Study Guide to
I.B. Singer's "Gimpel the Fool"
Note: to make use of this Study Guide, you'll need to print out a hard copy to have on hand as you read the story. If you're printing in one of the KSU public computing labs, you'll first need to go into the File menu (upper left-hand corner of your browser), choose the option for "Page Setup," and click on "Black Type." This insures that any colored text will print out instead of leaving a blank space.
As per routine in our course, you want to allow yourself at
least three readings of the story. Devote your first reading to
simply discovering what happens. Of course there are
certain standard general curiosities you'll be bringing to bear
from the start.
(1) Where, for instance, do the events of the
story seem to be taking place?
(2) Who is the protagonist, and how are you led
to feel about him? How you come out in your feelings will
depend in good part on how you feel about some other things you
(3) What puzzlements, if any, does the story
leave us with when we're through reading (i.e., have finished our
Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your first reading.
In your second reading, press for more specificity in your grasp of certain things.
How do households supply themselves with food (meat, milk, bread, etc.)?
What is the general role of the local rabbi in such communities?
The word "rabbi" comes from a Hebrew word meaning "my lord" or "my master and teacher."
What experiences would one seek out in order to build such qualities?
What institutions and larger social practices would need to be in place if there is to be occasion to acquire such experiences?
What beliefs are current about ethics and morality (right and wrong in conduct, obligations and duties, rights and permission)?
Even when general principles are shared, do conflicts arise in their application to concrete situations?
What beliefs are current about the natural world? about the supernatural?
Which would you settle on as the central one
in the story as a whole?
What kinds of questions do the subordinate
conflicts tend to raise - or to suggest ways
of resolving - about this central one?
Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your second reading of the story.
During your third reading, you might want to explore some issues that arise when we reflect on this story in the context of a certain interesting strand in Western religious tradition, both Jewish and Christian. (There are counterparts in Buddhism and Islam as well.) This is the idea that, because of the Fall of Mankind (in the Garden of Eden, shortly after the Creation of the World itself), mankind in general is mired in sin and error, and that therefore the values that prevail in society at large are perverse - at odds with the Will of the Creator. Put another way: much of common sense is simply corrupt. But since in the afterlife God will punish evil and reward good, people who act according to common sense are doomed. The consequence is a deep and dangerous paradox about "the good life": since worldly wisdom is folly, it is condemned to see true wisdom as folly. The person whose will accords with God's, will in the light of common sense appear to be a madman or a dolt. Such a paradox offers rich possibilities for serious comedy, and there is a long succession in literature of "holy fools." In Jewish literature, the theme goes back at least to Job (whose friend's think he has gone off the deep end, and end up counseling him to "curse God and die"). For Christians, the pre-eminent example will of course be Christ and, naturally, his genuine followers, the saints. There is a derivative secular (or quasi-secular) tradition, starring such figures as the heroes of Cervantes' Don Quixote, Melville's Billy Budd, and Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Sezchuan.
But the issues here are unsettling: it seems to many (believers and unbelievers alike) that human beings are required to go beyond the evidence afforded by natural reason and the experience afforded by the natural senses - even that faith must even affirm counter to what this natural evidence seems to indicate.
These remarks you will recognize as the voice of one kind of common sense in our own day. And it will not escape you that, if they strike us as more convincing than (say) the common sense of other times and places, that may be in part because it is the particular common sense that we ourselves happen to have been brought up in. (On the other hand, perhaps progress of some limited sort is possible, and more than simple ethnocentrism is at stake.)
Singer is writing in our age, so the "common sense" his story invites us to interrogate may be more complicated than just the particular common sense that prevails in the world "of" the story. Put another way, the world in which Gimpel lives extends beyond Frampol to the larger world into which he wanders at the end - and this world extends, indeterminately, into "our own."
The story thus interrogates us: How far, then, do we want to accompany Gimpel?
This is something of course that each must answer for himself or herself. But whether we get an answer that's worth the search will depend on how seriously we are willing to carry through that search.
Here, then, are a few specific curiosities you might take over for the purposes of your third reading.
(1) Is Gimpel's foolishness to be regarded as a form of mental retardation?
Consider also what we learn in ¶35 of Part III of the story. Is Gimpel incapable of conducting practical affairs? (What is the significance, too, for our appreciation of Gimpel's character, of the fact that until now he forgot to mention this fact to us?)
(2) Look carefully at the case made by the Evil One at the beginning of Part IV of the story.
How are we to appreciate their supposed connections with each other?
Review carefully the skeptical points laid out above (the bulleted points in purple). How far does the counsel of the Evil One square with this "common sense"? Could one affirm this "common sense" and consistently reject the ethical outlook expressed by the Evil One?
In the same note, Singer goes on to say: "At its best, art can be nothing more than a means of forgetting the human disaster for a while."
(3) What are we to make of some of the things Gimpel believes in after he leaves Frampol? What are we to think of the material in ¶s 25, 27, and 28 of the story's final section (IV)? Do you think Singer expects us to share his belief in these kinds of states of affairs?
Go to the Writing Assignment on this work.
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Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker.
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This page last updated 28 March 1999.