The Pain in a Simple Man’s Life
Primary motives are described as needs that a person must meet in order to survive. The most widely recognized of these motives are the needs for food, water, sleep, air, and regulation of body temperature. However, one motive that is commonly overlooked by society is that of pain avoidance. The undesired pain may be stemmed from either physical or emotional situations or a combination of the two. If one is not prepared to eliminate the source of the pain, then he/she may choose to ignore the painful situation rather than allow him/herself to become upset. The character Gimpel in Isaac Singer’s short story entitled “Gimpel the Fool” centers his entire livelihood on one of his more basic primary motives, the desire to avoid personal pain.
Gimpel is a man who is subjected to human cruelty everyday of his life dealt by the people who surround him. The cruelty is not in the form of physical abuse, yet just as harsh. The people of the only town Gimpel has ever known treat him as if he was a child. And in many ways, Gimpel is a child, for a child is a person who is learning the ways of the world. Gimpel mirrors a child with his naivete and goodness. The people of the town played jokes on him throughout his childhood and his life as an adult. According to Gimpel, “they stuffed my hand full of goat turds” instead “of the raisins they give when a woman’s lying in” (Singer 411). Whereas most people would see aggression as a normal reaction to this sort of trickery, Gimpel chooses to let every trick and every comment go without a word being said. His philosophy is to “Let it pass. So they take advantage of me” (411). This type of action demonstrates that Gimpel chooses to remain silent in order to avoid the pain of a confrontation. The idea in Gimpel’s mind is that he would rather tolerate people’s laughter rather than people’s hatred directed towards him. He comments saying that, “If I ever dared to say, ’Ah, you’re kidding!’ there was trouble. People got angry” (412). With comments such as this, Gimpel shows his need for complete happiness in his life, even if the happiness is at his personal expense.
Gimpel avoids pain not only from the townspeople, but from his wife as well. His wife, Elka, is a very promiscuous woman by nature and she chooses to be unfaithful to Gimpel. However again, Gimpel chooses to evade the truth of the matter to keep from being hurt. One way he [Gimpel] shows the reader how he avoids emotional pain is when he caught Elka in bed with another man. At first, he could not accept what his wife was doing to their marriage and his reputation. However as the pain of being alone increased each day, Gimpel decides to forget the entire incident and forces himself to lie about what he saw. Gimpel says to himself, “Hallucinations do happen. And if that’s so, I’m doing her [his wife] an injustice,” proving that he twists the truth into something that he can accept (416). Gimpel’s mind works in a way that he allows himself to think that he is suffering from a kind of dementia to avoid the painful truth regarding his wife. He also avoids the embarrassment and humiliation of recognizing that the children are not his. Elka had birthed six children, none of which had been fathered by Gimpel. Gimpel knows that the children are not his, for he and his wife have never had sexual relations. Gimpel in talking about the time discrepancy between their wedding night and the birth of a child states, “In short, I waited. Not four months later she was in childbed” (413). Gimpel understands he has no biological children, but he loves her children as if they are his own. He cannot bear the hardships of reality, so he accepts whatever information is put before him and believes it to be the truth.
The reason behind Gimpel’s lifelong continuation of evading the painful truth is his belief in the afterlife. He believes very strongly in the concepts of heaven and hell, and tells himself that everything will be much better when he is able to reach that final destination. But actually, Gimpel avoids the pain in that aspect of his life as well. Throughout his entire life he has been deceived, so what keeps his belief from being a deception as well? At one point, Gimpel begins to question his beliefs. In a dream, a spirit tells him that there is no God, no judgment day in the afterlife and for a moment Gimpel releases the questioning side of his personality. He says, “What…is there then?” if there is no God (418). But Gimpel’s primary motive conquers his doubts and allows him once again to avoid the pain that can be afflicted by a harsh world. To reaffirm his motives and his belief in life, Gimpel states, “Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived” (420).
Gimpel communicates his attitude towards his life and his ideas of meaningfulness to the readers by his tone. The reader can almost hear a pathetic tone in his voice and in his thoughts. He says things such as, “But I’m the type that bears it and says nothing” (415). When the reader hears statements such as these, the reader feels sympathy for Gimpel. With myself as the reader, I could feel the pain that Gimpel feels in his life and how he can make his avoidance of that pain the most meaningful desire in his life. In my accordance with many psychologists, “Some people feel they must be tough and not show any discomfort” (Coon 388). This characteristic of the pain avoidance primary motive is modeled by Gimpel in his efforts and demonstrates the idea of what makes his life worth living.
Life cannot exist without certain elements. Those elements are considered basic, and among those basic elements, there is one that is often overlooked. Pain avoidance is considered a primary motive, regardless of whether the pain stems from physical or emotional sources. If the pain cannot be eliminated, then often one chooses to avoid or ignore the pain. Gimpel is one of the people who choose to avoid his pain. Gimpel needs the people who surround him, irrelevant to the way he is treated. Whereas most would have sought revenge on the people, Gimpel made it his life’s goal to succeed in avoiding the pain and humiliation that is placed upon him. And in many opinions, as well as my own, Gimpel was an extraordinary character for accomplishing this feat. For according to one critic, “he [Gimpel] is eminently human, recognizing his continuing need for the affection that he managed to wrest from what would have been an intolerable situation for a more conventionally oriented person” (Hadda 294).
(1990) : 283-294.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel the Fool.” Literary Culture: Reading and Writing Literary Arguments. Eds. L. Bensel-Meyers, Susan Giesemann North, and Jeremy W. Webster. Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster, 1999. 411-420.