Setting Free the Bears

by John Irving

Start Free Trial

Student Question

How is the theme of sacrifice portrayed in Setting Free the Bears?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of sacrifice runs through John Irving's novel. While some characters actually give their lives, more generally, the idea of willingly giving up something precious in service of a greater good dominates the book. In particular, Siegfried wants to devote himself to animal liberation, arguing that the bears and other wild animals deserve to be free rather than imprisoned in the zoo.

Siggy's motivation, however, seems to lie less in his concern for the animals than in his obsession with serving the greater good. Irving shows that the post-World War II generation in Eastern Europe is operating under the weight of the older generations' involvement in the war, both through heroism and complicity. Because they had made great sacrifices, the children's attempts pale in comparison. Grandfather Marter, for example, had made a spectacular exit, in his eagle disguise on an apparent suicide run.

Irving introduces a heavy dose of irony in killing Siegfried in a gratuitous manner, unconnected to his zoo liberation mission. Hitting a truck full of hives, he dies of bee stings. But because Hannes understood the importance of the mission, he accepts this sacrifice as the impetus for him to take up the cause and carry out his friend's quixotic dream.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial