Fear of Flying Critical Context - Essay

Erica Jong

Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When it was first published in 1973, Fear of Flying was a daring and outrageous book. The explicit sexual content was the most obvious reason. The book was shocking in its frankly erotic language and themes. However, perhaps even more important, the book has a strong feminist theme. It is indicative of the time in which it was written, a time in which women were just beginning to learn to define themselves without reference to the men in their lives. Isadora’s search for herself has always taken place as she travels from man to man, finding out who she is by looking at the man to whom she is attached. The process continues through the story until the final pages, when, having left one man and been left by another, she discovers herself in relation to neither and thus overcomes her “fear of flying.”

The book can be seen as a parable of the experiences of many women, especially of that time, who were beginning to define and discover themselves not necessarily by discarding the men in their lives but by beginning to see themselves as persons in their own right. Many such women were beginning to overcome their “fear of flying,” of setting out on their own projects with or without the blessings of the men around them.

Fear of Flying was Jong’s first novel, and it appears to have been semiautobiographical; like Isadora, she grew up in New York, daughter of an artist mother and businessman father, studied at Barnard and Columbia, and left graduate studies to marry. Jong’s later work, both fiction and nonfiction, illustrates the changing times. While Fear of Flying was about a young woman in the 1970’s just beginning to define herself, her 1994 book Fear of Fifty, also autobiographical, documents the situation of a middle-aged woman after two decades of feminism. The story of Isadora also continues in How to Save Your Own Life (1977) and Parachutes and Kisses (1984). Jong’s books chronicle the process of women discovering themselves. She has made the political personal, taking the feminist movement in its various stages directly into the lives of her characters as they struggle with their own identities.