties will provide SOME reward at the end of the tunnel.

Indeed, it is the death of Elka which frees Gimpel and almost leaves him rudderless, about to engage in spiteful revenge against the neighbors who have taunted and cheated him, and losing the faith which has sustained him. Only his vision, probably spurred by wishful thinking, of his wife's penitent soul, snaps him back into his former sense of responsibility.
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2.) "What, according to Brown, is the role of Gimpel's dreams in his character's transformation? Evaluate how well she supports her claim."

Ms. Brown's article analyzing Gimpel's character and the changes he undergoes are almost too supportive of this character and too accepting of the surface message, that Gimpel's simplicity, and complicity with his own oppression represent genuine virtue, and that his dreams lead to revelation, redemption. Gimpel's dreams DO lead to his transformation into a wiser and more faithful man, but they were still just dreams, and perhaps self-deceptive.

In the first dream, the Devil appears to Gimpel and gives both the idea and the permission to pollute the dough he is baking for sale to the same villagers who have harassed him all his life, on the grounds that there is no afterlife, and thus no judgment to fear. This apparition, of and by itself, should have given the lie to the whole set-up as far as superstitious Gimpel was concerned, for where else would the devil, complete with horns, goatee, and tail, have come from, except from some supernatural plane? Still, Gimpel initially gives in an overwhelming temptation which must have built up for years.

Ms. Brown refers to Gimpel as "a moral and faithful individual" who has only recently realized the truth about his late wife and the villagers, yet from the beginning of the story, the character repeatedly states that he knew when his leg was being pulled, but went along with it--- because he wished to co-operate, because there was the slimmest possibility of the joke being true, because he loved this or that person, because he thought it pleasing to God. Still, even in the context of this fiction, for there to be the slightest identification with this character, however virtuous, there has to be some hint of massive resentment that had to have some outlet, but, as this is not a completely realistic tale, the resentment is sublimated by blaming a rather conventional devil-figure.

Then, on the same night, Gimpel dozes again thanks to the warmth of the oven. The heat and flames may also have caused the next dream, where he sees Elka, her skin blackened (charred?) This could mean several things--- Gimpel unconsciously believes that his late wife's face has become as black as her heart apparently was, and/or that she's been burning for her sins. In any case, she urges him to do what he MIGHT have done on his own anyway, given his life-long propensity for taking responsibility--- to destroy the urine-tainted loaves. Gimpel, who, for twenty years, was constantly humilaited and lied to by this woman, is as easily persuaded by her disgraced shade as he had been by the Devil, just a few hours previously.

Ms. Brown claims the forgoing has helped to change and mature Gimpel's character, but it seems like a little more of the same old, same old he has been doing all along, letting his opinions be swayed by outside forces, or at least, what he sincerely BELIEVES are outside forces.
In one fell swoop, Gimpel is convinced of an afterlife, of punishment in that afterlife, that his wife is being properly disciplined, that she is in the process of being sufficiently redeemed to care enough to save him from dire folly, that his salvation has come from a Higher Power, and that he now sensible enough to leave his village to seek truth and wisdom.

Thus, it could be said that the second dream, far from being a message from Above, was simply Gimpel's own character re-asserting itself, and again, using his old fears of damnation and repressed wishful thinking about Elka's fate to nudge him into doing the right thing. Plus, early in the story, he expressed a desire to leave the village which has seldom let up on him, and now, feels free to do so.

In leaving Frampol, ironically enough, Gimple leaves all of Elka's children, whom he loved, the eldest of whom, if he still lived at home, was only in his early twenties (and who beat up his own stepfather on many occasions!), after dividing his life savings among them. Finally absolved of that obligation, Gimpel wanders the world, finding good-hearted strangers who treat the former "fool" more kindly than the villagers with whom he had spent all his previous life. Resisting his urge for revenge, and finally giving up his willful naivete, has helped to bring out a degree of real self-respect. Gimpel apparently no longer acts in a manner that invites his former treatment.

Contrary to Ms. Brown's positive assessment of Gimpel's search for and discovery of "truth", his own words almost make it seem as if the opposite happens. Though relieved of the desire for hostility and revenge, more settled in his religious faith, and no longer hounded by tormentors, Gimpel becomes an itinerant storyteller who comes to the conclusion that "reality" is a subjective experience. If something doesn't happen to one person, it will to another; if something doesn't happen at one time, it will in the future; and if something doesn't really happen in waking life, it will in dreams. Lies and truth are accepted without judgment. If this is "enlightenment", it's a very indefinite and personal kind which may satisfy this particular individual, but, if taught to others as a guide to living in one's society, asks more questions than it answers.

His last dreams, which Ms. Brown doesn't mention, indicate Gimpel's final break with the cold facts. He has visions of Elka where she has shed traces of her punishment, and is far more attractive, wise, and loving than she was probably even CAPABLE of in life. In his first acquaintance with her, he wished nothing to do with "that whore"; in his last days, he wants nothing more than to be united with her for eternity!

By denying the reality of his former reality, and believing it only "once removed" from the "true world", the afterlife, the existence of which is unprovable, it's a hard call as to whether the faith and dreams which kept Gimpel from improving his earthly lot was a comforting trick he ultimately played on himself.
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3.) "Brown concludes that Gimpel, at the story's end, has entered into 'an enlightened sense of being'. Contrast this Gimpel with the character described at the beginning of the story."

First, it almost appears as though Gimpel is telling the story of different times in his life, AT different times in his life, so each part is like a different Gimpel speaking, at each stage less light-hearted as his situation becomes more profound.

In the beginning, Youthful Gimpel is more or less cheerfully pushed around without much resistance, until the horrid joke of his imminent marriage to the town floozy is foisted upon him. It finally occurs to him that the humiliation is getting serious--- the townspeople are literally pushing Gimpel to his fate, and are even willing to ante up to satisfy Elka's desire for a "dowry"--- and this time, the consequences will be permanent. The fact that the wedding takes place near a cemetery, and that young men carry a crib (like pallbearers?) as a gift, are symbolic in this regard. Still, Gimpel is hopeful of better things, willing to wait and see what happens.

In the next part, reality starts to bite the Young Husband Gimpel, with Elka's personal rejection of her spouse and beginning the serial infidelities that produce children Gimpel can't help but love--- in his way, he's as helpless as they are. It seems the only people in Frampol who have any compassion for Gimpel are the rabbis, who, in spite of the villagers' and even Gimpel's objections, move to help break up the bizarre marriage. For the first time, Gimpel really makes up his mind, blaming himself for the incident, convinced that his marriage is worth saving, determined to get Elka and her children back.

In the next part, Adult Gimpel finally identifies his faith in his wife with his faith in God, though he sees clearly her indiscretion with his apprentice, and her violent threats to ruin his life and business (though one wonders how likely it really would have been that Elka should wreck hers and her children's means of support.) For the remainder of their life together, Gimpel disciplines himself not to see or hear the worst, and pays doctors to treat Elka's cancer, though she finally confesses that all the children born to them are not his. Gimpel has come to depend so heavily on his illusion of their life together, that confirmation of knowledge he has repressed all along shatters him.

In part four, Middle-Aged Gimpel struggles with an understandable sense of emptiness and resentment that can only be filled with revenge on Frampol, which has tormented and cuckolded him, while expecting him to be the model citizen and baker. After being tempted, then dissuaded from his intent by dreams, as he leaves Frampol on a kind of pilgrimage / exile, his voice fades into that of Elderly Gimpel.

Elderly Gimpel takes over the rest of the story. While he no longer has to deal with the harassment of Frampol, he dreams about it, but seems to have made peace with the past. The foolishness has dissipated into a gift for telling tales. He is no longer troubled by discrepancies between truth and lies, content with his own conclusions about reality, and dreams of an afterlife where he will be reunited with a redeemed Elka, in a place where there will be no more deception. Dying Elderly Gimpel has become enlightened in philosophical matters, but also "enlightened" of the attachment to the world which once injured him----far from the earthy Youthful Gimpel's immediate, intimate involvment with it.