The Queen and the Feminist: Two Characters’ Search for Female Freedom
Freedom is an interesting concept, especially in the context of relationships and marriages. No one wants to feel as though they are being controlled or restricted by another, but in most cases with time, marriages begin to have a constraining effect. Additionally, there are certain societal expectations in place when it comes to the actions of people feeling unhappy with their marriages. Those expectations, however, are historically different for men and for women. Society as a whole tends to be more accepting and understanding of the man in his mid-life crisis—it’s almost a rite of passage at this point for a husband to be feeling unfulfilled in his marriage and as a result, enter into affairs with younger women. However, this standard has not stretched to the female side of things. Even now, there seems to be much less of an acceptance for a woman to desire and go after that sort of freedom and fulfillment that the men do if she’s not experiencing contentment within her marriage. Though times are changing and the feminist and gender equality movements are growing, there is still widespread disbelief that women have the power to be free and independent without needing a man in their lives. The idea of the free-spirited, fulfillment-seeking female is embodied in two specific female characters—the first is Catherine, from Francois Truffaut’s film Jules and Jim, and the second is Isadora, the narrator and main character from Erica Jong’s novel Fear of Flying. Despite the fact that these two represent women seeking freedom and fulfillment, their respective characters differ enormously, and therefore address the idea of freedom, independence, and fulfillment of life in dissimilar ways. However, even though the two represent freedom differently, they both experience and exude relatable emotions, desires, and concerns that countless women have over the course of their lives.
It’s no secret that Catherine and Isadora, despite the overall differences in their personalities, do share some similar characteristics and also share many similarities within their respective lives. First of all, both feel entirely unfulfilled when it comes to their marriages. Isadora’s unhappiness is definitely more specifically marriage-related, while Catherine experiences more of a lack of fulfillment in the broader sense of her life, however, it is clear that her marriage with Jules does not make her happy. This lack of fulfillment for both Isadora and Catherine sparks a sort of love triangle within each of their lives, which in itself provides additional parallels between the two characters. For both of them, one of the men involved in their triangles is their husband—both Bennett (for Isadora) and Jules (for Catherine) are more on the passive, diminutive quiet side, and they each represent safety, dependability, comfort, and stability within the women’s lives. However, bringing the women’s lovers’ into the equation, we can see that both Adrian and Jim embody the passion, intensity, energy, and possibility that the husbands can’t seem to provide. Additionally, both Adrian and Jim seemed to be attracted to each of the women for similar reasons—they are drawn to the unpredictability and thirst for freedom that both Isadora and Catherine exhibit. Both women also seem to have a sort of underlying madness, hysteria, and instability existing below the surface, but instead of scaring the men away, it seems to intrigue them—at least for a certain amount of time.
Lastly, another important similarity between these women is their divergence from the societal structures and expectations for behavior that had historically been set in place for them to follow. Women are supposed to have husbands, whom they are unswervingly supportive of and loyal to. It is the men who are supposed to have the freedom, who are allowed to be restless and independent. However, with their respective characters, both Isadora and Catherine defy traditional expectations for women. They both took on the sort of reckless freedoms that men traditionally enjoyed and the women denied. For Isadora, the boundary breaking was more about sexuality than anything else. For a long time, society more or less denied the fact that women even had sex drives, and Fear of Flying, to a point, encourages women to go out and explore their sexuality. The openness and freedom with which Isadora explored and recounted her numerous sexual exploits presented her character as a feminist and presented a new dimension within female sexuality. With Catherine, it was less about the sex, and more about the fact that she was in control, rather than the men. Jules was completely submissive when it came to her—so infatuated and loyal, he even allowed Jim to live under his roof and engage in an affair with his wife, as he believed that would cure her unhappiness. The way Catherine tested and used her men was the complete opposite of what their society dictated: it was the men that were to be in control, and the women who were meant to patiently and loyally stand by and wait for a man to choose them. At one point, she even dresses like a man, walking through the streets of Paris with Jules and Jim, trying to fool passersby. Though the film is named for the two men, it’s clear that Catherine is the driving force; a “Queen” who gracefully takes on a powerful and independent role that, at the time, was seen as only appropriate for men.
With these similarities, however, there also exists a host of differences between Isadora and Catherine. Though they share that same lack of fulfillment within their marriages, their respective searches as to how to achieve that fulfillment are entirely different. Catherine seems to desire more from life in general, while Isadora’s is more concentrated on love and sex. She does not share the same curiosity and passion for the world around her that Catherine has—for Isadora, the unfulfilled passion manifests itself only when she has a sexual opportunity, and she doesn’t seem to appreciate the worldly freedom that she gained by running away with Adrian, even as she is traversing with him through Europe. Both of the women exerted their right to freedom in some way, but Catherine wasn’t necessarily looking for anything in particular—she just wanted to prove her freedom and exercise her desire to act with unpredictability. On the other hand, Isadora exerted her freedom in an effort to find what she wanted in terms of a man. Fear of Flying focused so much on the various men that she had encountered, emphasizing Isadora’s belief that the answer to her unfulfilled life lay in the hands of a man. She even admits that “all my fantasies included marriage,” (76) which is a confession that Catherine most certainly never would have had. For Catherine, freedom represents a youthful, carefree innocence unrestricted by any sort of responsibilities or expectations to tie you down. Though we never really see her without a man in Jules and Jim, we get the feeling that the men, to her, are somewhat disposable. The fact that she is able to flit back and forth between her admirers, all of whom simultaneously adore her but cannot understand her is the thing that empowers here as a free, unpredictable spirit. Isadora briefly displays the sort of unpredictability that Catherine lives by, but she exerts her freedom merely to explore her opportunities with another man that is not her husband. Catherine’s acts of freedom are independent—her leap into the Seine, for example—while Isadora’s acts of freedom are inherently dependent, given the fact that they are all sexually-driven exploits with various men. These two women both explore their own ideas of freedom while breaking societal boundaries, but they do so with opposite intentions. These intentions are define the differing meanings each woman has for freedom and independence, however that difference does not preclude them both from embodying extremely relatable characteristics, emotions, and desires.
The ways in which women can relate to Catherine and Isadora are numerous. The reality of our society today is that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and we can assume that many more marriages, though still legally intact, are wrought with feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Women in these unfulfilling marriages will undoubtedly find a connection with both Isadora and Catherine. Though marriage is supposed to be every little girl’s dream, the reality of it often disappoints. Both Jules and Jim and Fear of Flying address this issue, presenting characters that are uncomfortable within the constricting expectations and structure that marriage presents. Women who feel tied down by children or other responsibilities that come along with marriage and age in general will identify with Catherine—she represents a thirst for living life to its fullest, a dissatisfaction with sitting still, and for being entirely liberated from rules or responsibility. On the other hand, women who are unsatisfied sexually or feel like they’re in a loveless marriage will see themselves in Isadora, who lets her sexual curiosity take over and lead her to a man outside of her husband. Isadora represents the sexually curious part of every woman, the existence of which is often ignored or denied, but is always there to ask the question—what if there’s something better out there?
Both Catherine and Isadora represent parts of women that very often lurk below the surface, the existence of which society has historically forced us to disregard. However, these feelings of dissatisfaction with life, love, and sex will inevitably emerge with the passing of time. There is no such thing as happily ever after, or a perfect marriage, free of obstacles. These two characters show us an example of what happens when one does act upon underlying feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, but it’s difficult to draw a coherent conclusion from their respective stories. Fear of Flying ends ambiguously—though Isadora does end up making her way back to Bennett, we don’t know whether she would have gone back to him had Adrian not left her. One might be inclined to gather that acting upon the ‘what if?’ question and trying to find sexual fulfillment and love outside your marriage will only inevitably leave you wanting to return to your husband. However, the end of Fear of Flying also raises the question about whether Bennett will even take Isadora back, or whether Isadora could have even come to the conclusion that she wanted Bennett in the end had she not gone off with Adrian. Or is Isadora even sure she’s going to be entirely happy with Bennett? Did she just come back to him out of deference? The questions go on. In Catherine’s case, her ending is obviously more tragic, but the underlying meaning of her fate is just as convoluted as Isadora’s. In some fashion, her death marks her final, permanent act of liberation. She was so dissatisfied by life; constantly looking for more, maybe she realized she was never going to be happy with what she had. On the other hand, the act could have just as easily been out of spite—one last effort to exert her power over the men in her life. She simultaneously takes away Jules’ beloved wife and best friend, while showing Jim her authority to call the shots—the Queen proving to her subjects once and for all who is in charge.
The questions and confusion that the conclusions of both Jules and Jim and Fear of Flying bring up all center around Catherine and Isadora’s outward search for fulfillment. Neither seems to culminate in an outright happy ending, just like all the marriages and relationships that appear in both of the stories. The last, and possibly most significant similarity that Isadora and Catherine share is their lack of an inward search for fulfillment. In their unhappiness, they both assumed that they would find it elsewhere—outside the country, outside of their marriage, outside of the lives they are living. They both neglected the possibility that maybe they could find happiness and satisfaction within themselves. Though it carries the slight weight of a cliché, perhaps the message that the characters of Isadora and Catherine send to all the women who have identified with them is to search for fulfillment within themselves. After so deeply analyzing the two characters, it seems like the perfection of independence and freedom for each of them would have been if they had found their happiness within themselves.
Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying: A Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973. Print.
Jules and Jim. Dir. François Truffaut. 1961. DVD.
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