(Ms.)reading Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying

(Ms.)reading Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying

In 1973—the same year that the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion, the U.S. House of Representatives accepted its first female page, and AT&T settled a major lawsuit by agreeing to end pay discrimination against women—Holt, Rinehart and Winston published Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the mock memoir of a young woman’s quest for autonomy, adventure, and mind-altering sex. Love it or hate it, the book made history.

The hardback edition (November 1973) reached the lower rungs of the best-seller list with reviews that ranged from rave to scathing. The paperback (November 1974) sold three million copies within months and was number one on the charts. The fact that Henry Miller called Fear of Flying “the feminine counterpart to my own Tropic of Cancer” and predicted that “this book will make literary history” (New York Times, September 7, 1974) didn’t account for the paperback’s success—Fear of Flying’s reputation had already been growing by word-of-mouth—but it certainly didn’t hurt. By mid-1975, three book clubs had snapped up the novel; professors at Rice University, Radcliffe, UCLA, and the University of Wisconsin were teaching it in literature and sociology courses; and women were discussing it in consciousness-raising groups around the country, including at the Y.W.C.A. in Atlanta, Georgia (see Time, February 3, 1975, and Newsweek, May 5, 1975).

Of course, Fear of Flying was part of a successful publishing trend: “the feminist novel”—popular realistic fiction by women about contemporary women’s lives. Jong’s book joined a roster of best-sellers that included Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967), Anne Roiphe’s Up the Sandbox (1970), Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends (1970) and Necessary Objects (1972), Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), and Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973). Fear of Flying was reviewed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times (November 6, 1973) together with Jane Howard’s A Different Woman and by Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books (March 21, 1974) with Barbara Raskin’s Loose Ends and Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.

But Fear of Flying stood out; it caused a singular commotion at the time—for some, as a historic breakthrough in what women could write about and, perhaps more important, how they could say it; for others, as a particularly repugnant example of collapsing moral standards in America. Take, for example, what the heroine—Isadora Wing—has to say about marriage (all quotations from the New American Library edition, 2003):

I was not against marriage. I believed in it in fact. It was necessary to have one best friend in a hostile world, one person you’d be loyal to no matter what, one person who’d always be loyal to you. But what about all those other longings which after a while marriage did nothing much to appease? The restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up, to be fucked through every hole, the yearning for dry champagne and wet kisses, for the smell of peonies in a penthouse on a June night…all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half.

For some women in the early 1970s, this was exhilarating; they’d found a novel whose female protagonist expressed what they were thinking and feeling about marriage, commitment, independence, sex. For others, it was trash.

Since then, many of the early feminist novels have acquired “classic of the genre” status, but none has become an international cultural phenomenon on the scale of Fear of Flying. By 1977, Jong’s book had been translated into twelve languages and had sold six million copies. The collapse of communism created another surge in celebrity and sales as the novel became available in former Soviet Republics and East European countries. Fear of Flying has now sold more than eighteen million copies and is available in thirty languages. In 2008, Jong told an interviewer that wherever she travels—Belgrade, Hong Kong, Tokyo—people still want her to know how completely they identify with the novel’s protagonist. “I am Isadora Wing,” they say. I have no doubt this is true.


Recently I asked a dozen or so women who (like me) had read Fear of Flying within a year or two of its publication how they felt about the novel at that time. Almost all of their answers were like these: “I was thrilled with her frankness and wildness!”; “I identified with her. I felt the book was in part responsible for my getting a divorce. It was liberating and made me want to be free.” But no one I spoke with, including the two women who disliked the book, remembered anything about the plot except for the “zipless fuck”—the main character’s fantasy of the perfect sexual encounter which was effortless (“zippers fell away like rose petals”), intense (“Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue”), brief, one-off, preferably anonymous, and leaving no trace of remorse. I recalled a little more than that: a half-dozen incidents and my opinion of the writing (“There’s one well-written scene,“ I told friends, “a description of her standing alone in an outdoor Nazi amphitheater”). But I had no memory of the main plot. It goes like this:

Twenty-nine-year-old Isadora Wing (who’s recently been on the reading circuit with her first book, a volume of erotic poetry) is traveling with her Chinese American psychiatrist husband to a convention of psychoanalysts in Vienna. Emotionally frustrated and sexually bored in her marriage, Isadora is tormented, on the one hand, by her yearning for adventure, sexual rapture, freedom, and creativity, and on the other hand, by her need for the security and protection of a husband. She opts, at least temporarily, for adventure by taking off on a frenzied, buzzed-on-beer road trip through Western Europe in a sporty convertible with a “swinging” Jungian analyst whom she’s met at the convention. Two and a half weeks later, he dumps her in Paris in order to join his children and his current girlfriend for a long-planned vacation in Brittany. Completely unprepared for this, Isadora falls apart for a day but emerges from her panic with some of the confidence and strength she’s craved. She heads to London and the hotel where she and her husband had planned to meet before flying back to New York. He’s out, but she gets the key to his room. The book closes with her soaking in the bathtub, feeling contented, when her husband walks in. Will she stay with him or leave? She doesn’t know, but in either case, she’s convinced that she’ll be fine.

During the course of Isadora’s odyssey from Vienna, around Europe, and back to London, the author inserts lengthy flashbacks which account for at least half the novel. They fill in the story of Isadora’s wealthy, assimilated Jewish family (two parents and four daughters) in their immense, Upper-West-Side-of-Manhattan apartment; her teen years of guilty groping for sex while dreaming of becoming a famous writer; fifteen years of psychoanalysis with a half-dozen loopy practitioners; her right-out-of-college marriage to and divorce from a fellow student who has a schizophrenic breakdown; post-marriage love affairs and a romp of one-nighters across Italy; rapid remarriage to a psychiatrist; and, when he’s drafted during the Vietnam War, their three years on a U.S. army base in Heidelberg, Germany, where she discovers her Jewish identity.

The facts of Erica Jong’s biography for her first twenty-nine years match those of Isadora Wing’s life almost exactly (Jong was one of three sisters, Isadora is one of four), but the novel is clearly intended as a satire, a spoof of real events, and a hip tribute to the eighteenth-century novel. The author’s voice is breezy, mocking, and geared to exaggeration for comic effect. Her heroine’s gestalt incorporates the themes and language of the early years of second-wave feminism, especially consciousness-raising groups. Here is Isadora on being a woman without children:

It’s funny how in spite of my reluctance to get pregnant, I seem to live inside my own cunt. I seem to be involved with all the changes of my body. They never pass unnoticed. I seem to know exactly when I ovulate. In the second week of the cycle, I feel a tiny ping and then a sort of tingling ache in my lower belly. A few days later, I’ll often find a tiny spot of blood in the rubber yarmulke of the diaphragm. A bright red smear, the only visible trace of the egg that might have become a baby. I feel a wave of sadness then which is almost indescribable. Sadness and relief. Is it really better never to be born?

The diaphragm has become a kind of fetish for me. A holy object, a barrier between my womb and men. Somehow the idea of bearing his baby angers me. Let him bear his own baby! If I have a baby I want it to be all mine. A girl like me, but better.


I found rereading Fear of Flying for the first time in thirty-five years excruciating: it was like being locked in a room with a manic talker who’s telling her life story in full-frontal detail but stopping every ninety seconds to groan about her “issues”: I can’t stop fantasizing about other men while I’m having sex with my husband. What do I want more—adventure or security? Relationships with men are unsatisfying, but I can’t survive without one. I know conventional standards for how women should look and act are crap, but I feel compelled to conform. Why can’t I forget all of this and just focus on my writing? I can’t stop fantasizing…” By page 75 of this 425-page novel, I was scrawling in the margins: “All right already!” Halfway along I was gritting my teeth too hard to find anything funny. My irritation was overwhelming my reading.

Jong makes the narrator’s compulsive venting worse by returning to the same events from the past again and again. For example, we learn at the beginning of Isadora’s tale that she was starving herself at age fourteen “in penance for having finger-fucked on my parents’ living-room couch.” She’s sent to an analyst who, true to his training, admonishes her to “ackzept being a vohman.” Midway through the novel, the narrator reprises the couch adventure in lavish detail and then reports the analyst’s response as though it hadn’t come up before. Toward the end of the novel, we find: “At fourteen, when I had starved myself…” Then, with only a few pages to go: “A year and a half later, I was starving myself to death…. The cause? Fear of being a woman, as Dr. Schrift put it.” This book would have benefited from a ruthless round of cutting. The same goes for line editing; someone should have blue-penciled the cringe-inducing phrases (for example, “seeing life as a fruitcake, including delicious plums and bad peanuts” or “[T]he wind…was sufficiently frigid to counteract the heat of the boiler—but not our heat”).

All that talk, and where does it lead? To an epiphany that now seems unconvincing and to a disappointing conclusion. Alone (the key word) in a shabby Parisian hotel after her lover takes off, Isadora freaks out. “I feel as if I have been flayed alive, as if all my inner organs are open to the elements, as if the top of my head has blown off…” One sponge bath later (and six pages of musings on her past as she stands naked in front of a mirror), Isadora gets an old journal out of her suitcase, reads about her years in Heidelberg, and experiences a revelation:

As I read the notebook, I began to be drawn into it as into a novel…. And then a curious revelation started to dawn. I stopped blaming myself; it was that simple.
. . .
You did not have to apologize for wanting to own your own soul.
. . .
I went on reading and with each page I grew more philosophical…. If Bennett [her husband] and I got back together again, it would have to be under very different circumstances. And if we did not, I knew I would survive.

Voila? After the Sturm und Drang that the narrator conjures up for 394 pages, after the endless back-and-forth (leave him, leave him not), Isadora’s metamorphosis is too sudden, too simple, and too thorough. Rather than embark on a new phase in her life, isn’t she more likely to flip back into tortured ambivalence in a matter of days? The suspect quality of her transformation makes her future look less promising, and so the novel’s conclusion is more disappointing—or, as some of Jong’s critics in the 1970s wrote, a cop-out. On the last page, Isadora claims, “It was my fear that was missing” and “I knew for sure I wasn’t going to grovel,” but she’s gone straight to the hotel where her husband is staying in London, and she’s soaking in the tub of his room when he walks in. Why didn’t she get a room of her own?

Yet if the novel is a cop-out from a feminist perspective, if Isadora’s consciousness hasn’t risen much by the end, why have millions of women found her story inspiring and liberating? Why do graduate students in Belgrade, housewives in Hong Kong, and female business entrepreneurs in Tokyo identify with this upper-middle-class Jewish New Yorker with a kvetching habit? Why do they still love her today?

What had I missed? Among the original reviews of Fear of Flying, I found one—Molly Haskell’s in the Village Voice Literary Supplement (November 22, 1973)—that suggested an answer:

[I]t’s hard to believe this dame is afraid of anything. It may be a question of tone, of bravura masking insecurity, but Erica/ Isadora, siren-wit-poet, comes on strong, shrinking the shrinks with their own jargon, dominating her mise-en-scene as authoritatively as Mae West ever tyrannized a tacky saloon or Dietrich a smoky nightclub.
. . .
[S]omehow the very hand that writes, having writ so boldly, erases the image of victim.

Haskell was right. After putting aside my impatience and reading the book again—randomly this time, back and forth from one section to another—I could appreciate how the idiosyncratic intensity of the narrator’s voice conveys energy and intrepidness even when Isadora is flat-out depressed, clinging to a man, or trembling with fear. The narrator is indefatigable, indomitable, and she’s enjoying herself thoroughly (does she get carried away?). She knows who will win in the end. She’s not only survived the tale she’s telling and written it up as the novel we’re reading (a literary device that’s since worn thin), she’s also cracking jokes about her journey nonstop. Jong wants the reader to laugh at Isadora, which means laughing along with Jong and enjoying the ride.

Once upon a time, Isadora’s issues were my issues, I identified with her, and I was buoyed by her story even if I didn’t think it was very well written. I can’t experience the novel in the same way now: the surprise and thrill of recognition aren’t there to overshadow what irritates me about the writing. I’m no longer a member of the best audience for Fear of Flying although that audience still exists in other places, among other women. Instead I’m just grateful to Jong and the other feminist authors who encouraged so many of us to get our own stories straight.

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Joanne Barkan lives in Manhattan and on Cape Cod, where she writes essays, stories for young readers, and verse. This article also appeared in Italian in the September-October 2009 issue of Reset.