The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer

By Marcia Allentuck | Go to book overview

Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool

PAUL N. SIEGEL

"Gimpel the Fool," perhaps the most widely acclaimed work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, has its roots deep in the soil of Yiddish literature. It is concerned with two of what Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg tell us, in their Treasury of Yiddish Stories, are "the great themes of Yiddish literature," "the virtue of powerlessness" and "the sanctity of the insulted and the injured," and has as its anti-hero the "wise or sainted fool" who is an "extreme variation" of "the central figure of Yiddish literature," "dos kleine menschele, the little man." The wise or sainted fool is, however, not merely a recurring character in Yiddish fiction; he is a centuries-old archetypal figure of western literature. The manner in which Singer handles this archetypal figure, making use of the ideas associated with it, but in his own distinctive way, makes "Gimpel the Fool' the masterpiece of irony that it is.

The idiot was regarded in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance as being under the special protection of God. He was also often regarded as an "innocent" or a "natural," a child of nature who lived without thought of the past or the future and was consequently happier than the supposedly wise man. The court jester was either a feeble-minded person or a lunatic who evoked amusement by his inaneness or his antics. He might also be someone who pretended to be a fool and used his assumed folly as a license for his wit.

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