A striking deluxe edition commemorating the 40th anniversary of Erica Jong’s groundbreaking classic
Before Hannah from Girls, Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey, and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, there was Isadora Wing, the uninhibited, outspoken protagonist of Erica Jong’s revolutionary novel. First published in 1973, Fear of Flying caused a national sensation, fueling fantasies, igniting debates about women and sex, and introducing a notorious phrase to the English language. Forty years later, Isadora’s honest and exuberant retelling of her sexual adventures—and misadventures—continues to provoke and inspire, and stands as an iconic tale of self-discovery, liberation, and womanhood. With provocative cover art by illustrator Noma Bar, this special fortieth-anniversary edition will introduce a new generation of women to Jong’s pioneering novel.
For more than sixty-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
Erica Jong is the author of more than twenty works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including What Do Women Want; Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life; and Sappho’s Leap. She lives in New York City.
Noma Bar was born in Israel and graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Based in London, he has illustrated more than sixty magazine covers and is the author of The Many Faces of Noma Bar and Negative Space.
Read an Excerpt
En Route to the Congress of Dreams or the Zipless Fuck
Bigamy is having one husband too
many. Monogamy is the same.
—Anonymous (a woman)
There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them. And married a seventh. God knows it was a tribute either to the shrinks’ ineptitude or my own glorious unanalyzability that I was now, if anything, more scared of flying than when I began my analytic adventures some thirteen years earlier.
My husband grabbed my hand therapeutically at the moment of takeoff.
“Christ—it’s like ice,” he said. He ought to know the symptoms by now since he’s held my hand on lots of other flights. My fingers (and toes) turn to ice, my stomach leaps upward into my rib cage, the temperature in the tip of my nose drops to the same level as the temperature in my fingers, my nipples stand up and salute the inside of my bra (or in this case, dress—since I’m not wearing a bra), and for one screaming minute my heart and the engines correspond as we attempt to prove again that the laws of aerodynamics are not the flimsy superstitions which, in my heart of hearts, I know they are. Never mind the diabolical INFORMATION TO PASSENGERS, I happen to be convinced that only my own concentration (and that of my mother—who always seems to expect her children to die in a plane crash) keeps this bird aloft. I congratulate myself on every successful takeoff, but not too enthusiastically because it’s also part of my personal religion that the minute you grow overconfident and really relax about the flight, the plane crashes instantly. Constant vigilance, that’s my motto. A mood of cautious optimism should prevail. But actually my mood is better described as cautious pessimism. OK, I tell myself, we seem to be off the ground and into the clouds but the danger isn’t past. This is, in fact, the most perilous patch of air. Right here over Jamaica Bay where the plane banks and turns and the “No Smoking” sign goes off. This may well be where we go screaming down in thousands of flaming pieces. So I keep concentrating very hard, helping the pilot (a reassuringly midwestern voice named Donnelly) fly the 250-passenger motherfucker. Thank God for his crew cut and middle-America diction. New Yorker that I am, I would never trust a pilot with a New York accent.
As soon as the seat-belt sign goes off and people begin moving about the cabin, I glance around nervously to see who’s on board. There’s a big-breasted mama-analyst named Rose Schwamm-Lipkin with whom I recently had a consultation about whether or not I should leave my current analyst (who isn’t, mercifully, in evidence). There’s Dr. Thomas Frommer, the harshly Teutonic expert on Anorexia Nervosa, who was my husband’s first analyst. There’s kindly, rotund Dr. Arthur Feet, Jr., who was the third (and last) analyst of my friend Pia. There’s compulsive little Dr. Raymond Schrift who is hailing a blond stewardess (named “Nanci”) as if she were a taxi. (I saw Dr. Schrift for one memorable year when I was fourteen and starving myself to death in penance for having finger-fucked on my parents’ living-room couch. He kept insisting that the horse I was dreaming about was my father and that my periods would return if only I would “ackzept being a vohman.”) There’s smiling, bald Dr. Harvey Smucker whom I saw in consultation when my first husband decided he was Jesus Christ and began threatening to walk on the water in Central Park Lake. There’s foppish, hand-tailored Dr. Ernest Klumpner, the supposedly “brilliant theoretician” whose latest book is a psychoanalytic study of John Knox. There’s black-bearded Dr. Stanton Rappoport-Rosen who recently gained notoriety in New York analytic circles when he moved to Denver and branched out into something called “Cross-Country Group Ski-Therapy.” There’s Dr. Arnold Aaronson pretending to play chess on a magnetic board with his new wife (who was his patient until last year), the singer Judy Rose. Both of them are surreptitiously looking around to see who is looking at them—and for one moment, my eyes and Judy Rose’s meet. Judy Rose became famous in the fifties for recording a series of satirical ballads about pseudointellectual life in New York. In a whiny and deliberately unmusical voice, she sang the saga of a Jewish girl who takes courses at the New School, reads the Bible for its prose, discusses Martin Buber in bed, and falls in love with her analyst. She has now become one with the role she created.
Besides the analysts, their wives, the crew, and a few poor outnumbered laymen, there were some children of analysts who’d come along for the ride. Their sons were mostly sullen-faced adolescents in bell bottoms and shoulder-length hair who looked at their parents with a degree of cynicism and scorn which was almost palpable. I remembered myself traveling abroad with my parents as a teenager and always trying to pretend they weren’t with me. I tried to lose them in the Louvre! To avoid them in the Uffizi! To moon alone over a Coke in a Paris café and pretend that those loud people at the next table were not—though clearly they were—my parents. (I was pretending, you see, to be a Lost Generation exile with my parents sitting three feet away.) And here I was back in my own past, or in a bad dream or a bad movie: Analyst and Son of Analyst. A planeload of shrinks and my adolescence all around me. Stranded in midair over the Atlantic with 117 analysts many of whom had heard my long, sad story and none of whom remembered it. An ideal beginning for the nightmare the trip was going to become.
We were bound for Vienna and the occasion was historic. Centuries ago, wars ago, in 1938, Freud fled his famous consulting room on the Berggasse when the Nazis threatened his family. During the years of the Third Reich any mention of his name was banned in Germany, and analysts were expelled (if they were lucky) or gassed (if they were not). Now, with great ceremony, Vienna was welcoming the analysts back. They were even opening a museum to Freud in his old consulting room. The mayor of Vienna was going to greet them and a reception was to be held in Vienna’s pseudo-Gothic Rathaus. The enticements included free food, free Schnaps, cruises on the Danube, excursions to vineyards, singing, dancing, shenanigans, learned papers and speeches and a tax-deductible trip to Europe. Most of all, there was to be lots of good old Austrian Gemültlichkeit. The people who invented schmaltz (and crematoria) were going to show the analysts how welcome back they were.
Welcome back! Welcome back! At least those of you who survived Auschwitz, Belsen, the London Blitz and the co-optation of America. Willkommen! Austrians are nothing if not charming.
Holding the Congress in Vienna had been a hotly debated issue for years, and many of the analysts had come only reluctantly. Anti-Semitism was part of the problem, but there was also the possibility that radical students at the University of Vienna would decide to stage demonstrations. Psychoanalysis was out of favor with New Left members for being “too individualistic.” It did nothing, they said, to further “the worldwide struggle toward communism.”
I had been asked by a new magazine to observe all the fun and games of the Congress closely and to do a satirical article on it. I began my research by approaching Dr. Smucker near the galley, where he was being served coffee by one of the stewardesses. He looked at me with barely a glimmer of recognition.
“How do you feel about psychoanalysis returning to Vienna?” I asked in my most cheerful lady-interviewer voice. Dr. Smucker seemed taken aback by the shocking intimacy of the question. He looked at me long and searchingly.
“I’m writing an article for a new magazine called Voyeur,” I said. I figured he’d at least have to crack a smile at the name.
“Well then,” Smucker said stolidly, “how do you feel about it?” And he waddled off toward his short bleached-blond wife in the blue knit dress with a tiny green alligator above her (blue) right breast.
I should have known. Why do analysts always answer a question with a question? And why should this night be different from any other night—despite the fact that we are flying in a 747 and eating unkosher food?
“The Jewish science,” as anti-Semites call it. Turn every question upside down and shove it up the asker’s ass. Analysts all seem to be Talmudists who flunked out of seminary in the first year. I was reminded of one of my grandfather’s favorite gags:
Q: “Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?”
A: “And why should a Jew not answer a question with a question?”
Ultimately though, it was the unimaginativeness of most analysts which got me down. OK, I’d been helped a lot by my first one—the German who was going to give a paper in Vienna—but he was a rare breed: witty, self-mocking, unpretentious. He had none of the flat-footed literal-mindedness which makes even the most brilliant psychoanalysts sound so pompous. But the others I’d gone to—they were so astonishingly literal-minded. The horse you are dreaming about is your father. The kitchen stove you are dreaming about is your mother. The piles of bullshit you are dreaming about are, in reality, your analyst. This is called the transference. No?
You dream about breaking your leg on the ski slope. You have, in fact, just broken your leg on the ski slope and you are lying on the couch wearing a ten-pound plaster cast which has had you housebound for weeks, but has also given you a beautiful new appreciation of your toes and the civil rights of paraplegics. But the broken leg in the dream represents your own “mutilated genital.” You always wanted to have a penis and now you feel guilty that you have deliberately broken your leg so that you can have the pleasure of the cast, no?
OK, let’s put the “mutilated genital” question aside. It’s a dead horse, anyway. And forget about your mother the oven and your analyst the pile of shit. What do we have left except the smell? I’m not talking about the first years of analysis when you’re hard at work discovering your own craziness so that you can get some work done instead of devoting your entire life to your neurosis. I’m talking about when both you and your husband have been in analysis as long as you can remember and it’s gotten to the point where no decision, no matter how small, can be made without both analysts having an imaginary caucus on a cloud above your head. You feel rather like the Trojan warriors in the Iliad with Zeus and Hera fighting above them. I’m talking about the time when your marriage has become a menage à quatre. You, him, your analyst, his analyst. Four in a bed. This picture is definitely rated X.
We had been in this state for at least the past year. Every decision was referred to the shrink, or the shrinking process. Should we move into a bigger apartment? “Better see what’s going on first.” (Bennett’s euphemism for: back to the couch.) Should we have a baby? “Better work things through first.” Should we join a new tennis club? “Better see what’s going on first.” Should we get a divorce? “Better work through the unconscious meaning of divorce first.”
Because the fact was that we’d reached that crucial time in a marriage (five years and the sheets you got as wedding presents have just about worn thin) when it’s time to decide whether to buy new sheets, have a baby perhaps, and live with each other’s lunacy ever after—or else give up the ghost of the marriage (throw out the sheets) and start playing musical beds all over again.
The decision was, of course, further complicated by analysis—the basic assumption of analysis being (and never mind all the evidence to the contrary) that you’re getting better all the time. The refrain goes something like this:
(Implying that you might just choose someone better, sweeter, handsomer, smarter, and maybe even luckier in the stock market.)
To which he might reply:
(Implying that he might just find someone sweeter, prettier, smarter, a better cook, and maybe even due to inherit piles of bread from her father.)
“Wise up Bennett, old boy,” I’d say—(whenever I suspected him of thinking those thoughts), “you’d probably marry someone even more phallic, castrating, and narcissistic than I am.” (First technique of being a shrink’s wife is knowing how to hurl all their jargon back at them, at carefully chosen moments.)
But I was having those thoughts myself and if Bennett knew, he didn’t let on. Something seemed very wrong in our marriage. Our lives ran parallel like railroad tracks. Bennett spent the day at his office, his hospital, his analyst, and then evenings at his office again, usually until nine or ten. I taught a couple of days a week and wrote the rest of the time. My teaching schedule was light, the writing was exhausting, and by the time Bennett came home, I was ready to go out and break loose. I had had plenty of solitude, plenty of long hours alone with my typewriter and my fantasies. And I seemed to meet men everywhere. The world seemed crammed with available, interesting men in a way it never had been before I was married.
What was it about marriage anyway? Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds, no bittersweet edge, no danger. And you longed for an overripe Camembert, a rare goat cheese: luscious, creamy, cloven-hoofed.
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, for the light at the end of the pier in Gatsby. . . . Not those things really—because you knew that the very rich were duller than you and me—but what those things evoked. The sardonic, bittersweet vocabulary of Cole Porter love songs, the sad sentimental Rodgers and Hart lyrics, all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half.
Growing up female in America. What a liability! You grew up with your ears full of cosmetic ads, love songs, advice columns, whoreoscopes, Hollywood gossip, and moral dilemmas on the level of TV soap operas. What litanies the advertisers of the good life chanted at you! What curious catechisms!
“Be kind to your behind.” “Blush like you mean it.” “Love your hair.” “Want a better body? We’ll rearrange the one you’ve got.” “That shine on your face should come from him, not from your skin.” “You’ve come a long way, baby.” “How to score with every male in the zodiac.” “The stars and sensual you.” “To a man they say Cutty Sark.” “A diamond is forever.” “If you’re concerned about douching . . .” “Length and coolness come together.” “How I solved my intimate odor problem.” “Lady be cool.” “Every woman alive loves Chanel No. 5.” “What makes a shy girl get intimate?” “Femme, we named it after you.”
What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever.
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. It didn’t matter, you see, whether you had an IQ of 170 or an IQ of 70, you were brainwashed all the same. Only the surface trappings were different. Only the talk was a little more sophisticated. Underneath it all, you longed to be annihilated by love, to be swept off your feet, to be filled up by a giant prick spouting sperm, soapsuds, silks and satins, and of course, money. Nobody bothered to tell you what marriage was really about. You weren’t even provided, like European girls, with a philosophy of cynicism and practicality. You expected not to desire any other men after marriage. And you expected your husband not to desire any other women. Then the desires came and you were thrown into a panic of self-hatred. What an evil woman you were! How could you keep being infatuated with strange men? How could you study their bulging trousers like that? How could you sit at a meeting imagining how every man in the room would screw? How could you sit on a train fucking total strangers with your eyes? How could you do that to your husband? Did anyone ever tell you that maybe it had nothing whatever to do with your husband?
And what about those other longings which marriage stifled? Those longings to hit the open road from time to time, to discover whether you could still live alone inside your own head, to discover whether you could manage to survive in a cabin in the woods without going mad; to discover, in short, whether you were still whole after so many years of being half of something (like the back two legs of a horse outfit on the vaudeville stage).
Five years of marriage had made me itchy for all those things: itchy for men, and itchy for solitude. Itchy for sex and itchy for the life of a recluse. I knew my itches were contradictory—and that made things even worse. I knew my itches were un-American—and that made things still worse. It is heresy in America to embrace any way of life except as half of a couple. Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man—especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets” during a brief interval between marriages. But a woman is always presumed to be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone. Oh, she can get along financially perhaps (though not nearly as well as a man), but emotionally she is never left in peace. Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness—her selfishness, in short—is a reproach to the American way of life.
Even more to the point: the woman (unhappy though she knows her married friends to be) can never let herself alone. She lives as if she were constantly on the brink of some great fulfillment. As if she were waiting for Prince Charming to take her away “from all this.” All what? The solitude of living inside her own soul? The certainty of being herself instead of half of something else?
My response to all this was not (not yet) to have an affair and not (not yet) to hit the open road, but to evolve my fantasy of the Zipless Fuck. The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.
For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man very well. I had noticed, for example, how all my infatuations dissolved as soon as I really became friends with a man, became sympathetic to his problems, listened to him kvetch about his wife, or ex-wives, his mother, his children. After that I would like him, perhaps even love him—but without passion. And it was passion that I wanted. I had also learned that a sure way to exorcise an infatuation was to write about someone, to observe his tics and twitches, to anatomize his personality in type. After that he was an insect on a pin, a newspaper clipping laminated in plastic. I might enjoy his company, even admire him at moments, but he no longer had the power to make me wake up trembling in the middle of the night. I no longer dreamed about him. He had a face.
So another condition for the zipless fuck was brevity. And anonymity made it even better.
During the time I lived in Heidelberg I commuted to Frankfurt four times a week to see my analyst. The ride took an hour each way and trains became an important part of my fantasy life. I kept meeting beautiful men on the train, men who scarcely spoke English, men whose clichés and banalities were hidden by my ignorance of French, or Italian, or even German. Much as I hate to admit it, there are some beautiful men in Germany.
One scenario of the zipless fuck was perhaps inspired by an Italian movie I saw years ago. As time went by, I embellished it to suit my head. It used to play over and over again as I shuttled back and forth from Heidelberg to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to Heidelberg:
A grimy European train compartment (Second Class). The seats are leatherette and hard. There is a sliding door to the corridor outside. Olive trees rush by the window. Two Sicilian peasant women sit together on one side with a child between them. They appear to be mother and grandmother and granddaughter. Both women vie with each other to stuff the little girl’s mouth with food. Across the way (in the window seat) is a pretty young widow in a heavy black veil and tight black dress which reveals her voluptuous figure. She is sweating profusely and her eyes are puffy. The middle seat is empty. The corridor seat is occupied by an enormously fat woman with a mustache. Her huge haunches cause her to occupy almost half of the vacant center seat. She is reading a pulp romance in which the characters are photographed models and the dialogue appears in little puffs of smoke above their heads.
This fivesome bounces along for a while, the widow and the fat woman keeping silent, the mother and grandmother talking to the child and each other about the food. And then the train screeches to a halt in a town called (perhaps) CORLEONE. A tall languid-looking soldier, unshaven, but with a beautiful mop of hair, a cleft chin, and somewhat devilish, lazy eyes, enters the compartment, looks insolently around, sees the empty half-seat between the fat woman and the widow, and, with many flirtatious apologies, sits down. He is sweaty and disheveled but basically a gorgeous hunk of flesh, only slightly rancid from the heat. The train screeches out of the station.
Then we become aware only of the bouncing of the train and the rhythmic way the soldier’s thighs are rubbing against the thighs of the widow. Of course, he is also rubbing against the haunches of the fat lady—and she is trying to move away from him—which is quite unnecessary because he is unaware of her haunches. He is watching the large gold cross between the widow’s breasts swing back and forth in her deep cleavage. Bump. Pause. Bump. It hits one moist breast and then the other. It seems to hesitate in between as if paralyzed between two repelling magnets. The pit and the pendulum. He is hypnotized. She stares out the window, looking at each olive tree as if she had never seen olive trees before. He rises awkwardly, half-bows to the ladies, and struggles to open the window. When he sits down again his arm accidentally grazes the widow’s belly. She appears not to notice. He rests his left hand on the seat between his thigh and hers and begins to wind rubber fingers around and under the soft flesh of her thigh. She continues staring at each olive tree as if she were God and had just made them and were wondering what to call them.
Meanwhile the enormously fat lady is packing away her pulp romance in an iridescent green plastic string bag full of smelly cheeses and blackening bananas. And the grandmother is rolling ends of salami in greasy newspaper. The mother is putting on the little girl’s sweater and wiping her face with a handkerchief, lovingly moistened with maternal spittle. The train screeches to a stop in a town called (perhaps) PRIZZI, and the fat lady, the mother, the grandmother, and the little girl leave the compartment. Then the train begins to move again. The gold cross begins to bump, pause, bump between the widow’s moist breasts, the fingers begin to curl under the widow’s thighs, the widow continues to stare at the olive trees. Then the fingers are sliding between her thighs and they are parting her thighs, and they are moving upward into the fleshy gap between her heavy black stockings and her garters, and they are sliding up under her garters into the damp unpantied place between her legs.
The train enters a galleria, or tunnel, and in the semi-darkness the symbolism is consummated.
There is the soldier’s boot in the air and the dark walls of the tunnel and the hypnotic rocking of the train and the long high whistle as it finally emerges.
Wordlessly, she gets off at a town called, perhaps, BIVONA. She crosses the tracks, stepping carefully over them in her narrow black shoes and heavy black stockings. He stares after her as if he were Adam wondering what to name her. Then he jumps up and dashes out of the train in pursuit of her. At that very moment a long freight train pulls through the parallel track obscuring his view and blocking his way. Twenty-five freight cars later, she has vanished forever.
One scenario of the zipless fuck.
Zipless, you see, not because European men have button-flies rather than zipper-flies, and not because the participants are so devastatingly attractive, but because the incident has all the swift compression of a dream and is seemingly free of all remorse and guilt; because there is no talk of her late husband or of his fiancée; because there is no rationalizing; because there is no talk at all. 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. Whenever it seemed I was close, I discovered a horse with a papier-mâché horn, or two clowns in a unicorn suit. Alessandro, my Florentine friend, came close. But he was, after all, one clown in a unicorn suit.
Consider this tapestry, my life.
Copyright © Erica Jong
Reading Group Guide
Originally published in 1973, the ground-breaking, uninhibited story of Isadora Wing and her desire to fly free caused a national sensation—and sold more than twelve million copies. Now, after thirty years, the iconic novel still stands as a timeless tale of self-discovery, liberation, and womanhood.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erica Jong grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side and attended Barnard College, where she majored in writing and literature, and she later received her M.A. in eighteenth-century English literature from Columbia University. She left halfway through the Ph.D. program to write her groundbreaking first novel, Fear of Flying, which went on to sell 20 million copies worldwide. She is also the author of many award-winning books of poetry, novels, and non-fiction including Sappho's Leap, Fanny, Any Woman's Blues, and Fear of Fifty. She lives in New York City and Connecticut. Her work has had a major impact on women's lives all over the world.
A CONVERSATION WITH ERICA JONG
Does it bother you when people assume the novel is simply autobiography?
In the thirty years since Fear of Flying was published, the line between autobiography (or memoir) and fiction has blurred.Fear of Flying was at the forefront of this trend. But it was never a literal autobiography though it had autobiographical elements. It's not unusual for a first novel to have such elements. Early on, some critics (like John Updike) saw similarities between my novel and Catcher in the Rye. That's another book that uses an autobiographical New York City setting but also takes the protagonist on a journey that is mythical.
Is this a book only a young writer could write? Is there anything in the book that embarrasses you now?
The rambunctiousness of this novel screams youth. It reads like a manifesto of liberation. As an author ages, things seem less black and white. We gain in subtlety but sometimes we lose a certain youthful madness. Sometimes, at readings, I perform an excerpt from the book and I blush at my own youthful recklessness. Sometimes I wish I could be that reckless now.
You went on to write two more books about Isadora Wing. What makes a character someone you want to revisit?
Isadora became an icon for women searching for freedom. I wanted to show how she dealt with motherhood, divorce, addiction, new relationships. Because she was so important to so many readers, I felt her story had to go on.
Some readers think Isadora has a casual approach to marriage. How does her marriage reflect your own views?
The generation that came of age in the sixties married too young and without much of an idea of the burdens of marriage. Then we discovered how tough marriage is, how much compromise is required. Often we divorced our first spouses. Now our kids, who often grew up with divorced parents, are more realistic about marriage, more cautious about commitments. In general, that's a good thing. They see marriage more realistically than we did. I think their chances of successful marriages are greater than ours were.
Did it bother you that Fear of Flying was seen by some as a scandalous book?
Initially I was troubled by some people's emphasis on sex in the novel. I never thought it was a book about sex. I thought it was a book about freedom. As time went on I came to see that Isadora's fierce honesty about her sexual feelings had so impacted readers that conservatives felt they had to denounce her—and me. There's less fornication in the book than there is fantasy. Perhaps it's as threatening to have a woman talk and think freely about sex as to actually do it. At any rate, Isadora's openness did change the way both women and men thought, talked, and wrote about sex.
You said somewhere that when you were writing Fear of Flying, you thought of killing off Isadora but were determined that she not die for her sins. Why?
So many novels—Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are but two examples—punish female sexuality with death. I found myself fantasizing that Isadora's answer to her dilemma would be suicide. I think I was influenced by the cultural archetype in which women die for sexual passion. But then I realized I had to transform that archetype. I thought it was important to grant women the possibility of passion without draconian punishment. Not that passion is easy or without conflict. But death seems an excessive punishment.
Women seem much freer today than they were in 1973. Why do you think Isadora's dilemmas still have relevance?
We are still in the midst of an unfinished revolution. Outwardly women seem to have more freedom but it is still difficult to combine love and work, still difficult to find happiness with the opposite sex, still difficult to find emotional freedom. Isadora poses questions that women still pose to themselves. Women still feel that they need a man to verify their identity. Many things have changed in society but women are still conflicted about achieving fulfillment.
What do people ask you most about Fear of Flying?
People always ask how I got the guts to write such an intimate book. I don't really know the answer. I was driven to write it. I wanted to document all the things that go on in a woman's mind. I wanted to get the female psyche down on paper. And I must because the most frequent comment I get about the book is: You read my mind.
What is the harshest criticism you have received?
The harshest criticism has always been that Isadora is self-absorbed. I think our culture says that women who wonder about their own fulfillment aren't doing what women should do—which is take care of everyone else. We don't seem to criticize male protagonists for probing their own psyches. But women are held to a different standard. We are supposed to be caregivers both emotionally and psychically. It's very hard to break out of that mindset. But how can women become important writers if they are thought to be unfeminine when they look into the female mind?
Whose praise meant the most to you and why?
The most meaningful praise came from John Updike and Henry Miller, who both recognized, in very different ways, that I was trying to do something new for women in fiction.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION