English & EAL

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

December 13, 2020

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  1. Summary
  2. Themes
  3. Symbols and Analysis
  5. Discussion Questions
  6. Sample Essay Topics
  7. Essay Topic Breakdown

1. Summary

Go Went Gone revolves around an unlikely connection between a retired university professor, Richard, and a group of asylum seekers who come from all over the African continent. While he’s enjoyed a life of stability and privilege as a white male citizen, the lives of these asylum seekers could not be more different: no matter where they are in the world, uncertainty seems to follow. Richard initially sets out to learn their stories, but he is very quickly drawn into their histories of tragedy, as well as their dreams for the future. 

However, the more he tries to help them, the more he realises what he’s up against: a potent mix of stringent legal bureaucracy and the ignorance of his peers. These obstacles are richly interwoven with the novel’s context in post-reunification Germany (more on this under Symbols: Borders), but bureaucracy and ignorance are everywhere - Australia included. This novel, therefore, bears reflection on our own relationship with the refugees who seek protection and opportunity on our shores - refugees who are virtually imprisoned and cut off from the world.

Richard ultimately realises that these men are simply people, people who have the same complexities and inconsistencies as anyone else. They sometimes betray his trust; at other times, they help him in return despite their socio-economic standing. The end of the novel is thus neither perfect nor whole - while the asylum seekers develop a relationship with Richard and vice versa, neither is able to entirely solve the other’s problems, though both learn how to be there for each other in their own ways. We don’t get many solutions to everything the refugees are facing, but what we end up with is a lesson or two in human empathy. 

The title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Go Went Gone is a line she weaves into a couple of scenes. In one example, a group of asylum seekers in a repurposed nursing home learn to conjugate the verb in German. In another, a retired university professor reflects on this group, about to be relocated to another facility.

2. Themes


The various privileges Richard holds shape his identity in this text. It shapes how he approaches his retirement for example: now that “he has time”, he plans to spend it on highbrow pursuits like reading Proust and Dostoyevsky or listening to classical music. On the other hand, the asylum seekers sleep most of the time: “if you don’t sleep through half the morning, [a day] can be very long indeed.” Richard has the freedom to choose to spend his time on hobbies, but the asylum seekers face a daunting and seemingly-impossible array of tasks. After getting to know them more, he realises that while his to-do list includes menial things like “schedule repairman for dishwasher”, the refugees face daunting socio-political problems like needing to “eradicate corruption”. 

Freedom in general is a useful way to think about privilege in this text, and besides freedom to choose how you spend your time, this can also look like the freedom to tell your story. While Richard helps the men with this to some degree, even he has a limited amount of power here (and power can be another useful way of thinking about privilege). Richard realises that “people with the freedom to choose…get to decide which stories to hold on to” - and those are the people who get to decide the future of the refugees, at least from a legal perspective. 


Though Richard can’t necessarily help with these legal issues, he finds himself doing what he can for the refugees over time. He demonstrates a willingness to help them in quite substantial ways sometimes, for example buying a piece of land in Ghana for Karon and his family. In the end, we see him empathising with the refugees enough to offer them housing: though he is not a lawyer, he still finds ways to use his privilege for good and share what he can. He taps into his networks and finds housing for 147 refugees. 

The tricky thing with empathy though is that it’s never one-sided, not in this book and not in real life either. It’s not simply a case of Richard taking pity on the refugees - we might think of this as sympathy rather than empathy - but he develops complex, reciprocal and ‘real’ friendships with all of them. This can challenge him, and us, and our assumptions about what is right. When Richard loses his wallet at the store, Rufu offers to pay for him. He initially insists he “can’t accept”, but when he does Rufu doesn’t let him pay him back in full. Erpenbeck challenges us to empathise without dehumanising, condescending or assuming anything in the process. 

It’s an interesting way to think about social justice in general, particularly if you consider yourself an ‘ally’ of a marginalised group - how can we walk with people rather than speak for them and what they want?


Freedom of movement is sort of a form of privilege, but movement as a theme of its own is substantial enough to need a separate section. There are lots of different forms of movement in the novel, in particular movement between countries. In particular, it’s what brought the refugees to Germany at all, even though they didn’t necessarily have any control over that movement.

Contrast that with Richard’s friends, Jörg and Monika, who holiday in Italy and benefit from “freedom of movement [as] the right to travel”. Through this lens, we can see that this is really more of a luxury that the refugees simply do not have. Refugees experience something closer to forced displacement, rather than free travel, moving from one “temporary place” to the next often outside of their control. In this process, their lack of control often means they lose themselves in the rough-and-tumble of it all: “Becoming foreign. To yourself and others. So that’s what a transition looks like.”

3. Symbols & Analysis

Language and the Law

Many of the barriers faced by the refugees are reflected in their relationships with language; that is, their experiences learning German mirrors and sheds light on their relationship with other elements of German society. For example, there are times when they struggle to concentrate on learning: “It’s difficult to learn a language if you don’t know what it’s for”. This struggle reflects and symbolises the broader problems of uncertainty, unemployment and powerlessness in the men’s lives.

The symbol of language often intersects with the symbol of the “iron law”, so these are discussed together here. It’s hard on the one hand for these men to tell their stories in German, but it’s also hard for the German law to truly grapple with their stories. Indeed, Richard finds that the law doesn’t care if there are wars going on abroad or not: it only cares about “jurisdiction”, and about which country is technically responsible for the refugees. In this sense, the law mirrors and enables the callousness which runs through the halls of power - not to deter you from learning law if you want though! This might just be something to be aware of, and maybe something you’d want to change someday. 

There’s one law mentioned in the novel stating that asylum seekers can simply be accepted “if a country, a government or a mayor so wishes”, but that one word in particular - “if” - puts all the power in lawyers and politicians who know the language and the law and how to navigate it all. These symbols thus reflect power and privilege. 

Borders (+ Historical Context)

Throughout the novel, there’s a sense that borders between countries are somewhat arbitrary things. They can “suddenly become visible” and just as easily disappear; sometimes they’re easy to cross, sometimes they’re impossible to cross. Sometimes it’s easy physically, but harder in other ways - once you cross a border, you need housing, food, employment and so forth.

This complex understanding of borders draws on the history of Germany, and in particular of its capital Berlin, after World War II. After the war, Western powers (USA, UK, France) made a deal with the Soviet Union to each run half of Germany and half of Berlin. The Eastern half of Germany, and the Eastern half of Berlin, fell under Soviet control, and as East Germans started flocking to the West in search of better opportunities (sound familiar?), the Soviets built a wall around East Berlin. The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, became a border of its own, dividing a nation and a city and changing the citizenship of half of Germany overnight. Attempts to escape from the East continued for many years until the wall came down in 1989, changing all those citizenships right back, once again virtually overnight.

This history adds dimension to Erpenbeck’s novel. Refugees pass through many countries, but Erpenbeck draws on Germany’s history specifically as a once-divided nation itself. This helps to illustrate that national borders are just another arbitrary technicality that divides people, at the expense of these refugees. 

Bodies of Water

One motif that comes back a few times in the novel is the drowned man in the lake by Richard’s house. This has a few layers of meaning.

Firstly, the man drowns despite the lake being a perfectly “placid” body of water, and for whatever reason, this bothers Richard immensely: “he can’t avoid seeing the lake”. There’s an interesting contrast here to be drawn between this one death in a still body of water and the hundreds of deaths at sea that are recounted in the novel. Rashid’s stories are particularly confronting: “Under the water I saw all the corpses”. Erpenbeck questions the limits of human empathy - whose deaths are we more affected by, and why - through contrasting these different bodies of water, and those who die within them. Richard is more affected than most, who visit the lake all summer leaving “just as happy as they came” - but even he has his limits with how much he can see and understand. 

The next layer of meaning with this symbol then is more around the surface of the water itself: it is significant that in Rashid’s story, the casualties are below the surface. This reflects the common saying, “the tip of the iceberg” - the survivors who make it to Europe are really just the tip of the iceberg, only representing a fraction of the refugee experience. Often, that experience ends in death. Erpenbeck asks us to keep looking beneath the surface in order to empathise in full. 

Music and the Piano

This symbol is specific to Richard’s relationship with Osarobo, to whom he teaches the piano. There’s one scene where this symbolism is particularly powerful, where they watch videos of pianists “us[ing] the black and white keys to tell stories that have nothing at all to do with the keys’ colours.”

It speaks to the power of music to bring people together, and also to the importance of storytelling in any form: Rosa Canales argues the keys’ colours, and the colour of the fingers playing them, “become irrelevant to the stories emanating from beneath them”.



  • “What languages can you speak?”
  • “The German language is my bridge into this country” 
  • “Empty phrases signify politeness in a language which neither of them is at home” 


  • “The things you’ve experienced become baggage you can’t get rid of, while others - people with the freedom to choose - get to decide which stories to hold on to”
  • “He hears Apollo’s voice saying: They give us money, but what I really want is work. He hears Tristan’s voice saying: Poco lavoro. He hears the voice of Osaboro, the piano player, saying: Yes, I want to work but it is not allowed. The refugees’ protest has created half-time jobs for at least twelve Germans thus far” 


  • “Not so long ago, Richard thinks, this story of going abroad to find one's fortune was a German one”
  • “Is it a rift between Black and White? Or Poor and Rich?” 
  • “Where can a person go when he doesn't know where to go?” 

5. Discussion Questions

Here are some questions to think about before diving into essay-writing. There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these, and most will draw on your own experiences or reflections anyway. You may want to write some answers down, and brainstorm links between your responses and the novel. These reflections could be particularly useful if you’re writing a creative response to the text, but they’re also a really good way to get some personal perspective and apply the themes and lessons of this novel into your own life.

  • Where do you ‘sit’ in the world? What privileges do you have or lack? What can you do that others cannot, and what can others do that you cannot?
  • Think about the times you’ve travelled around the world - how many of those times were by choice? What might be the impact of moving across the world against your will?
  • How do you show empathy to others? How do you receive empathy from others? What is that relationship ‘supposed’ to look like?
  • What are some different names for where you live? How can you describe the same place in different languages or words? If you’re in Australia, what was your area called before 1788?
  • Have you ever learned or spoken a language other than English? What language do you find easier to write, speak and think with? How might this impact someone’s ability to participate in different parts of life (school, work, friendships etc.)?

6. Sample Essay Topics

  • Go Went Gone teaches us that anyone can be empathetic. Discuss. 
  • In Go Went Gone, Erpenbeck argues that storytelling can be powerful but only to an extent. Do you agree?
  • How does Erpenbeck explore the different ways people see time? 
  • It’s possible to sympathise with Richard despite his relative privilege. Do you agree?
  • Discuss the symbolic use of borders in Go Went Gone.
  • Go Went Gone argues that the law is impartial. To what extent do you agree?
  • “The German language is my bridge into this country.” How is language a privilege in Go Went Gone?
  • Who are the protagonists and antagonists of Go Went Gone?
  • Go Went Gone shows that it is impossible to truly understand another person’s experiences. To what extent do you agree?
  • In what ways do the people Richard meets challenge his assumptions about the world?
  • Go Went Gone is less about borders between countries than it is about borders between people. Do you agree?

7. Essay Topic Breakdown

Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. This essay topic breakdown will focus on the THINK part of the strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response.

Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:

Step 1: Analyse

Step 2: Brainstorm

Step 3: Create a Plan

In what ways do the people Richard meets challenge his assumptions about the world?

Step 1: Analyse

This prompt alludes to certain assumptions that Richard might make about the world. If it’s hard to think of these off the top of your head, consider where our assumptions about the world come from: maybe from our jobs, our families and friends or our past experiences. Maybe there are some assumptions you’ve had in the past that you’ve since noticed or challenged. 

Then it asks us how the people Richard meets challenges those assumptions. There’s no way to get out of this question without discussing the refugees, so this will inform our brainstorm.

Step 2: Brainstorm

I think some of Richard’s assumptions at the beginning come from his status: being a professor emeritus makes you pretty elite, and he can’t really empathise with the refugees because his experiences of life are so different. Part of the challenge with this prompt might be to break down what life experiences entail, and where those differences lie: particularly because it’s asking us ‘in what ways’. These experiences could be with language, employment, or personal relationships just to name a few ideas. 

Step 3: Create a Plan

Because Richard’s life experiences are so vastly different, I’d contend that his assumptions are challenged in basically every way. However, I also think that his interest in the refugees exists because he knows they can challenge his assumptions. I want to use the motif of water surfaces to tie this argument together, particularly in the topic sentences, and this could look as follows:

Paragraph 1: Richard realises that he only has a ‘surface-level’ appreciation of the refugees’ life experiences.

  • He realises that he knows little about the African continent (“Nigeria has a coast?”) 
  • He suffers from a “poverty of experience” which means he hasn’t had to interact with this knowledge before
  • His renaming of the refugees (Apollo, Tristan etc.) suggests that he still needs his own frame of reference to understand their experiences
  • He learns about the hardships of migration through the tragic stories of those like Rashid

Paragraph 2: He also realises that he has a ‘surface-level’ understanding of migration in general.

  • This comes from the fact that he has never actually moved countries; he’s only been reclassified as an East German, and then again as a German. Neither happened because he wanted them to.
  • On the other hand, the refugees want to settle in Europe: they want the right to work and make a living - it’s just that the “iron law” acts as a major barrier. Their powerlessness is different from Richard’s.
  • Part of migration is also learning the language, and Richard is initially quite ignorant about this: he observes that the Ethiopian German teacher “for whatever reason speaks excellent German”, not realising this is necessary for any migrant to survive in the new country.
  • We can think of this as the difference between migration and diaspora, the specific term for the dispersion of a people.

Paragraph 3: Richard is more open than most people to looking beneath the surface though, meaning that his assumptions are challenged partly because he is willing for them to be.

  • The symbol of the lake works well here to explain this: he is bothered by its still surface, and what lies underneath, while others aren’t
  • We can also contrast this to characters like Monika and Jörg who remain quite ignorant the whole time: Richard’s views have departed from this throughout the course of the novel
  • Ultimately, the novel is about visibility: Richard’s incorrect assumptions mean that he isn’t seeing reality, and his “research project” is all about making that reality visible. 

Go Went Gone is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

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