Setting Free the Bears

by John Irving

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

Setting Free the Bears is the debut novel of American author John Irving. The book, published in 1968, was inspired by Irving's time in Vienna, where he studied at the Institute of European Studies. The story is centered on two young idealistic men who hatch an ill-fated plot to release animals at the Vienna Zoo.

The protagonists are disaffected university students—Hannes Graff and Siggy—who represent the youth-led social, artistic, and political movements of the time. Siggy represents the rebel who is inspired by an ancestor's own attempt at freeing animals at the zoo decades before. In this regard, the novel is an examination of various interpretations of freedom. Siggy is a motorcyclist and the act of hitting the open road on a motorcycle is, itself, a symbol for freeing one's self from the constraints of society. Siggy and Graff believe that the animals caged up in the zoo deserve to be liberated as well.

The structure of the novel is broken into three parts, with the second part consisting of Siggy's journal entries in which he recounts his family's history. In this part of the novel, readers see another allusion to oppression and incarceration in the form of Soviet control over Vienna post-World War II. Like the zoo animals Siggy and Graff want to liberate, Siggy's family and other Austrian citizens were geographically controlled by authorities.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is the co-dependent nature of Siggy and Graff's relationship. They are best friends and collaborators, and each have separate personalities, but it is as if Graff was more of an extension of Siggy, or they formed a singular entity. When Siggy dies in a motorcycle accident—interestingly, the symbol of his freedom—Graff takes it upon himself to continue their plot to liberate the animals at the Heitzinger Zoo. It is Graff's way of immortalizing Siggy and his ideals, even if the conclusion of their plan turned out to be disastrous.

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