Fear of Flying (novel)
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Judith Seifer|
|Publisher||Holt, Rinehart and Winston|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|LC Class||PZ4.J812 Fe PS3560.O56|
|Followed by||How to Save Your Own Life|
The novel is written in the first person: narrated by its protagonist, Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a 29-year-old poet who has published two books of poetry. On a trip to Vienna with her second husband, Isadora decides to indulge her sexual fantasies with another man. Its tone may be considered conversational or informal. The story's American narrator is struggling to find her place in the world of academia, feminist scholarship, and in the literary world as a whole. The narrator is a female author of erotic poetry, which she publishes without fully realizing how much attention she will attract from both critics and writers of alarming fan letters.
The book resonated with women who felt stuck in unfulfilled marriages, and it has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Isadora Wing is a Jewish journalist from New York City’s Upper West Side. We meet her on a plane flight to Vienna for the first psychoanalyst’s conference since analysts were driven out during the Holocaust. She is surrounded by analysts, many of them her own from over the years, and her husband Bennett (also an analyst, naturally): "There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I'd been treated by at least six of them" (page 5). Her fear of flying, both literally and metaphorically referring to a fear of freeing herself from the shackles of traditional male companionship, she associates with recent articles about plane hijackings and terrorist attacks. She also associates fear and loathing with Germany, her destination, because she and her husband were stationed in Heidelberg and she struggled both to fit in and to wrestle with the hatred and danger she felt being a Jew in post-Holocaust Germany.
Freudians perhaps inevitably have their own ideas about the symbolism of an airplane in the formation of the unconscious and the sexual psyche, and this contrast provides narrative suspense. What did the six psychiatrists make of the narrator's fears? Did she tell them? What will they say in Vienna if she mentions her nervous emotions? These questions are not really explicitly stated, but they may well occur to a reader's mind. The narrator, meanwhile, occupies her mind with many questions, plans, mental rough drafts and reminiscences as her journey unfolds, including the "zipless fuck," a major motif in the story that haunts the narrator throughout.
Upon arriving, Isadora meets English Langian analyst Adrian Goodlove. She is immediately hooked. Despite his gruff attitude and dirty sandals, he seems to provide what she desires but doesn’t find in her own marriage - energy, excitement, desire, danger. They begin a poorly-veiled secret affair, dancing and kissing rather openly at conference events, staying out nights, spending days by German pools. Adrian is wild and awakens things in Isadora she believed to be lost in the everydayness of her marriage, despite the fact that he is a rotten lay and often impotent.
"I refuse to be impaled on a pin," Adrian said, unaware of the pun it immediately brought to mind. "I refuse to be categorized. When you finally do sit down to write about me, you won’t know whether I’m a hero or an antihero, a bastard or a saint. You won’t be able to categorize me." And at that moment, I fell madly in love with him. His limp prick had penetrated where a stiff one would never have reached.— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973), page 126
But Isadora’s desperation to feel alive and her developing feelings for Adrian lead her to the toughest decision: to return home with Bennett, or to go to London with Adrian. She agonizes over this decision. One night, Bennett finds Adrian and Isadora in bed together and joins them, in an adventurous sexual act that Bennett never acknowledges afterward.
Finally, through an emotionally taxing and melodramatic letter that she never delivers to Bennett because he once again walks in and interrupts her, Isadora decides to leave with Adrian. The two of them drive through France, Germany, and Italy, camping every night, drinking, and making love. Along the way, Isadora confides in Adrian the stories of her past relationships and first marriage. She reveals that she met her first husband, Brian, in college, where they connected over their mutual love of literature and ability to walk for hours while quoting poetry. This ended when they married, and became a “bourgeois” couple, not seeing each other, not having sex, disconnecting. Brian, a certified genius, begins to fall into delusions, believing himself to be the second coming of Christ. He becomes violent, raping Isadora and choking her close to death in one mental break. He is repeatedly hospitalized and eventually moved to a facility in Los Angeles where Brian blames her for everything and they finally divorce.
Eventually, she decides to return home to Bennett. On a train journey to meet him in London, she is approached by an attendant who sexually assaults her, which propels her into her own psychological self-examination.
It wasn’t until I was settled, facing a nice little family group - mother, daddy, baby - that it dawned on me how funny that episode had been. My zipless fuck! My stranger on a train! Here I’d been offered my very own fantasy. The fantasy that had riveted me to the vibrating seat of the train for three years in Heidelberg and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me! Puzzling wasn't it. A tribute to the mysteriousness of the psyche. Or maybe my psyche had begun to change in a way I hadn’t anticipated. There was no longer anything romantic about strangers on trains.— Erica Jong, "Fear of Flying" (1973), page 417
She realizes that when she is not in control of her body, when she doesn’t have agency or autonomy, that it doesn’t matter how much she’s dreamed of a situation, it will never be satisfying. When she returns home, she takes a bath, waits for Bennett, and comes to accept her body, herself, and the unknown future: “A nice body. Mine. I decided to keep it” (p 424).
The novel remains a feminist classic and the phrase "zipless fuck" has seen a resurgence in popularity as third-wave feminism authors and theorists continue to use it while reinterpreting their approach to sexuality and to femininity. John Updike's New Yorker review is still a helpful starting point for curious onlookers. He commented, "A sexual frankness that belongs to, and hilariously extends the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy's Complaint."
The Zipless Fuck
It was in this novel that Erica Jong coined the term "zipless fuck", which soon entered the popular lexicon. A "zipless fuck" is defined as a sexual encounter for its own sake, without emotional involvement or commitment or any ulterior motive, between two previously unacquainted persons.
The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving". No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)
Jong goes on to explain that it is "zipless" because "when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. For the true ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well."
Feminist influences then and now
Fear of Flying was written in the throes of the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, as associated with second-wave feminism. Finally it was acknowledged that desire and fantasy are a good thing and not entirely condemnable in women, and Jong wanted to harness that newfound respect for desire into a piece of art that brought the intersections of sexual and nonsexual life together, something she felt was missing in literature. “At the time I wrote Fear of Flying, there was not a book that said women are romantic, women are intellectual, women are sexual—and brought all those things together." “What [Isadora is] looking for is how to be a whole human being, a body and a mind, and that is what women were newly aware they needed in 1973.” But she also points out the drawbacks of a sexually liberated life, acknowledging that sexuality “is not the cure for every restlessness.” Male critics who interpreted Isadora as being “promiscuous,” were actually misinterpreting her acts - in reality, she has an active fantasy life but doesn’t in reality sleep with many men.
Jong says that today, women are no longer shocked by the Isadora’s sexuality and the depiction of sex and fantasy as readers were when the book was first released. Instead, she sees that book mirrors the lack of pleasure that many young women experience in sexual interactions. She cites the TV show Girls as an example of media that is depicting sexually liberated women but without attention to female pleasure. Just like Isadora, the women on television and alive today struggle to reconcile the empowerment of sexual freedom with the disempowerment of sex without pleasure. However, she also sees growth in the female population that live alone and “whose lives are full with friends, travel, work, everything and who don’t feel that in some way they’re inferior because they don’t have a man at their side” as being one extremely positive result of the way sexual liberation has transformed over the decades.
The political battle over women’s bodies today has also renewed the book’s relevance in Jong’s mind, constituting a 40th anniversary redistribution of the book. “All these states are introducing crazy anti-abortion rules...passing laws that they know are unconstitutional, shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics, and making it very hard...to get birth control.” She cites these types of political moves as a regression from the progress set out by the Sexual Revolution. She also still feels that female authors are “second-class citizens in the publishing world,” as Jennifer Weiner says in the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition: “it’s very hard, if you write about women and women’s struggles, to be seen as important with a capital ‘I.’”
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Jewishness appears frequently throughout the book, although it may not stand out as the most eye-catching theme because of how entrenched it is in Isadora’s experience of the world. In particular, her Jewish heritage is invoked through her constant awareness of the history of her people and the trials and tribulations that the Jewish people have gone through not only in recent decades but over the course of their long history. This is a theory that Freud, a frequently referenced figure throughout (and raised as a Reform Jew himself), explored in his work to understand the persecution of Jews. Freud theorized that one of the things that makes Jews who they are, individually and culturally, is a biologically passed down awareness of the Jewish past: “...Jewishness is constituted by the biological inheritance of an archaic memory that Jewish people are inexorably compelled to transmit to future generations, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Isadora reflects this in her references to the Holocaust, awareness of the boundaries on her and her family (on one particular visit to her sister in Beirut), among other past traumas.
The role of Isadora’s mother is also an interesting invocation of Jewish stereotypes, in that she defies them in some ways and closely follows them in others. Rather than subscribing to the stereotypical image of a Jewish Mother as being overly excessive, nurturing, and giving, Isadora’s mother is rather cold and distant. She does, however, fit the mold of the Jewish Mother stereotype as a martyr and constantly seeking to guilt her children - she tells Isadora repeatedly throughout her childhood that Isadora is the entire reason that she is not a famous artist, as she had to give up her artistic career when she became a mother and could never return to her former glories or passion. This places a distance between mother and daughter.
Jong has denied that the novel is autobiographical but admits that it has autobiographical elements. However, an article in The New Yorker recounts that Jong's sister, Suzanna Daou (née Mann), identified herself at a 2008 conference as the reluctant model for Isadora Wing, calling the book "an exposé of my life when I was living in Lebanon". Daou angrily denounced the book, linking its characters to people in her own life and taking her sister to task for taking cruel liberties with them, especially Daou's husband. In the book, Isadora Wing's sister Randy is married to Pierre, who makes a pass at both Wing and her two other sisters. Jong dismissed her sister's claim, saying instead that "every intelligent family has an insane member".
Film and radio adaptations
Many attempts to adapt this property for Hollywood have been made, starting with Julia Phillips, who fantasized that it would be her debut as a director. The deal fell through and Erica Jong litigated, unsuccessfully. In her second novel, Jong created the character Britt Goldstein—easily identifiable as Julia Phillips—a predatory and self-absorbed Hollywood producer devoid of both talent and scruples.
- "Fear of Flying (1973) by Erica Jong". Woman's Hour. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
- Jong, Erica (2003-11-04). Fear of Flying (Reprint ed.). New York: Berkley. ISBN 9780451209436.
- Bowman, David (June 14, 2003). "The 'Sex Woman'". Salon. Archived from the original on July 6, 2007. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
- Open Road Media (2011-10-14), Erica Jong on Fear of Flying, retrieved 2017-11-16
- cunytv75 (2013-10-21), One to One: Erica Jong "Fear of Flying" 40th Anniversary, retrieved 2017-11-16
- Slavet, Eliza. "Freud's Theory of Jewishness for Better or for Worse" (PDF). The Jewish World of Sigmund Freud: 96–111.
- "Fear of Flying – Erica Jong". Penguin Reading Guides. Penguin Books. Archived from the original on January 14, 2010. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
- Mead, Rebecca (April 14, 2008). "The Canon: Still Flying". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
- Phillips, Julia (1991). You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. Random House. pp. 136 et seq. ISBN 0-394-57574-1.
- Jong, Erica (2006). How to Save Your Own Life. Tarcher. ISBN 1585424994.
- Fleming, Jr, Mike (10 May 2013). "Erica Jong's Fear of Flying Getting a Movie after 40 Years in Print". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
- Quotations related to Fear of Flying at Wikiquote