In the novel Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk explores the very real crisis of men: what makes a man? Through the very real representation of the narrator’s opposite side, Tyler Durden, we see what men feel pressured to be; the alpha male. Men can’t feel things, never mind show them. Men are expected to behave, dress and live in a certain way, and through the very violent behavior of the men in the fight club, we see the expression of freedom of men who are told what to be. Through Tyler Durden, the narrator copes with life by escaping into a sadly imaginary alternative personality, one that satisfies the pressure to be what society thinks a man ought to be.
Before the narrator meets Tyler Durden, he is a sad man who needs to go to cancer support groups to get a good night’s sleep. This is important to note because this serves as one of the many metaphors explaining the crisis of a man and the pressures of manhood. In order to cry, he needs to subject himself to this horrible sadness, to pretend he has a disease so that it is justified to the people around him. This choice shows us the pressure men feel to not feel at all. The narrator doesn’t feel justified in crying just because. He needs to attend these meetings and be surrounded by people who are dying to feel. This lends to the idea that men must be stoic as that shows strength, and the pressure of forcing feelings down to be numb forces this man to sit amongst others trapped in a chokehold with death to feel free enough to cry. This coping method, this way of freeing himself, leads to the narrator meeting Durden.
The narrator and Tyler first meet at a nude beach. This setting is a metaphor for what Tyler represents for the narrator: freedom. The narrator observes, “Tyler was naked and sweating, gritty with sand, his hair wet and stringy, hanging in his face” (32). This quote uses masculine imagery and diction. It is what society has deemed “manly”. This serves to represent as the most important piece of Palahniuk’s extended metaphor: Tyler Durden. Durden is the other side of the narrator’s brain. We can see this as the scene progresses and the narrator and Durden are the only two on the beach. He also says, “Tyler had been around a long time before we met” (32). This makes sense, as the narrator lives in a mind suffering from multiple personality disorder brought on by insomnia. This metaphor extends in this way throughout the novel.
The scene continues and the narrator observes Tyler bringing logs up, putting them in a weird circle. Right when the clock hits 4:30, the sun casts a shadow on the logs in the shape of a hand. Durden sits in the shelter of this shadow, as the narrator explains, “the giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute, Tyler had sat in the palm of a perfection he had created himself. Tyler has the power to create, to feel adequate and satisfied and manly. The narrator does not.
Unsatisfied with Fight Club, Durden starts Project Mayhem, an organization made up of only the loyalist of Fight Club members. Tyler becomes the ruler and devotes himself to taking down modern civilization. This is where we start to see Tyler Durden breaking down. Tyler Durden, the novels metaphor to what most men define as manhood and the epitome of what happens when we pressure men, shows readers what eventually happens to men obsessed with masculinity. This symbol of manhood serves another metaphor.
Ironically, he vows to take down modern civilization, run by businessmen mindlessly following faceless corporations. Durden is a hypocrite. The first four rules are “No Questions. No questions. No excuses. No lies” (125). The final rule of Project Mayhem: “is you have to trust Tyler” (130). Tyler becomes the demanding faceless corporations that men spend their lives in cubicles for, no questions asked. The narrator, a symbol of the victim of the pressures of masculinity in our culture, becomes a victim to Tyler’s dictatorship. Project Mayhem is a picture inside a picture of a society that demands mindless work from its men without any questions, stealing away any control or individuality, making them the culmination of manhood: Tyler Durden.
The end of the novel has been disputed as Palahniuk seemingly leaves it up for interpretation. The narrator eventually learns that he is Tyler Durden. Climactically, the narrator stands on top of the building that Tyler plans to explode, bringing us full circle to where the book began. The narrator supposedly turns the gun on himself and shoots himself: “when I pulled the trigger, I died. Liar” (206).
In the last chapter, it is also suggested that the narrator is in a mental institution. This is because of the diction Palahniuk uses. The narrator sees white everywhere, people in jackets, and refers to his psychiatrist as God, a man “taking notes on a pad” (207). This man is still mentally ill as he resides in this mental institution with allusions of human beings as God. The narrator clearly still struggles with other personalities, because his first train of thought is followed by a contradicting one. Even more confusing, but evidential is the fact that the voice could be his own voice or Tyler’s. This also could suggest he isn’t dead. Later, the narrator leaves us saying that Tyler Durden isn’t dead. This suggests that the pressure to define oneself as a man, though changing, will never die off. This man will tragically and forever be stuck between his identity and what he thinks it should be.
Overall, the mental institution serves as a symbol of what men in crisis feel like: trapped or crazy. By society putting all of this pressure for men to be cogs in the machine of modern society, to be aggressive and angry and “sweating” and “gritty”, we are forcing men to be an identity. We are making them believe they want this, confusing them when they actually do. We are making them prisoners of their own mind.
Tyler, the epitome of a man’s man, lives on in the narrator’s conflicted brain. This novel questions the dilemma of a man, often tasked in living the toughest, numbest, and strongest life dominated by stoicism and aggression. Through this character, the other voice in this insecure man’s head, we see the tragedy of a man who lives an unsatisfying life chasing an identity he may never catch.
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