Setting Free the Bears

by John Irving

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

Hannes Graff and Siegfried Javotnik meet in Vienna through their mutual interest in purchasing a motorcycle. The machine they can afford is a Royal Enfield, “an old, cruel-looking motorcyle”; they decide to pair up in purchasing and riding it through Austria, with no maps or definite plan in mind. Siggy insists,

No mapping it out, no dates to get anywhere, no dates to get back.

The title refers to a plan that Siggy concocts after he sees the bears in the zoo. As he and Graff wander around, hearing a loud thump, they find the source of the noise. Reading the plaque, he wonders at the stories, such as the one describing the temperament, and therefore the need to isolate, the Asiatic Black Bear from the Himalayas.

It was the Famous Asiatic Black Bear, crouched in a corner of his cage and rocking himself sideways to slam his buttocks. There was a little printed history of the bear, fixed to a map of the world . . . [showing] where he was taken . . . . The Asiatic black bear, the history explained, had his cage facing away from the other bears because he was “enraged” when he saw them; he was a particularly ferocious bear . . . .

After they leave, Siggy broods on what he sees as their unfair captivity; the black bear, in particular, must be enraged because he misses his freedom. While both men finally participate, it is Siggy who develops the plan to release the bears.

Traveling around on the motorcycle, for the most part the friends effortlessly drift from one town to another. Their situation becomes more complicated, however, when they see one particular young woman walking along the road. Graff especially notices her as they ride past and is captivated by her, especially her long braid.

[W]e just had this flash of her—her long brown legs, and her long fingers flicking down to her knees, pinching her skirt safe around her. Then I was looking over my shoulder, and she was turning her face away—tossing her braid out beside her; it did a snake dance in the sun when the wind held it up. I could almost have reached it, but the wind dropped it on her shoulder and she dropped it roughly on her cheek.

Later, after they pick up the girl, Gallen, they wipe out because the three of them are too heavy for the motorcycle, and Graff burns his legs on the exhaust pipes. She takes them to her aunt’s home, where she and Graff begin to develop a romantic relationship. Siggy becomes jealous of their being together and writes a poem that both patronizes Gallen and insults Graff as a “fiend” and “appalling” because he “makes virgins into strumpets." This is the first serious breach in what will soon become a chasm between the friends.

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