Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong - Guest blog by Rachel Ritchie


When I was about fourteen, I read an article in Cosmopolitan that mentioned Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. I had never heard of the book, nor of Jong, but thought it sounded interesting, particularly as it was being held up as a feminist classic. A day or two later, I came across another reference to Fear of Flying and took this as a sign that I must read it. I duly checked a copy out of Nuneaton library. I noticed the librarian looking at me a bit askance while she stamped it (remember the days when library books were stamped by a person, not scanned by a machine?). By the time I’d settled down that evening and read a few pages, I realised why she had cocked an eyebrow at me and my book choice: Fear of Flying was rude! Well, it seemed ‘rude’ to my rather green teenage self as its pages are peppered with strong swear words and discussions of sex. Despite my shock, the journey of the protagonist, Isadora, had me hooked. I wanted to know more about her life. I needed to see where Jong would take her. So I continued, albeit with the book held so close to my face that my parents must have thought I was developing long-sightedness; I was worried that they would glance at it over my shoulder and decide that it was unsuitable, so I took to surreptitious reading and vowed to not mention it to anyone – especially family members or teachers.

Many reviews of Fear of Flying concentrate exclusively on what I naively labelled ‘rude’ elements. Whilst acknowledged as a key text in second wave feminism, it is also pigeon-holed as being all about sex. Recent editions have played to such assessments, using images such as a half-unzipped banana on the cover. In an updated introduction, Jong recounts an incident when her daughter confronted her with classmates’ accusations that she wrote pornography; Jong gives her a copy and tells her to judge for herself. She does not share what her daughter’s assessment was, but there is no doubt in my mind that there is so much more to Fear of Flying than titillation. Accusations of pornography have long been thrown at any expression of women’s desires and sexuality, usually in an attempt to silence voices that threaten the gender status quo.

Focusing solely on its visceral aspects is simply one way to avoid the more challenging aspects of this novel, particularly its questioning of marriage, an institution that dominates Western understandings of love, intimacy and family as much now as when the book was first published in 1973. Fear of Flying tells the story of Isadora’s flight from her marriage and her ensuing jaunt around Europe, largely but not exclusively in the company of her older lover. In the course of her travels, we also learn of Isadora’s life up until that point. Whilst sexual encounters are undoubtedly a fundamental part of this recounting and her European adventure, Fear of Flying is also a broader exploration of female identity, freedom and independence. It is ultimately about Isadora’s voyage of self-discovery. Unlike in comparable novels such as Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the central protagonist is not punished for transgressing acceptable feminine norms, yet at the same time Fear of Flying offers a conclusion with no easy answers for either Isadora or the reader. The unflinching deconstruction of so-called ‘romantic love’ evident from the outset continues even on the last page, with Jong eschewing the conventional happy ending and instead providing an ambiguous final scene. Almost twenty years after I first read it, I still struggle with this. I don’t want ambiguity; I want a definite answer as to what happens to Isadora in the end. Perhaps, though, this is the point: in our journey to find ourselves, there is no definitive ending until we die.

Many thanks to Rachel Ritchie for this great post! Go and visit her website at www.RaeRitchie.com and follow her on twitter at @rae_ritchie_