Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone

This week, Insight writer and English teacher Leon Furze discusses the VCE English and EAL text, Go, Went, Gone.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is both a powerful critique of European migration policies and a personal account of one man’s struggle to come to terms with his place in the world. Operating on both the individual level and a much broader scale, Erpenbeck weaves together the narrative of retired university professor Richard and the men he interviews, demonstrating that the problems faced by these characters are universal. Go, Went, Gone explores issues of racism and other societal barriers to acceptance and inclusion, and the importance of meaning and purpose in a person’s life. Because the scope of the novel is so broad, you will find ample opportunities for rich analysis.

Erpenbeck’s novel is fictional but firmly grounded in real-world affairs. Her research into the humanitarian crisis in Africa, particularly centred on the refugees fleeing Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, is thorough and presented in such a way that the reader gets enough information directly from the novel to understand the African men’s plight. Even so, you should conduct your own research into the refugee crisis. One of Erpenbeck’s most prominent ideas in the text is that ignorance of the humanitarian crisis in Africa leads to apathy and disregard for people’s basic rights. Richard, the protagonist, reflects this aspect of his society. At the start of the text he is completely ignorant and ‘doesn’t hear’ the protests in Alexanderplatz even though he is right there. Once he finally acknowledges the protest, at home watching television, he recognises his ignorance of their problems and tries to conduct his own research. However, Richard’s early attempts are vague and broad, relying on a spurious knowledge of the countries of Africa and outdated texts such as his copy of Negerliteratur. Richard’s character reflects the position of many people in German society: Africa exists only on the periphery of their knowledge, and they are disinterested in the problems faced by the refugees who have fled from the continent.

Another interesting aspect to explore in this text is the way in which Richard’s relationship with the men develops over the course of his interviews. As soon as Richard begins his interviews, he moves from a position of ignorance to one of understanding. Erpenbeck suggests that, by getting to know the individuals involved in a crisis, we can add a personal dimension to something that is otherwise too amorphous to grasp. During his interviews, Richard is ‘reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s’, and he begins to question his own assumptions about right and wrong. The fact that Richard – self-centred, set in his ways and rigid in his thoughts – is able to reach these conclusions suggests that any of us can change our perspectives under the right circumstances. Erpenbeck also uses Richard as a means of criticising some of the unconscious biases that people from a dominant cultural group hold against those from different backgrounds. Richard acknowledges that, ‘for much of his life, he’s hoped in a tiny corner of his soul that people from Africa mourn their dead less’. This powerful moment of self-reflection would resonate with many readers, as would Richard’s clarity when he admits that this corner of his soul is now ‘occupied instead by shame’. As Richard conducts his interviews with the men, he learns to understand and respect their shared humanity. In analysing and writing about Go, Went, Gone, you should be prepared to question your own unconscious biases and prejudices, and to confront your inner thoughts in the same manner as Richard.

Being able to empathise with the characters in this text also opens the reader to a greater understanding of one of Erpenbeck’s most potent ideas in this novel: the search for meaning in life. While Richard reflects German society’s ignorance towards the refugee crisis, he also exemplifies a classic literary trope of ‘the human condition’. Richard’s thoughts are preoccupied with life and death throughout the novel. The recurring motif of the ‘man in the lake’ – a man who drowned in a boating accident in the lake near to Richard’s house – is a constant reminder to Richard of his own mortality. Because he has recently retired from the profession that defined his life, he is at a loose end and unclear on his purpose. We have all experienced moments in our lives when we do not know what we are doing, or why. This search for meaning is something that connects and unites people across cultures, races and religions. Richard finds meaning in his interviews with the refugees and takes on some of their pain. He gradually shifts from having a purely academic interest in their lives to having a deeply personal one, even inviting some of the men into his home to live. Along his journey, Richard acknowledges that there are many points during a life when a person must ‘relearn everything he knows’ in order to grasp the meaning of life.

Erpenbeck’s novel works on many levels, and you will find a number of angles from which you can analyse and interpret this text. If you are prepared to engage on a personal level and empathise with the characters, you will also gain a greater understanding of your own unconscious biases and perspectives of the world. Like all great works of literature, Go, Went, Gone forces readers to look inwards and search for meaning in their own lives.

Essay questions

  • ‘Erpenbeck uses Richard’s character to criticise the European response to the refugee crisis.’ Do you agree?
  • ‘In order to understand the present, you must understand the past.’
    How does this statement apply to Go, Went, Gone?
  • “When you’re foreign, you don’t have a choice anymore.”
    How does Go, Went, Gone explore the idea of freedom of choice?
  • “But the problem is very big, it has a wife and many, many children.”
    ‘Erpenbeck’s novel deals with problems on a global scale.’ To what extent do you agree?
  • How does Erpenbeck explore the impact of racism on society?


Need more help getting to grips with Go, Went, Gone? Make sure you get our Insight Text Guide for Go, Went, Gone by Leon Furze. With a chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, practice essay topics and much more, the Insight Text Guide for Go, Went, Gone provides a clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text.

Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

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