American poet and novelist Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying
(1973) was a literary catalyst of the second-wave feminist movement, which focused on previously marginalized issues in women’s rights including sexuality, reproductive autonomy, and subtle forms of inequality that are encoded rather than explicit. Fear of Flying
is told from the perspective of Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a Jewish journalist and accomplished erotic poet from New York City. Twice married, Wing travels with her husband to Vienna, where she carries on an affair with another man. Along the way, Wing finds that her sexual fantasies are entangled with the systemic oppression of women and female sexuality, as well as her ambitions in academia and literature. For its focus on a variety of marginal identities and their interactions, the novel became particularly popular among feminist and intersectional audiences.Fear of Flying
begins on a plane, as Wing travels to Vienna, at the time, part of Germany, to a convention of psychoanalysts. The event is the first to convene in the city since the end of the Nazi regime. Joined by her husband, Bennett, who is also a psychologist, and more than one hundred others, she reflects humorously on the insularity of her professional network. She does this partly to distract herself from her fear of flying, which she associates with her fear of being free of male company, a kind of unconscious Stockholm syndrome prevalent among the women of her time. She does not look forward to returning to Germany because of the recent Holocaust, and because she had found Heidelberg unwelcoming to her and Bennett, both Jews, while they were there.
Among the other passengers are six analysts who had directly treated Wing at different points in the past. Wing suspends explanation of the insights they had held or what they had told her. When she arrives in Vienna, she almost immediately encounters the well-known Langian analyst Adrian Goodlove. She is attracted to him for his energy, wildness, and visible eagerness to understand and explore the world. They become intimate, barely trying to hide it from anyone. They express affection publicly at analyst events, stay out late, and lounge together by day near various pools. Adrian’s personality initially causes Wing to realize that she had suppressed parts of herself after marrying her husband. The excitement that stems from this revelation causes her to overlook negative facts about him (for example, he is terrible at sex).
Wing soon falls in love with Adrian, and at the end of the conference, is faced with the choice of returning home with her husband or going off with Adrian to London. One night, as she deliberates, she sleeps again with Adrian. Bennett walks in and joins them in a threesome, never again acknowledging the event. Wing decides to communicate her thoughts to Bennett in a letter but fails to complete it before Bennett walks in and argues with her. She resolves to travel Europe with Adrian rather than endure him any longer.
Wing and Adrian travel through Italy, Germany, and France, sleeping out in nature and engaging in a hedonistic lifestyle. Wing opens up to her lover about her past, which is fraught with failed relationships and unsatisfied desires. She recounts meeting her first husband, Brian, at university where they fell in love over poetry. The institution of marriage separated them, enforcing a kind of lifestyle where they occupied distinct spheres. Driven insane, Brian experienced a religious breakdown in which he raped and physically assaulted Wing. Her last memory of him is a fight after his departure for a psychiatric ward in Los Angeles, in which he blamed her for his condition.
Eventually, Wing becomes jaded journeying with Adrian. Realizing that escapism is no better, worse even, than grappling with one’s dissatisfactions, she takes a train back to London and Bennett. On the way, a train employee sexually assaults her, triggering a mental breakdown that resolves when she realizes that her experience is connected to the learned objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies. This incident, just after her breakup with Adrian, renders her unable to find romance or intrigue in chance encounters with men. She decides to live a life of radical self-acceptance and to quit trying to fit into any internalized model of how a woman should live. A novel about a defining truth-event in a woman’s working conception of selfhood, Fear of Flying
ultimately suggests that marginalized individuals must look for and utilize revelations about oppressive power relationships in order to undermine and defeat them.