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In Robert Bly’s book about exploring what it means to be male, Iron John, he wrote that modern men are “not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living. But many of these men are not happy. . . They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving.” To Bly, modern men are forced to become docile creatures and slaves to the corporate lifestyle. Men have no great war to be a part of, and since an early age they have been taught to suppress their inner urges to fight and seek conflict. They have learned that this will make them happy, and that violence is never okay. Alternatively, Chuck Palahniuk’s fictional novel Fight Club and David Fincher’s movie adaptation Fight Club build a universe where men break these rules.
The novel is told from the perspective of the Narrator who has a dissociative disorder. The Narrator’s alter ego, Tyler Durden, is representative of what the perfect male would be in the Fight Club universe. Tyler is cool, confident, and is everything the Narrator thinks he has to be in order to be the perfect man. A man in the Fight Club universe is completely detached from the world around him, defies societal norms, and is dominant. In the beginning of the novel, the Narrator lives a very normal life, but as time progresses he detaches from anything that is meaningful. The only thing that is out of order in his life at first, is that he suffers from insomnia. To cure his insomnia he frequents support groups, and this is where he takes the first steps to detachment. During one of these meetings, while crying pressed against a man’s chest, the Narrator, “was lost inside oblivion, dark and silent and complete. . . This was freedom. Losing all hope was freedom” (Palahniuk 22). Since the day men are born they are told not to cry and that they should hide their emotions. Nothing prevents men from crying except their own ego. In these support groups, the Narrator is safe enough to break down his barriers, and this leaves him free to express his inner nature.
Next, the Narrator needed to detach himself from his physical possessions, and to do this he had his alter ego Tyler blow up his apartment. After his apartment was destroyed, Tyler said to the Narrator that, “the things you used to own, now they own you” (44). The Narrator is now homeless and possessionless, but nothing owns him. He was liberated from his bills, home, and everything else. The last step to letting go is accepting his own death, so he can be freed from his body. Tyler pours lye on to the Narrator’s bare hand and tells him that “first you have to give up. First you have to know, not fear, know that someday you’re going to die. . . It’s only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything” (Fincher). This is the step that the Narrator needed to accept that his life is his own. He breaks down his emotional barriers, destroys all of his worldly possessions, and accepts his own death. With nothing to tie him down, the Narrator is free to do anything.
Once he has detached from the world around him, the Narrator can defy societal norms without fear of repercussion, and grow closer to becoming the perfect man. Life is full of external pressures to fit in with the rest of society, but part of what makes Tyler so appealing is his blatant disregard for fitting in. In the movie version the narrator first meets Tyler on an airplane. In an effort to make small talk, the narrator asks Tyler about his job, and Tyler replies, “why? So you can pretend you’re interested?” (Fincher). This question asks the Narrator to reevaluate how he lets society impact him. He is immediately intrigued by Tyler, and it is this interest to learn more about him that leads them to their first fight. The Narrator is reluctant to fight at first, but Tyler again asks him to challenge the norms, and says, “how much can you know yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t wanna die without any scars” (Fincher).
This first fight is significant because it is the moment where the Narrator realizes that he needs to be broken down in order to get stronger. He had no idea what he was capable of because he never chose to defy societal norms and engage in conflict. The more he fights, the more he understands his true potential. The Narrator, “got in everyone’s hostile little face. Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, [he is] comfortable with that. [He is] enlightened” (Fincher). By challenging societal expectations the narrator could let out his primal instincts, the instincts that make him a man. Tyler helped him reach enlightenment, and be true to himself.
With no ties to the world, and no respect for society’s rules, the Narrator was truly free to become a man. The final aspect that defines a male in the Fight Club universe is his dominance. Fighting allows the Narrator to do more than see his own potential, it brings out the natural desire to display dominance. The men in fight club all seek the same release. The narrator says that, “when the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved” (Fincher). These men know that the fights are what they need to reach their full potential, and tap into their primal instincts. At fight club, they are free to be men. It is all an appeal to the narrator’s concept of masculinity. In the Fight Club universe, women are another way to display dominance. Tyler says to the Narrator that, “what you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women. . . I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer I need” (Palahniuk 50).
Tyler has a purely sexual relationship with Marla, and he sees her as an object. As a man, he only needs women for one purpose, and treats Marla terribly. He uses her as a display of his dominance. The final display of Tyler’s dominance is Project Mayhem. The goal of project mayhem is to prove to society that Tyler and his space monkeys, men who follow Tyler, are in control. Project Mayhem is going to save the world “like fight club does with clerks and box boys, Project Mayhem will break up civilization so we can make something better out of the world” (125).
In the Fight Club universe, men are defined by their ability to let go of what holds them back, defy societal norms, and to be dominant. The Narrator created Tyler as a model for the perfect man, and Tyler became who the narrator wanted to be. In turn, Tyler helped the Narrator let go of his emotional barriers, physical possessions, and his fear of death. Tyler liberated the narrator, and gave him the freedom to ignore societal pressures. Fighting allowed the narrator to grow into his full potential, and to display his dominance. This dominance is what turned the Narrator and Tyler, into leaders strong enough to command a small army of men. Together these men are free enough to alter the course of history and shake the foundations of modern society. By doing all of these things, the Narrator and Tyler could appeal to the inner nature of men. In the real world, men are forced to suppress their inner nature. This leads to a society full of men who allow themselves to be slaves to a lifestyle that they really do not want to be a part of. Modern men are not happy, they simply are doing what they need to do to preserve their own lives.
Fincher. Fight Club. 20th Century Fox, 1999.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Print.
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