Ivan, a wealthy writer from New York, is married to a loving but boring wife. He compares having sex with her to bland Velveeta cheese and fantasies about other women. What he craves most of all is the “overripe Camembert” of a hot, sexual encounter not bogged down by familiarity. Ivan travels with his wife to Europe for a work conference where he meets a hot British psychiatrist. He flirts openly with the Brit, humiliating his wife, and then he and the ‘other woman’ travel across Europe in a drunken stupor.
What an asshole, right?
Except this is the plot of a novel that’s considered a pillar of feminist literature, and the cad isn’t a man called Ivan but a woman called Isadora. The story of the asshole is, more or less, the plot of Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s iconic, somewhat auto-biographical first novel.
So how did this tale of narcissistic privilege end up as a venerated classic?
The answer, partially, is the date. Fear of Flying was published in 1973. Fay Weldon points out in the introduction to the fortieth anniversary edition that this was a time when women were still dependent on men for their income. Isadora Wing observes:
Isadora’s sexual adventurousness seemed revolutionary to many who read it. Women later told Erica Jong that the book inspired them to leave their husbands.
“Being unmarried in a man’s world was such a hassle that any thing had to be better. Marriage was better. But not much.”
At the time women were also denied the right to keep their job if they were pregnant, and they could neither apply for a credit card nor claim marital rape – it wasn’t considered a crime until twenty years after the novel’s publication. Into this narrow opening (forgive the sexual innuendo but this is Fear of Flying after all) where men still ruled their wives came Erica Jong’s novel.
Isadora’s sexual adventurousness seemed revolutionary to many who read it. Women later told Erica Jong that the book inspired them to leave their husbands. Against the backdrop of women’s enduring dependence on men, this kind of literature was significant, particularly as the subversive drive behind the story is a woman in search of options:
“What did it mean to be a woman, anyway? If it meant being what Randy was or what my mother was, then I didn’t want it. If it meant seething resentment and giving lectures on the joys of childbearing, then I didn’t want it. Far better to be an intellectual nun than that.
But the intellectual nun was no fun either. She had no juice. And what were the alternatives? Why didn’t someone show me some alternatives?”
For a certain class of American women, the idea that they could be without a man was truly liberating. It set the stage for an idealized institution that most women today are still struggling to achieve – the “equal marriage”. At the very least, it gave some women a choice they didn’t have previously if they wanted to remain in society.
But even without the hope Isadora offered unhappy wives, Fear of Flying does stand the test of time. If you pick it up today, it’s still a great novel.
Obscured behind the sex is a weightier theme which Jong explores compellingly – how it’s almost impossible to lead a pure, honest life. Isadora is Jewish. In one of the flashbacks that punctuate the novel, she’s living in Germany just a few decades after the Second World War and trying to understand how ordinary Germans stood by and did nothing during the Holocaust. She confronts a printer she works for who tells her that “most people are not heroes and most people are not honest.” When Isadora hears this, she must admit the truth to herself. She hasn’t been honest in her life either. She runs away from uncomfortable truths and doesn’t write about what truly moves her. Though the consequences for her are hardly comparable with those of Germans in the 1940s, she’s a slave to convention just as they were. She cannot judge.
Fear of Flying is a brilliant portrait of a woman’s psyche. The last quarter of the novel explores Isadora so deeply and unsparingly that it’s difficult to put down. You need to know how it’s all going to end.
Fear of Flying is as much about Isadora’s struggle to break free from convention as it is about her quest to find her “zipless fuck”, the term she uses to describe the hot sexual encounter. (Jong said she once feared “zipless fuck” would be written on her tombstone). Coming of age during the 1950s, a time when enormous pressure was placed on women – and men – to work and consume and build families, pursuing truth beyond the acceptable societal parameters took bravery. The Beats did it, and soon after women started doing it too. This was one of the legacies of feminism’s second wave. Despite the conservative backlash of the 1980s, a window opened for women. And though it’s not as wide as we might have expected or hoped, it hasn’t been bolted shut. In 2015, you can be unmarried and unashamed. You can be a single mother and be part of a community. You can even be a gay, middle-aged celebrity Cover Girl.
But you still can’t have it all. Isadora figured that out way back in ‘73.
“Why was it so many women artists who had renounced having children could then paint nothing but mothers and children? It was hopeless. If you were female and talented life was a trap no matter which way you turned. Either you were drowned in domesticity or you longed for domesticity in your art. You could never escape your femaleness. You had conflict written in your very blood.”
Even as Isadora breaks free – leaving her husband to pursue her own truth – she discovers she’s still enslaved by emotional dependency on a man. Though she’s with the object of her fantasy, the zipless fuck is as illusive as ever. Chasing a man outside of marriage isn’t what’s going to liberate this character.
Isadora has a nervous breakdown in Paris where she’s forced to confront the last vestiges of her inner hypocrisy. Along with its other accomplishments, Fear of Flying is a brilliant portrait of a woman’s psyche. The last quarter of the novel explores Isadora so deeply and unsparingly that it’s difficult to put down. You need to know how it’s all going to end.
What sets Isadora free, once and for all, is the same realization we all come to – single women, wives and mothers alike. After pinning our hopes for happiness on career or marriage or wealth or some other construct, we finally let the fantasy go. We discover that having options doesn’t fill the emptiness. Like Isadora – abandoned in Paris and presciently understanding how figuring out your needs isn’t necessarily a roadmap to fulfilment – we finally turn to the only true source of strength that was ever available to us. Ourselves.