Setting Free the Bears Summary
by John Irving

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Setting Free the Bears Summary

Setting Free the Bears is a 1968 novel written by John Irving. The main plot of this story is to free the animals from the Vienna Zoo.

Irving divides his novel into three sections. In the first section of this novel, Irving describes how Hannes and Siggy, two young Austrian boys and the main protagonists of this novel, first meet, their motorcycle adventures, and how Siggy dies from a bee sting. The second section of the novel is from Siggy's diary and explains his plans for the zoo outbreak, as well as information about his life and his parents. The third section of the novel goes into more detail about breaking the animals free from the zoo and what happens after this event.

Hannes and Siggy first meet at a park right after Hannes fails an exam. The boys purchase a motorcycle and travel around Europe. At one point, Siggy informs Hannes of his plan to break the animals out of Heitzinger Zoo. While traveling, the boys meet a young girl named Gallen. Siggy notices a milkman abusing his horse and assaults him. While he is trying to avoid the police, he is stung by bees and dies.

Hannes finds Siggy's diary and learns more of his plans for breaking the animals out of the zoo. He also discovers more about Siggy's family and his mother's struggles during World War II. Hannes also learns about Siggy's father, Vratno Javotik, and his involvement with a terrorist group.

In the third section of the novel, Hannes and Gallen break the animals free from the zoo in order to follow through with Siggy's plan and as a tribute to his life. However, as soon as the animals are released, most are recaptured quickly.

This novel explores many themes, such as freedom vs. captivity. This is obvious with the zoo and the animals but also extends to human beings and their desire to have freedoms in every day life.


(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 that freedom is necessarily good. The obvious parallel between social oppression and captivity of animals in the zoo is carefully foreshadowed in an incident in part 1, in which Siggy and Hannes free some goats, only to have them be destroyed by their freedom. A third character has a love affair with Hannes, but she leaves him after the zoo incident.

The central theme of the book is the question of captivity—whether a human being is captured by the everyday obligations and responsibilities of love, country, family, and the like or whether one can choose to free oneself and submit to the implicit destruction of that freedom. In this sense, Irving is an existentialist, trying, in the absence of provable larger plans,...

(The entire section is 1,868 words.)