Setting Free the Bears Characters

John Irving

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Setting Free the Bears is peopled by an eccentric collection of historical and fictional characters. The background of history is manipulated and controlled by actual figures such as Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria, who replaces the previous head of state when he is assassinated by Nazi sympathizers. While Hitler, Hermann Goring, and the Austrian Nazi Artur von Seyss-Inquart plan the Anschluss, Ernst Watzek-Trummer, a chicken farmer who lives on the outskirts of Vienna, dons a homemade suit of pie plates covered with feathers in order to protest the coming of the German troops by appearing as the Habsburg eagle in downtown Vienna. Gottlub Wut, leader of the scout outfit, Motorcycle Unit Balkan 4, helps Siggy’s father escape from the clutches of the Slivnica family: Dabrinka, the fair; Julka and Baba, the sulky and the squat; Bijelo, the eldest; Gavro and Lutvo, the idiot twins; and Todor, the leader. The names and characters are as loony as the events which make up the adventures which beset Siggy’s father as he wanders his way north out of Yugoslavia toward his meeting with Siggy’s mother in Vienna.

In the midst of this collection of hapless and often crazy people, the novel focuses on Hannes Graff, a conventional but historyless university dropout who is fascinated and finally seduced by the antics of Siegfried (Siggy) Javotnik, who supplies through his journal the central portion of the narrative and who plans the zoo break...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Hannes Graff

Hannes Graff (HAHN-nehs grahf), a failed university student who narrates the first (“Siggy”) and third (“Setting Them Free”) sections of the novel. A naïve, easygoing young man, Hannes first encounters Siggy Javotnik eating salted radishes on a bench in Rathaus Park, then later sees him in Herr Faber’s motorcycle shop. Hannes initially is a follower, a student in search of order; his experience with Siggy forces him to act according to his own conscience, though his actions cause harm, suffering, and loss.

Siegfried (Siggy) Javotnik

Siegfried (Siggy) Javotnik (ZEEG-freed yah-VOT-nihk), a university dropout and motorcycle salesman named for his father’s alias, Siegfried Schmidt, under which his father successfully eluded Yugoslav partisans and German soldiers to return to free Vienna in the last days of the Third Reich. Siggy always wears a corduroy duck hunter’s jacket and affects a pipe. A carefree and footloose adventurer who entices Hannes into a cross-country tour of Austria on a Royal Enfield motorcycle, Siggy narrates the second section, “The Notebook,” divided between his “Pre-History” and twenty-two “Zoo Watches.” the “Pre-History” chronicles his mother’s family’s flight from Vienna ahead of the Nazis and their subsequent misfortunes and his father’s adventures hiding out from the war in Yugoslavia. The “Zoo Watches,” logged during a night of clandestine after-hours reconnoitering, form the core of a plan to liberate all the animals from the Heitzinger Zoo. On his way back to rejoin Hannes, Siggy crashes his motorcycle into a trailer of beehives and is stung to death on the road.

Gallen von St. Leonhard


(The entire section is 748 words.)