Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

I love the cover of Fear of Flying, the 40th anniversary edition, by Erica Jong. It makes me do a deep, throaty laugh that conveys good fun and decadence. Jong’s novel is one I picked up from who knows where, but I do know it was brand-new. Originally, I thought Fear of Flying was feminist essays, which means I’d mixed up my Jong and my Steinem and my Lorde, etc. Instead, Fear of Flying is a novel that opens with Isadora on a plane with her husband Bennett, who is a psychoanalyst. They are on their way to a big psychoanalyst conference in Europe, so the plane is loaded with therapists — some Isadora used to visit herself — headed to the same destination.

We learn about our main character’s sex drive, her desire to have a meaningless encounter, such as she’s on a train, she looks at a guy, and the automatically start having sex. Oddly enough, Isadora and her boundless, unknowable lust have never cheated on her husbands. First, she was married to a young man later diagnosed a schizophrenic after he tried to strangle her and was institutionalized. Then, Isadora went to lots of therapy, eventually meeting Bennett. At first, I thought Fear of Flying would be in the same vein as Looking for Mr. Goodbar. However, Isadora’s sexual desires are more mental than physical. Bennett is a wonderful lover, though stoic in public. And at the conference Isadora meets Adrian, another psychoanalyst, one who is almost always impotent but spouting his theories on helping Isadora “live” by taking her off for a summer so they can drive around and sleep with everyone, men and women, that they meet.

On the surface, Jong’s book wouldn’t appeal to me. I’m no fan of cheaters nor of “discovering yourself” by sleeping around. But Jong’s novel meshes sex with great humor, feminist theory, and a focus on all parts of the body — not just the sexy ones. The overall effect made me smile.

First, the feminist theory. Isadora understands that women and girls are awash in advertisements that shape their perceptions what a good woman looks like. There’s no escape, she argues:

“And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career — you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.”

But just to be a feminist and believe in equal rights isn’t easy: “. . . the big problem was how to make your feminism jibe with your unappeasable hunger for male bodies.” It doesn’t help that Adrian, who is British, exoticizes Isadora because she’s a Jew from New York who has features like a Swedish woman. Jong doesn’t let Isadora’s feminism be simple because she has contrasting desires and a need to recognize why she wants a meaningless sexual encounter, even if the guy is gross or unable to be aroused.

And this is an example of Jong getting into the body. I often heard that in my MFA program; students wanted to write about The Body. What did that mean? Done clumsily, you get some abstract weirdness. Done poorly, writing about the body feels meaningless. An excellent writer, like Jong, highlights that most writers miss the obvious: you have an anus, and genitals, and you get itchy when you haven’t showered properly in a month, and sometimes when your period starts in the middle of the night you leak blood all over the floor. These are things Isadora thinks about or experiences, taking the reader that much closer to what it means to be an organism. No one is spared: “That Beethoven could write such music while living in two shabby rooms in Vienna — that was the miracle. . . . Somewhere between the bathroom and the bedroom, somewhere between eating an egg and taking a crap, the muse alights.”

There is no doubt that Isadora is a product of her time. Lately, I’ve read several novels published or set in the 1970s, and I’m getting a better understanding of this decade’s adults. As a child, Isadora visited Madame Tussands with her family, where Isadora saw torture devices. Her mother explains people are more civilized now. As a child, Isadora felt safe thanks to her mother’s words, but as an adult she realizes:

It was civilized 1955, only a decade or so since the Nazi holocaust; it was the eta of atomic testing and stockpiling; it was two years after the Korean War, and only shortly after the height of the communist witch hunts, with blacklists containing the names of many of my parents’ friends. But my mother, smoothing the real linen sheets between which I trembled, insisted, that rainy night in London, in civilization. She was trying to spare me. If the truth was too hard to bear, then she would lie to me.

And in the end, when no psychoanalyst seems to have answers for her, Isadora must mentally work alone through the setting that shaped her, the politics and wars, the magazine ads and maxims about good wives, and understand why she exists as she does, and how she wants to exist tomorrow. Highly recommended classic novel.

39 comments

  1. That’s a great review and you’ve inspired me to borrow it as an audiobook. I read it years ago when I gave it to Milly and it’s probably still on my shelves but audiobooks are easier, I don’t have to make time to read them.
    As I told you, Milly thought I had an agenda in giving it to her. I wish I’d thought to ask her today if she thought I was telling her she should sleep around (I wasn’t. I only knew the book by reputation when I gave it to her).

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    • I only knew it by reputation as well, so much so that I thought it was a nonfiction essay collection. When I was reading it, I felt like I was going very slowly, despite the book not containing overly-difficult vocabulary or concepts. I wonder if the audio version would have helped me clip right along. Perhaps the formatting of the pages was small/squished, and the book is actually longer than it looks. That is entirely possible.

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      • A month later. I’ve listened to it now, in fact a couple of weeks ago, and like you, thoroughly enjoyed it.I probably should write a review but I haven’t sat in front of my computer long enough for that to happen. Three things remain with me: One, the Englishman, Adrian was a gross person and unsatisfying lover and yet she is really into him; two, the seamless way feminist theory and theorising is integrated into the story; and three, the ending just goes bang! and the story comes to a dead stop.

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        • 1) Adrian was ABSOLUTELY repulsive, but I think the way he didn’t just love her like her husband did is what drew her to him. He had challenges, like taking off for ages (well, until he has to be somewhere). He didn’t work at all to attract her, and I guess she found that interesting. 2) Sadly, I do not know enough feminist theory to see it at work in the book, but I do know that problem/freedom of having choices ties closely with feminism. Being told what to do and who to be is easier, but it’s not freedom. 3) I liked the ending because she has this existential crisis and then wakes up and gets period blood on the floor. Believe all women who have/had periods: this can happen. It almost felt comedic, like her body was telling her to chill out. I found it a good stopping place, but also appreciated that she went and found her husband again.

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  2. I will admit that I’ve never heard of this classic novel but it does sound kind of fun. I find it interesting that there are so many different kinds of feminism. I only recently learned about the different ‘waves’. Pretty sure I determined that I am a third wave feminist. Makes sense as I am a 90’s kid.

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    • Although this book isn’t challenging, it felt like a slow read. I’m wondering if my copy had smaller spacing between the lines, or something, because each page seemed like it took me a while to finish. However, it was funny and raunchy, but also enlightening and informative.

      I, too, do not know my different waves of feminism.

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      • There is actually beef among the different waves! I wish I could remember what I was watching when I learned about it….
        The first wavers don’t like the third wavers getting naked to express their feminism. In my opinion, one woman telling another woman what she should or should not do with her body defeats the point of feminism.

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        • Can I join this argument? I write about old women writers so waves of feminism comes into that. The first wave were the Suffragists in the early 1900s. The second wave were the Women’s Libbers in the 1960s and 70s. So it’s the second wave, the baby boomers, who are getting upset, they feel that the third wave is taking Women’s Lib backwards.

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            • I’m sure it does. Despite daughters and granddaughters I haven’t read any third wave theory. But from back here amongst the boomers it looks like the concentration on being sexy is ceding power back to men.

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              • Yep, Bill is partly at least right. I totally agree with expanding feminism to ALL women. It had never occurred to me that it didn’t include ALL women but I can see that historically, it didn’t work out that way because it was white middle-class women leading the charge and, I think, the awareness just wasn’t there rather than that they/we actively excluded certain women.

                But, for me, I struggle with today’s young feminists buying into appearance and beauty, into “looking” sexy. Being sexy is a different thing but spending time and energy on “looking” sexy? I struggle with it. One of the foundational principles for me was that, besides the “making myself look sexy for men” because somehow that was supposed to be my goal, I had better things to do with my time than spending it on beauty regimes, and I had better things to spend my money on than spending it on those things. However, I accept that each wave is different and has its own drivers so I don’t criticise, but internally I struggle big-time. None of it computes. It cedes power back to men (in direct and indirect ways) as Bill says and it means we are spending money and time on things that for a start belong to the privileged. Oh dear, that’s judgmental isn’t it – and, I have to admit that being a privileged person, I can be criticised for ways I spend my money!

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                • I get you, Sue. When I hear women are doing x, y, z for themselves, but in the end it’s to look sexy, I have to wonder: is it possible to look sexy for yourself? And what does that mean? Does that mean you are sexually appealing to yourself, or does that mean you’re still trying to entice men and get what you want? It’s confusing to me because I don’t have a focus on being sexy ever. I’ve read and heard enough times about how men don’t care about sexy underwear for instance, but there is a billion dollar industry around it. I’ve heard loads of men talk about how much they hate make-up, but again, huge industry. And these days, make up is becoming more of an art rather than “putting on a face” for the opposite sex, which I appreciate — and there’s some really cool stuff out there. Deep down, I kind of love that men hate make up.

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                  • Yes, I’ve heard that too about the undewear and make-up, Davida …. It’s certainly a complex business, and I know I sounded full on in my comments but I wanted to share my thoughts about the whole thing.

                    I think it was Germaine Greer who wrote about the creepy side of shaving (now waxing, lasering, etc) in that it returns women’s bodies to their hairless childlike state. What does that say about what women and/or men think is attractive? There’s what you “think” you are doing and there’s what’s going on underneath that has all sorts of edges? Rightly or wrongly, I went au natural then and there.

                    I agree there are some cool things going on but as a second-wave feminist I watch and think …. And leave others to it except when an opportunity like this comes to talk. I don’t think there are any answers but it’s good to think about what we are doing, why, who for, and the social, physical, economic, personal implications and ramifications?

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                    • I think you’ve made some great comments, Sue! I’m not sure what sounding “full on” means, but if that’s a negative thing, I disagree. You sounded totally knowledgeable, and I recognize the complexity of the situation, like you. I also think women have been tricked into buying things to appeal to men, and men don’t care. That’s the point I was trying to make. 🙂

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              • There seems to be a move toward getting rid of bras again in the U.S. The argument is that they’re uncomfortable, everyone has nipples, and sexualizing someone and making them wear underwear to keep the viewer from being distracted is sexist. I don’t think the argument is wrong, but seeing someone not wearing a bra in public or professional still rattles my brain.

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                • Sorry Melanie, I wrote Davida instead of Melanie above. I replied from my in-box or notifications and it looked to me as though I was responding to a comment Davida had made but clearly not.

                  That’s interesting about bras. I haven’ heard that over here, but it may be happening. So, this is getting personal, but I went without a bra for over 20 years, but around my 40s I started to feel that it probably wasn’t appropriate at go braless at work, so I found really comfortable crop-top style ones and have worn those ever since. I agree with you that I don’t think the argument is wrong, but there’s something practical about bras too?

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                  • I wondered if you got mixed up with your bloggers! That’s okay, I’ve done it loads of times myself.

                    I don’t think someone being braless is a big deal, but I’m seeing lots of paper-thin shirts and bralessness, which reads differently to me. If a man were wearing nearly see-through shorts or pants, I’d take issue with that, too. I always wonder, why not wear a fitting tank top, or those bra-lettes (I think they’re called?) that you’re talking about. There are so many options!

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                    • Oh yes, bra-less that way reads differently to me too, and I was thinking about a male parallel. Yes, I think I’ve seen the term bra-lette just recently for what I wear. They may not “lift and separate” but they do a fine, comfortable job for my needs!! Some fitting tank tops have little inset “bras” too I think, like some swimming costumes?

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          • Yes, that was a part of it – and the arrival of the pill made that a goer! But it was also about “we want to be listened to, as men are listened to”. For example in Australia, and I think in the USA, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Civil Rights movement, and so on, tended to be led by men with women expected to be the hand-maidens. This, I believe, was one of the drivers for the second wave – the fact that women realised they were fighting for other causes but being treated as second class citizens themselves within those fights.

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  3. I’m intrigued by that last part you mention, about the character’s mother trying to smooth over societal ills for her child, and the mindset of adults in the 1970’s. I’ve never read this and not been drawn to it before. We have it at my branch and I might give it a whirl sometime.

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    • I do love a novel in which someone who struggles with his/her own feelings eventually comes around and points out the ways global issues affect them. Wars, disasters, etc. And as a parent, I’m sure you’ve had to do a lot since your son was born to smooth out the rough edges of the world to keep him feeling safe.

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  4. I also thought this was a series of feminist essays. Great review and interesting chat in the comments about the third wave focus on being sexy! I haven’t worn make-up for years and I hate the way it’s sold as some sort of empowerment for women – when the premise of it, really, is “your face isn’t good enough the way it is”. (I don’t mean stage make-up or people who wear glitter for a night out or whatever; I mean make-up for everyday use). The whole beauty and wellness industry switching to a focus on empowerment while simultaneously telling women they need to buy a bunch of stuff to be empowered seems pretty gross to me.

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    • Absolutely! I enjoy seeing the photos in recent years of people who put on a whole face, and it’s so artistic and gorgeous, and a lot of people admit that they didn’t even wear that face out. They just into the artistry of make up. I actually enjoy the British show Glow-Up quite a bit to see the technique and vision folks have when it comes to make up. But putting on a face every day to “pass” as good looking or put together? NAY.

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  5. I’m glad you enjoyed it and still can’t work out quite what I got out of it aged 16 (I was quite sophisticated in my reading, having read Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at 14 …)! That cover makes me laugh every time I see it!

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    • I’m not sure that you’re supposed to get anything out of this book other than the woman’s life is complicated. Would she be different if she had a job or a hobby or something she felt invested in? Did she actually love her husband, or was she told he was ideal, especially compared to her ex-husband who tried to kill her during a schizophrenic episode?

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    • Reading the gross parts about the human body really centers me and makes me feel okay. Not so much that I’m gross and we’re all gross, but that weird sensation when you suddenly realize how tiny and breakable we, that we’re brains walking around on legs and no one really has some sort of superpower over other humans. It’s all so WEIRD if I think about it for too long.

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  6. I had no idea what this book was either. I’m always a little leery of books that focus heavily on the body simply because that’s not something I enjoy reading about but if it’s handled with good humour it can make a big difference.

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