Critical Context

Setting Free the Bears was well received for a first novel, garnering complimentary reviews in such publications as The New York Times Book Review and Saturday Review. The flaws in the novel detected by those early reviews, however, have not really diminished with the passing of time. The novel is still criticized for being a little short on characterization, especially that of the two main protagonists, Siggy and Hannes, and the critics still complain about the division of the novel into three uneven parts. What has happened as John Irving’s reputation has grown with his subsequent novels is that the themes and figures of his first book now can be seen in the context of his subsequent fiction, which clarifies some of the material thought confusing on first reading. Seen from this perspective, it is apparent that even with the book’s faults, it is the work of a major talent. The distinctive narrative voice and the humor and inventiveness which have characterized Irving’s later novels are all present, if in embryonic form, in this first work. The world of Hannes Graff contains the beginnings of the world of T. S. Garp, whose adventures have brought his creator sufficient recognition to be considered a literary force in postwar American fiction.