[A major reason for the positive reception of Mutmassungen über Jakob] is Johnson's success in the creation of characters….
Most obscure, yet most alluring is Jakob, the novel's hero. As the title suggests, the speculations are about him. The state agent Rohlfs, Jakob's "adopted" sister Gesine, Jonas,… the narrator, and the reader conjecture about Jakob. But not only with regard to the hero and the other figures in the novel is there uncertainty. The plot itself is clear only in its barest outlines; even they seem capable of being misread. (p. 215)
We learn about … occurrences through the people around Jakob and through the narrator, who, far from omniscient, takes part in their speculations. Although the more remote past is touched upon, their questions concern primarily the last few weeks in Jakob's life and focus on his ideological orientation. What was his relationship with Rohlfs? What accounts for Gesine's safe conduct to the West? None of these questions is unequivocally answered for us. The nexuses in the plot remain obscure. We, as all participants in conjecture, know only part of the facts.
Yet, the quest for Jakob is by no means a gratuitous chase. If we direct our attention to its presuppositions, we gain a perspective for reading the novel that lends meaning to the search. Those who surmise about Jakob—the reader joins in empathetically—see him primarily in terms of a single crucial factor in their existence…. Since Jakob was not a stranger to them, but a part of their lives, since they liked and respected or even loved him, their search is not for facts, but for an image. Here is a man whose enigmatic death alone—which may have been suicide—makes it impossible to file him away like a settled account. As we shall see, they understand him as a man who lived his life more independently than they can. He is in death a man able to furnish them with an image of hope in a world that imposes catastrophic restrictions upon the individual. His accident triggers their search. If it was suicide, it no doubt was an escape from the state, a Pyrrhic victory for Jakob. But it would have been a triumph of courage as well. The enigma of Jakob's death, then, the aggrandizement of his personality it makes possible, is fertile soil for the creation of an image. Moreover, the very process of reconstructing the figure of Jakob enlarges his dimensions by necessity. The real man is inevitably and thoroughly altered by affection and memory. The process of transfiguration by memory is involuntary, though it may have been prompted by a wish. (pp. 217-18)
Jakob as a man remembered must therefore be larger than he was in life. Bearing in mind the time and place of the questions asked, we can readily understand that Jakob will emerge as a wish image. To those around him the Jakob remembered will be a man who successfully coped with the forces by which they are frustrated and diminished. The import of the quest for Jakob does not lie in what we know about him, but rather in what we believe him to have been. (p. 218)
The title of the book itself intimates the ambivalence of our search. Primarily, to be sure, the term "Mutmassungen" [speculations] connotes uncertainty. But in light of the emergent image of Jakob it reveals more positive vestiges of meaning. It reverts to a significance all but lost today. Applied to Jakob it denotes a measurement of value, as the constituents of the compound suggest. (p. 219)...
(The entire section is 1442 words.)