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Fight Club (lit essay)

Posted on May 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Plot Summary

Chuck Palanhiuk's novel Fight Club tells the story of a white-collared, middle-class, everyday young man (who's name we never learn; let's call him Joe). Joe suffers from insomnia and is frustrated with his bureaucratic job, superficial relationships and consumer-based lifestyle. One day however, he meets a man named Tyler Durden.

After his apartment is destroyed he goes to live with Tyler at 123 Paper St. It is here the two invent fight club - an underground, after-hours boxing club for working class and middle-class men. The club gives men the chance to let out the frustration of living and working in this modern day; life-style obsessed world. It also gives them a feeling that they can handle anything, and a sense of reviving lost masculinity. But then Tyler begins “Project Mayhem” the next stage of Fight Club, and begins to build himself an army of working/middle-class fighters. Which he uses to take revenge on the world that has used him and his fellow workers.

As Tyler becomes more and more powerful, Joe seeks to put an end to Project Mayhem. But by then it is too late, Fight Club has spread across the country, growing beyond his, and even Tyler’s, control. It’s not until it’s too late that Joe uncovers Tyler’s true identity. Tyler is Joe’s alter ego. Joe then goes on a desperate journey to shut down Project Mayhem. In the end he realises the only way to beat Tyler by killing himself. So Joe shoots himself in the head, killing Tyler forever. Miraculously, Joe survives, only to live out the rest of days in a mental institute… while the members of Project Mayhem plan their attack on the world.

Character Analysis

Narrator (Joe): Fight Club is told through the eyes of the narrator (who's name we never learn). Throughout the novel he refers to himself as Joe. Joe is 33, lives alone in his apartment, and works in the recall division of a major car manufacturer. He spends his free time picking out furniture from Ikea catalogues and suffers from chronic insomnia. He finds temporary relief by going to support groups for people with life-threatening diseases, but this is quickly halted by Marla Singer, another support group "faker". And once again Joe can't sleep. It's around this time that Joe meets (or invents) Tyler Durden. After Joe's apartment is mysteriously destroyed, he comes to live with Tyler at 123 Paper St. This is when the two invent Fight Club - an underground boxing club for men to come and fight each other for fun. As the club becomes more and more popular, however, Tyler decides to "take Fight Club out of the basement and onto the streets." And then, after fight clubs begin to start springing up all around the country, Tyler designs "Project Mayhem" and builds himself an army. And that's when things start to spiral out of Joe's control.

Tyler Durden: Tyler Durden is the alter ego of the narrator, Joe. But we, as well as Joe himself, don't find this out until towards the end of the novel; until it's too late. Tyler is a smart, charismatic, and determined character. He works part-time as a waiter for a high-class restaurant (where he finds pleasure in spitting, urinating on, and mutilating the main courses); he also works as a movie-projectionist (where he finds even more pleasure in splicing single-frames of pornography into family films). Tyler spends his time making extremely high-quality soap (using the discarded human fat from liposuction clinics). An analysis of Tyler Durden’s name reveals that in antiquated English, “Tyler” means gatekeeper or house builder. “Durden” has word root dour meaning hard (as in durable), His initials, T.D.; invoke Todd or death in German or perhaps D.T. (delirium tremens), since Tyler is a hallucination of Joe, the waking person.

Marla Singer: Marla Singer is the only female character in the novel. She is first introduced at Joe's testicular cancer support group. She, like Joe, has been coming to support groups pretending to be terminally ill so that people would show her some warmth and attention. The fact that she is another "faker" prevents Joe from crying at the support group meetings; meaning once again he cannot sleep. Marla reappears at Tyler's house while Joe is staying there and enters into a sexual relationship with Tyler. One could argue that it's Joe's love for Marla, and Tyler's disrespect for her (Joe and Tyler being the same person) that eventually sets the two personalities against each other and brings the novel into a spiral of destruction and chaos.

Robert Paulson: Robert Paulson (or Big Bob as the narrator calls him) is introduced to us at Joe’s testicular cancer support group. Bob was a professional body-builder who became hooked on steroids. His testicles developed cancer, and the testosterone in his body doubled back and grew breasts on Bob’s chest. The author uses Bob is as a comic relief, but also to represent the crumbling of male dignity.

Spacemonkeys: The spacemonkeys are what Joe and Tyler call the members of Project Mayhem. This is a dark message that Palahniuk tries to convey throughout the novel; that the working and middle-class are merely pawns waiting to be programmed by some higher power. Whether that power is the government, the media, or Tyler Durden. They need to be told what to do, and how to contribute to society; "monkeys ready to be shot into space... ready to die for the greater good." As Tyler laments,“Free will is just a marketing campaign.”

Joe's Boss: Joe’s boss, while a seeming insignificant character, is Joe’s most immediate source of authority. At the beginning of the novel we see Joe is the perfect employee – efficient, punctual, and obedient. But as the story progresses we notice Joe’s longing to rebel against authority. It’s not until Joe [or Tyler rather] eventually kills his boss do we realise Joe’s transition from white-collar worker to dark anarchist.

Joe's/Tyler's Father: Joe’s/Tyler’s father never appears in the novel, but he is mentioned from time to time, and has an indirect influence on the course of the book. It seems that Joe’s father left when Joe was a small boy and married subsequent wives and had subsequent families, as was the case for many other characters in the book, who lacked any real male influence in their lives. This is one of the main themes of the story, and the purpose of fight club – to restore a lost sense of masculinity to a generation raised by women; where good, strong men are confined to “pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves in white collars.”

Novel Analysis

Like all of Palahniuk’s novels, Fight Club deals with a wide variety of issues that have never really been discussed by society in general. The book talks about the role working/middle-class men play in today’s modern world. It deals with issues like mass consumerism and corporate reign, and even delves into anarchism as an alternate form of government. In this section I will be looking at the novels three major points: (1) Lost Masculinity in the working generation; (2) Shattering the American Dream of equal rights and choices; and (3) Anarchism.

Lost Masculinity

Fight Club is really about what it is to be a man who serves others (as women have traditionally) and how such men construct identity and meaning in their lives. That women now can take most of the jobs that men can is certainly a background fact, but the novel explores other issues or sources of masculinity.

One of the key messages in Fight Club is the loss of masculinity in the current generation of working males. According to Tyler, this generation of men has had no Great War or Great depression in which to test themselves. And therefore these men turn to fight club. They turn to Tyler, who teaches them to construct their own identity; to rise above a consumer, or a statistic, and become who they were born to be.

Another potential font of masculine meaning, a man's identity in contrast to (and potentially in harmony with) women as partners is touched upon briefly and discounted. Later on the threat of castration is passed down to anyone who threatens the rise of Project Mayhem. An act of thereby excluding someone from the male species.

This is where the character Marla becomes an important aspect to the story. It is Tyler's disrespect, and Joe's love, for Marla that sets the two personalities apart. It is Marla who helps Joe realize the truth about Tyler's true identity. And in the end Joe kills Tyler for Marla's sake, more than his own.

Shattering the American Dream

The quote--"Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering"--ties into the American dream and the mythology that anyone can become rich or become president. Part of the way that the working poor are lulled into cooperating and staying in the service of richer classes is by this unspoken promise that if they work hard they will ascend to higher security and status. It is Tyler that makes them aware of the lie that their existence has been reduced to, and introduces them to the idea of anarchism.

In one particularly powerful passage Joe expresses his anger and frustration at the pointlessness of his life, and the lives of many, because of the greed of those above him and ignorance of those before him. He laments, "What Tyler says about being the crap and slaves of history, that's how I felt. I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I'd never have... I wanted the whole world to hit rock bottom... I wanted to breathe smoke... I wanted to blast the world free of history..."


Anarchism (social and political disorder; the political theory that all government and laws should be abolished) is an issue that comes up constantly throughout the novel. After Project Mayhem's destruction has drawn the awareness of city leaders, some of its members wait tables at an anti-crime banquet. They grab the police commissioner in the men's room and threaten him with castration if he does not call off the investigation, warning that "the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.”

At first fight club is just about regaining lost masculinity, and reviving male dignity. Then with the invention of Project Mayhem, it endeavors to “level out society”; to bring down the high society from their thrones and give the working class some power and control over their own destiny. But towards the end of the novel it becomes frighteningly clear what Tyler’s true intentions are.

Tyler's goal is not a Marxist leveling of the industrial world, nor even a revolution by agricultural peasants. In a vision of the post-destruction world that Tyler articulates to Jack before he "leaves," he seems to describe a pre-agrarian, hunter-gatherer world where young, strong men are kings once again: “In the world I see you’re stalking elk through the Grand Canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Centre. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car-pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

Writing Analysis

Chuck Palanhiuk has a very unique style of writing. Like all of his books Fight Club is written in first-person perspective. However, unlike his other books the main character is never actually given a name. Palahniuk uses this trick to convey the idea of a nameless working/middle-class citizen.

Another technique he uses is the lack of quotation marks for when the narrator is speaking. I'm not sure why this is done, as it also appears in his later novels. Most likely to give us the feeling that we are truly seeing the world through Joe's eyes; with his beliefs and morals.

Another style of writing Palahniuk uses, I've noticed, is to tell us the situation at the start of the chapter, and then explain throughout the chapter how we arrived at this point by using a collage of flashbacks. In fact, the book itself is written in this way. In the first chapter we find Joe on the top floor of a skyscraper with Tyler (or Joe rather) poking a gun at his head. The rest of the story is just explaining how we got to this point. This same trick is used in Palahniuk's later novels Survivor and Lullaby. It is a very interesting way to keep the reader intrigued.

It is also apparent that Palahniuk uses many devices to get his points across. For example the character Tyler is used to represent the rebellion and uprising of an anarchist spirit. He is used as a direct link between the author and the reader to preach to us about the injustice and frustration of the post-war, technology-filled, corporate-ruled society. Joe is used to mirror the mindless drone of middle-class as he finally stands up for himself, and takes control of his own life; his own destiny. Bob is used to show us the crumbling of the male dominance. And Marla is a device designed by the author to disrupt the revolution of masculinity.

Palahniuk also dictates his points through the use of little haiku poems Joe jots down from time to time throughout the novel. For example: "The worker bees can leave; The drones can fly away; The queen is their slave" This implies that the people at the top of society are slaves to the service class, of which Joe-Tyler's followers are members. The novel also touches on the idea that the privileged are helpless and almost childlike without those who serve them.

It might also be of interest to note the incredible amount of obscure detail that Palahniuk has put into this book. His knowledge of explosives, soap, ancient history and video projectors really makes you admire the amount of research he puts into his work.

Categories: ESSAYS, Literature

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