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Themes of Isolation and Metamorphosis in “The Fight Club”

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    Themes of Isolation and Metamorphosis in “The Fight Club”

    On one level, this opus of David Fincher – based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk and spotlighting Brad Pitt as “Tyler Burden”, Edward Norton as the nerdy narrator, and Helena Bonham-Carter as the woman who reels in both men – is a gratuitous appeal to vicariously-experienced violence.

    Viewed once or twice more, the paradox of buttoned-down businessmen rebelling against the establishment and the stunning dénouement bring home with full force a great deal of commentary about the human condition.  Among many themes and sub-texts is the unbearable prison of isolation.

    The Narrator as Isolani

    Edward Norton starts off in “Fight Club” as the soft, pampered narrator who endures a life of emptiness and isolation.  Surrounded by colleagues on the job, he slogs on detached from it all and hopelessly bored “to near-insanity” by the sameness of his paper-shuffling white-collar job.

    Aloneness is also manifest in the empty, soul-deadening consumerism that is attacked in “Fight Club”.  The narrator seeks solace in material possessions (”I’d flip through catalogues and wonder what kind of dining set defined me as a person”).  It gets so his alter ego, played by Brad Pitt, amusingly calls him “Ikea Boy” when they are already “fast friends”.  Ever since mass production made consumer goods affordable, much social commentary has been devoted to the trade-off between the hard-driving ambition that pursuit of material goods engenders and cutting one’s self off from friends and family because “I simply can’t spare the time”.

    Isolation and Plot Development

    Painting a damning portrait of the “nihilistic, existential angst of a generation” (Maslin 1999) is essential to folding in the crony Tyler Burden, to explaining the leap to brutal physical activity and to condoning the eventual slide into neo-fascist, paramilitary subversion of the establishment.

    The sensual, witchy Marla plays a supporting role in this respect.  Seeking to relieve his boredom, insomnia and inactivity by at least attending meetings of 12-step support groups, Norton’s character meets Marla there.  She it is who provides the motivation, the craving for some other sensation besides desolating solitude and hopeless ennui.

    The immediate reaction to the pain of isolation is to create an imaginary partner.  Brad Pitt as Tyler Burden is a personification of both repressed feelings and everything the dissatisfied narrator is not.  Thus, Tyler is angry but also charismatic and prone to action.

    Popular cinema and literature are replete with examples of imaginary characters as foils and anti-heroes.  There is Bruce Willis in “Sixth Sense”, the only other character who sees the ghosts Harry Joel Osment can.  And there is the justifiably famous “Mr. Hyde” to Dr. Jekyll, of course.

    Imaginary or not, Tyler Burden plays the key role in relieving the narrator of his unbearable loneliness.  The crony accomplishes this by, among others, convincing the narrator that learning to fight, joining a fight club and taking up arms against the establishment are essential to being a man even in the high-technology world of today.

    Partly to relieve his solitude and because he has been drawn into the aura of Burden’s charisma, Norton leaves behind his neat middle-class surroundings and lodges with the former in an abandoned wreck.  On being challenged to “hit me”, the narrator learns that to be a man is to be violent.  And that to enjoy the company and respect of his peers, he should join the fight group that quickly blossoms into a secret paramilitary society.

    As portrayed in the film, the solution to solitude involves an almost casual re-inventing of one’s self, a transformation from bland to boastful, from dreary existence to exciting intrigue, from moral to amoral, and from wimp to “real man.”  That there is, in addition, quite of bit of sex with Marla too is treated as an offhanded reward for finally shucking the shell of loneliness the narrator had sheltered in for so long.

    The transition from solitude to paramilitary activity requires quite a suspension of disbelief, it is true.  But all the narrator really needed was to create his “evil twin” first.  Then one might see the throwback to Adolf Hitler, clamped into jail but pouring all his rage into “Mein Kampf” and subsequently devastating all Europe.

    Ultimately, as author Chuck Palahniuk suggests, only the desolation of loneliness and a complete absence of anything to make the narrator feel alive could predispose a man to crave excitement and social acceptance regardless of the long-term consequences.  And the final twist is not only a bigger surprise than that introduced in “Sixth Sense”.  It is irretrievably damning.  No liberal ethos in the Western world could possibly condone blowing up credit-card issuing banks just to make a statement about isolation and unbridled consumerism.


    Isolation and its concomitants, loneliness and alienation, comprise perhaps the supreme irony of the high-technology, high-touch generation.  The Internet and wireless telephony enable millions to reach out to others on the other side of the globe in milliseconds.  And yet, social networking sites and chat rooms are packed full to bursting with “Netizens” starved for human contact and acceptance.  Technology may bridge the distance but the human yearning for face-to-face interaction and affirmation remains a potent driving force.

    In this compelling, multi-faceted film, Mr. Norton as the narrator grapples for identity in a society which has consigned him to dismal solitude as one of the faceless masses and “worker bees”.  As his outlet from this dreary existence, he “happens upon” the charismatic but rage-filled Tyler Burden.  Together, they hurtle along the precipitous slide from tentative group participation to romance, to flexing their muscles, to secret-society intrigue and eventually, violent rebellion against depersonalizing and unbridled materialism.

    As the film develops through, and is richly layered by, David Flincher’s numerous visual devices and CGM special effects, one is given to understand that isolation is not just a starting point but also a powerful motivating force.  The avoidance of dreariness and boredom, we learn, can have infinite consequences.

    “Fight Club” postulates that the routine and security of a humdrum existence is illusory, notably if one endures it alone.  Humans are sociable beings, after all.  Breaking the confining prison of isolation may indeed reduce one’s control over his life and heighten risk as one becomes dependent on acceptance by others.

    In the nihilistic view of author Chuck Palahniuk, however, the flight from isolation can be so strong it impels acceptance of many previously-unthinkable attitudes and actions.  Happily, this thesis does not survive a quick reality check and is valid simply as fantasy entertainment.

    Works Cited

    Maslin, Janet. “Such a Very Long Way From Duvets to Danger.” New York Times 15 October 1999.


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