[(essay date Spring 1985) In the following essay, Fraustino draws attention to the influence of Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Singer's transcendent vision, particularly as evident in "Gimpel the Fool."]
"Gimpel the Fool" is generally regarded as Isaac Bashevis Singer's greatest fictional masterpiece and for good reason. Its appeal to the reader is personal and immediate. Gimpel, the narrator-protagonist, represents that child-like quality in all of us which is the source of both our humanity and our vulnerability: the need to believe in the people around us and in the credibility of our own experiences. Singer's story is about Gimpel's search for manifest truth, or as Sol Gittleman declares, "for the nature of truth in reality." While Gimpel's quest has obvious precedent in many literatures throughout the world, it has a special debt to the literature of the Romantic period. As I shall suggest, Singer's thematic concerns with disillusionment, the difficulty of belief, and especially with the relation of worldly experience to truth were clarified and shaped by the poetry of the Romantics. Finally, Singer may have incorporated at a focal point in his story the language and events described in Wordsworth's "Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known."
At the heart of "Gimpel the Fool" lie the questions what is truth and how is it to be known. It is Gimpel's failure to pose these questions that results in his continued deception by the villagers of Frampol. An innocent, Gimpel at first is able to weather their humiliation through his simple faith in God and the Bible. When the townspeople declare, "'Gimpel, the Czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen; Gimpel, little Hodel Furpiece found a treasure behind the bathhouse,'" Gimpel, in his own words, believes "everything" like a "golem," but adds, with the assurance of "the Wisdom of the Fathers," that "everything is possible." Later, when the villagers confuse him to the point that he doesn't "know the big end from the small," he is sustained by the Biblical injunction that it is "'better to be a fool all you days than for one hour to be evil.'"