Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The heart of the novel concerns the quest for freedom which is pursued by the characters, both major and minor, as they struggle to escape the trap of history and their sense of helplessness in the face of historical necessity. The two main historical events of the novel reflect this lack of control. The Anschluss demonstrates the impotence of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian world, with its historical preeminence, in the face of the modern and superior force of the Nazi military machine. Equally powerless are the citizens of the various Serbo-Croatian regions of modern-day Yugoslavia, who also collapse in the face of the political and military chaos wreaked by the contending forces of Fascism and Communism as the Germans and Soviets and their local minions battle for control of the Balkans. In the midst of this repression, murder, and corruption, ordinary people try to get on with their lives, rearing families, occupying meaningful jobs, striving for personal dignity, struggling to be free from the shackles of the past. The extended metaphor of freeing the zoo animals forms the controlling image of the book in spite of its obvious impracticality. That Hannes Graff feels called upon to carry out the zoo break to its conclusion by actually setting the bears free, becomes an acknowledgment of the impossibility of his idealism and a gesture of Graff’s indebtedness to his friend for his tutelage. Still, however misdirected Siggy’s intentions may have been, the presence of the two spectacled bears at the end of the book provides a final vision for Hannes to take with him on his further travels.