Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Fear of Flying is the story of a woman discovering herself. While it begins on an airplane in which her literal fear of flying is exhibited, the real point is her larger fear of flying in her own life, of defining herself and taking charge of her own selfhood. Not until the last pages, after reflecting on the events that have shaped her, after leaving her marriage for a wild jaunt across Europe with a near-stranger, does she define herself without reference to any man. She is in Bennett’s hotel room, bathing in his tub, washing off the grime of her journey, but she understands that she is who she is, regardless of what will or will not happen with her marriage.

This is also a frankly erotic novel, in which sex and sexual desire play strong roles. The author coins a phrase for the kind of wildly passionate but completely anonymous and transitory sexual coupling that could happen, for example, between two strangers on a train. This seems to her the epitome of sexual fulfillment. However, after meeting the man, Adrian, who seemed like the ultimate representation of this kind of liaison and finding him impotent, and after nearly being raped on a train and finding it not as pleasurable as her fantasy, she ultimately rethinks this concept. The theme of sex, however, expressed openly and graphically, runs throughout the story.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like many quasi-autobiographical first novels, Fear of Flying is a bildungsroman whose central theme is the search for self-discovery. Isadora Wing re-examines and reinterprets her personal history in an effort to define herself as a daughter, a woman, a Jew and a writer. Structurally and philosophically the process resembles psychoanalysis — but traditional psychiatry is also a focus of the book's iconoclasm. The psychoanalysts Isadora knows operate on the basis of theoretical abstractions that have little connection to life as she sees it. Isadora examines her history in order to discover meanings that grow from her own intelligence and her experience as a woman in a particular society.

The title works on several levels. Isadora is literally afraid of flying — afraid of losing control, of trusting her life to others, of technology as an intellectual construct she cannot understand and thus must take on faith. But the Fear of Flying is also a fear of risk, of telling the truth, of venturing into paths that are not clearly marked. Oppression can provide both security and freedom; so long as one blames others (parents, husbands, lovers, the social system) one can be comforted by anger and by lacking the power to change. One major conflict, as Isadora searches for independence, is her fear of loneliness and her recognition that a strong sexual appetite is an essential part of her being. "The big problem," Isadora comments at one...

(The entire section is 267 words.)