(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Set in Austria in 1967, Irving’s first novel introduced the bizarre style and outrageous imagination that was to become his trademark. The pair of young heroes, Hannes and Siggy, undetached from any kind of worldly commitment, travel by motorcycle through the European countryside, fantasizing, planning, complaining about all manner of authoritarianism, and generally enjoying the free life. One of their imaginary schemes is to free all the animals in the Vienna zoo as a statement against the encroaching fascist mentality of Europe, which had been the cause of World War II and was still in evidence after the war. Siggy dies, however, in a strange encounter with a swarm of bees. As a tribute to Siggy, his friend Hannes brings the plan to fruition, using Siggy’s elaborate notes about the schedule of guards, the layout, and other details of the zoo.

As in his 1998 novel A Widow for One Year, Irving divides the novel into three parts. The first section describes the meeting of the two protagonists, their picaresque adventures through Europe on motorcycles, and Siggy’s bizarre, tragicomic death from bee-stings. The second section is Siggy’s diary, a prehistory in that it describes Nazi Germany before his birth. Here the grotesque elements of oppression are highlighted—bizarre, ironic deaths and meaningless slaughter. In the third section, Hannes frees the animals, only to witness their destruction, a contradiction to the philosophical idea...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Setting Free the Bears is divided into three parts. The first, titled “Siggy,” is narrated in the first person by Hannes Graff, one of the principals in the book. The second part contains Siggy’s notebook, with entries alternating between his “Zoo Watches,” in which he spies on the guards and animals at the Heitzinger Zoo outside Vienna preparatory to freeing the animals, and his “Pre-History,” in which is recounted the personal history of Siggy against a background of World War II, particularly during the Anschluss and with the partisans in the mountains of Yugoslavia. The third section, again narrated by Hannes Graff, relates the zoo break which Hannes stages with the help of his girlfriend, Gallen, in order to fulfill the fantasy of his now dead companion, Siggy.

The narrative begins when Graff, who has recently failed an important university examination, meets a strange young man whom he has been watching in the Rathaus Park. Together they purchase a seven-hundred-cubic-centimeter, vintage Royal Enfield motorcycle to take to Italy, where they plan to enjoy the spring. After a stop at the Heitzinger Zoo, where Siggy explains that he plans to free the animals, the two heroes ride into the Austrian countryside, declaring that they will live off the land. They pick up Gallen, a young country girl who is on her way to work for her aunt, who owns an inn. Hannes burns his legs on the exhaust pipes of the motorcycle, and the two young men lay over at the hotel owned by Gallen’s aunt. Siggy assaults the local milkman, whom he sees beating his draft horse, and is pursued by the police as he flees back to Vienna to prepare for the zoo escapade. A few days later, he returns to rescue Hannes from Gallen and her aunt but dies while trying to elude the local police when he slides under a truck loaded with beehives and is stung to death.

Hannes discovers Siggy’s diary, and the second section of the narrative is made up of entries from it. Alternating between Siggy’s notes on the guards at the zoo, especially O. Schrutt, and the tales of his ancestry, the notebook...

(The entire section is 861 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Campbell, Josie. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Offers a brief biography of Irving’s life, as well as an overview of his fiction. Devotes an entire chapter to Setting Free the Bears, which includes discussion of plot and character development, thematic issues, and a new critical approach to the novel.

Irving, John. Interview by Suzanne Herel. Mother Jones 22 (May-June, 1997): 64-66. Irving discusses his views on religion, censorship, literature, abortion, and wrestling. His thoughts on these topics illuminate the tone and philosophy of his writings.

Reilly, Edward C. Understanding John Irving. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Chapter 8 gives a thorough analysis of Irving’s characterization and symbolism and a brief summary of critical reviews.

Rickard, John. “Wrestling with the Text.” Meanjin 56 (1997). Rickard presents an incisive analysis of Irving’s autobiography, The Imaginary Girlfriend. Although Rickard does not address any of Irving’s novels in depth, his review of Irving’s memoir provides valuable insight into Irving’s creative process.