Speculations About Jakob

by Uwe Johnson

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Characters Discussed

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Jakob Abs

Jakob Abs (YAH-kohp ahps), a calm and competent young man who seems to be at ease with himself. His demeanor shows a casualness that is genuine. He is respected by his coworkers. He also believes in socialism, which is the reason for the communist government’s interest in him; Rohlfs considers Jakob to represent the ideal of a worker in a socialist state. Although he has a kind of working relationship with Rohlfs, he is very much his own man, caught between two countries where he is not allowed to be himself. When he went to Jerichow at the end of World War II, Cresspahl’s daughter, Gesine, looked up to him as an older brother. He began an apprenticeship with the railroad and became a dispatcher for the state-owned East German railroad in Dresden, a position for which he needs security clearance. He visits Gesine in West Germany, and they become lovers. He decides to return to East Germany and has an accident the next morning. He is twenty-eight years old when he is struck by a train engine and dies.

Gesine Cresspahl

Gesine Cresspahl (gay-ZEE-neh), a highly independent and self-sufficient woman. She is deeply in love with Jakob, who is five years older than she is. In contrast to Jakob and in spite of her independence, she does not appear rooted in her own being because she suffers from her isolation. Not only has she left the social environment in which she grew up, she also has left the social system of communism in East Germany for the capitalist social system of West Germany, where she works as a translator for NATO. Although it is not an easy choice, she feels that she has to stay in West Germany, even after she and Jakob become lovers.

Herr Rohlfs

Herr Rohlfs, a levelheaded and efficient agent of the East German secret service. He is never identified by his first name, but always by his last name preceded by “Mr.,” or “Herr” in German. He has a little daughter. In the novel, his primary goal, which he ultimately fails to achieve, is to convince Gesine to work as an East German spy. He talks with her relatives and friends about the ideals of socialism. He seems to genuinely like Jakob and takes considerable risks, allowing Jakob to visit Gesine in West Germany. Ironically, although he personally sees in each person an individual, his job forces him to look at each individual as a number.

Jonas Blach

Jonas Blach (YOH-nas blahkh), a somewhat arrogant intellectual. He has a Ph.D. in English and teaches English linguistics and literature at the university in East Berlin. His involvement in the reformist movement eventually leads to his arrest by Rohlfs.

Heinrich Cresspahl

Heinrich Cresspahl, Gesine’s father, a man in his late sixties with an endearing stubbornness. A widower since 1938, he is caring and considerate to his family and friends and can be relied on in many ways. He emerges as one of the truly human characters of the novel. He took Jakob and his mother into his household when they came to Jerichow at the end of World War II. He respects Jakob for his integrity and becomes a father figure to him.

Marie Abs

Marie Abs, Jakob’s mother, who looks old for her age (fifty-nine). Although the relationship between Marie and her son seems a little distant, Gesine feels as though she has found in Marie a mother for all times. After the encounter with Rohlfs, Jakob’s mother is so scared that she decides to leave East Germany.


Sabine (zah-BIH-neh), Jakob’s girlfriend in Dresden. She works in the administration of the East German railroad. She and Jakob split up in an unemotional manner sometime after his mother left for West Germany. They remain on friendly terms.


Jöche (YEH-kheh), a friend of Jakob who lives in Jerichow and works for the East German railroad. He is one of the people with whom Jonas talks.

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