Is the Sexiest Novel of the 1970s Still Relevant Today?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 24 2013 11:18 AM

Still Wanting

Reading Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, 40 years later. 

Erica Jong
Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying, in 1976.

Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

My mother sold her guitar when she married her first husband. He didn’t ask her to; he didn’t have to. The house around her—all those surfaces to wipe, those grocery lists to write!—crested like a huge wave, threatening to crash down at any moment. It was 1972 and he hardly spoke to her at all. In my head I see her growing smaller and smaller until finally his screwing of some mutual friend gave her a socially sanctioned reason to walk out.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

In 1973 a writer named Erica Jong published a book called Fear of Flying. It revolutionized how people thought about female desire—not as a single, predictable thing, nor as retreating or apologetic, but as multihued, contradictory, and insistent. Jong’s quasi-memoir follows a Jewish American woman, Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, who accompanies her analyst husband, Bennett, to Vienna and falls for a swinging British psychopath named (I am not joking) Adrian Goodlove. Isadora is hilariously neurotic, self-deprecating, professionally driven, and sensual. She has published two volumes of erotic poetry and loves Bennett (who is kind and makes “marvelous dipping and corkscrewing motions” in bed, as if “he had wings on his prick”). But a coldness clings to their marriage, what therapists might call a “failure to communicate” and what Isadora suspects is Bennett’s way of “teaching me how to die.” Goodlove, meanwhile, has a beat-up Triumph and a “curled pink penis which tasted faintly of urine and refused to stand up in my mouth.” He whisks Isadora away on a two-and-a-half week drunken trip across Europe, promising to help her discover her soul in between banter about Freud vs. Laing and failed attempts at lovemaking.

When Fear of Flying first appeared on bookshelves, readers were shocked by the graphic descriptions, the steamy four-letter words. A few found Isadora indecisive, cruel to her husband, pretentious, and narcissistic. “She bounces about on an ubiquitous padding of money,” wrote John Updike. “At a little remove … the story can be viewed as that of a spoiled young woman who after some adventures firmly resolves to go on spoiling herself.” There are also moments of breathtaking racism, as when Jong titles the Beirut portion of the story “Arabs and Other Animals.” (She later confessed that the heading had been a terrible decision: “When Moqtada al-Sadr comes to power, and I am facing the firing squad,” she told The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead in 2008, “it will be for that.”)

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But I am underselling this novel, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month with a reissue and has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. In addition to sex, it is about Jewishness and history, health and sickness, all the ways it is possible to lose and find yourself. Isadora’s voice—warm, rich, and funny—is a lifeline for readers amid the turbulence of her lovers past and present. She has so many dimensions (dreamy, furious, philosophical, smart, immature, bawdy, brave) and so much experience that her adventures don’t feel like cartoons or Sex and the City outtakes. They add up to a life in the world.

Desire is one of Isadora’s main attributes. Unlike the suppressed wants of some of her contemporaries (housewives with “lives pickled in fantasy,” she memorably writes, “making babies out of their loneliness and boredom and not knowing why”), her hungers lie exposed. They tend to contradict each other: spontaneous, commitment-free sex (the “zipless fuck”), lifelong partnership, excitement, safety, rebellion, approval, children, no children, challenging work, a checkered apron, literary fame and peaceful obscurity. Most of all, Isadora wants answers—how do you get all these things? Where do you look? To a husband, a lover, a parent, a faith, a vocation, yourself?

Isadora laughs at her own fevered, mercurial needs—and then cries about them. She obsesses; she vacillates; she spirals. Reading Fear of Flying for the first time this weekend, I thought first of how skillfully Jong had assembled a very specific mental circuitry, had breathed appealing, manic life into her heroine. And then I wondered how long it would be before she killed her off, punished her a la Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary for her sexual sins. This underestimates the author.

For as much as Fear of Flying is about producing that One Great Character, it is also about understanding womanhood circa 1973. And women in 1973 were not poised to die off—they were readying the launch. When Isadora describes her “restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut,” I started to imagine a whole group of people just released from prison. They blink in the sunlight, intoxicated and paralyzed by freedom. “She has no serenity,” Jong said of her character a decade ago. Is it so different today?

Well, maybe we have gotten more used to our choices, bewildering as they are. Or maybe we’ve reached more of a truce with the idea of wanting things (which is different from knowing what we want). At least now the guys lack serenity, too. In a wonderful piece for the Cut, Ann Friedman describes the plight of the modern man, only now wrestling with who he is in the wake of melting stereotypes. “Welcome to where women have been since second-wave feminism!” Friedman says, “It’s confusing out here.” It is! Millennial ladies have had some time to pick their way through the rubble of the old gender norms, but in 1973, the demolition was still fresh. “When you go to sleep hungry you dream of eating,” Isadora observes, finding common ground between housewives who fantasize about escape and single girls who crave families. In the ’50s, the second sex went to bed with nothing; they woke up in the ’60s and ’70s and wanted everything.

Or to put it in modern parlance, they wanted to “have it all.” Forty years ago Isadora yearned for the perfect career plus the perfect family plus the perfect sex life within a society that expected her to choose between them. (“Why can’t I have all three?” she protests at one point. No one answers.) But these days, women are supposed to excel in every possible field: to work meaningful, high-powered jobs with flexible hours; to snag hot, dinner-cooking husbands; to raise beautiful and emotionally regulated children. So has Isadora’s private, impossible hunger-thump been externalized into every woman’s burden? Instead of liberation, is that the book’s legacy?

My mom couldn’t relate to Isadora Wing. As a barometer for what it meant to be young and female, Wing seemed so beautiful, entitled, and sexually assured. She permitted herself highs of pleasure and transports of carelessness my mom couldn’t imagine deserving. Reading Fear of Flying, she told me, made her feel like less of a woman, not more.

I know that demurring impulse well: a propensity for being excluded, even from one’s own club. Maybe something about having been the second sex for so long impels us to constantly take our measures and find ourselves wanting. Women have long been looking to novelistic or celebrity examples to light our paths, only to decide that we fail some essential feminine criteria.

Of course, it takes a kind of self-esteem to desire stuff. You have to give yourself permission to think about your lot and imagine more. Sometimes you feel guilty; then the alleviation of guilt becomes just another desirable thing. To back away from Isadora on some level means to disown your desires—perhaps even to hand them over to society at large. But I would rather want it all (whatever that means) than be told I ought to have it all. If Fear of Flying holds one lesson for us in 2013, maybe it’s that we need to value our capacity to want things, including the wrong things, including the things we can’t have.

A lot has changed since Fear of Flying began its multiyear voyage across the culture’s mental sky. The threat of AIDS soiled some of the shimmering abandon of the zipless fuck. No is not ever supposed to mean yes. A 29-year-old woman travelling alone today is unlikely to be asked, as Isadora is toward the end of the book, why she’s not married (and she’s unlikely to contemplate answering “lesbianism” with the same degree of giddy transgression).

Far more dated than the book itself, though, is the way people reacted to Fear of Flying when it first came out, exclaiming over the idea that women have sex drives or intellectual aspirations; that their inner lives might be energetic and querulous and complicated. Just imagine a contemporary reviewer calling Isadora Wing “a mammoth pudenda,” as Paul Theroux did in the New Statesmen 40 years ago. Or suggesting, like John Updike in The New Yorker, that her effervescence derived from her ability to orgasm every time:

“However adverse her circumstances, Isadora Wing seems to have no trouble achieving sexual satisfaction. And maybe this is what makes her saga so uncranky, for all its intelligent pain, and lends its prose a spun-sugar halo of wonder and fun, and gives its conclusion the smug snap of a shopping expedition satisfactorily completed.”

What? That was a world that needed Fear of Flying, needed to encounter the unruly fictions and phobias of its heroine in order to realize that women aren’t simple. Thanks to feminism, Isadora says, she spent half her adolescence arched over backward in the bathroom “looking for herself.” What she finds by the end of the novel is ambiguous. What we’ve learned over the past 40 years is complicated. I guess it is all a process. When my sister and I were born, my mom quit her job as a film editor to raise us full-time. But she also bought a new guitar.