Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Fight Club--who is the real opponent? Pt. 1



The Fight Club is a unique film. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are completely believable in their roles, as are Helena Bonham Carter and Meatloaf, who play two of the most important supporting roles. You may not like one or more of them, or possibly all of them, but they are convincing, and they engage the viewer to the point that liking or disliking becomes irrelevant.

Unlike too many films I've viewed recently, this one was unpredictable. I never expected what was going to happen, and when it did, it seemed perfectly natural. It was unexpected but reasonable.

Fight Club begins with a chance conversation on a plane and ends with a catastrophe possibly greater in its effect than that of 9/11. Each step is a small one, but seemingly inevitable, so that the viewer will accept it as being the next logical step. Only at the end does the viewer realize just how far the inexorable logic of the film has taken the characters and the viewer.

The plot twist comes near the end of the film and radically changes the viewer's perception of what has been going on in front of him. Frankly, I found it as hard to accept as the nameless narrator, but like the narrator, I eventually had to accept what I was seeing on the screen.

The twist or reversal of the foundation of the story is based on a literary device which was developed in the 19th century and has produced some of the most memorable literature ever written--the double or the doppelganger. Briefly, the main character or the protagonist is doubled in some way--there is another person who bears a striking resemblance to the main character, but strangely only the main character seems aware of this. But, the double is not the exact duplicate of the main character in all respects; while the double may physically resemble the main character, the personality differences between the two are most often exactly the opposite.

As it is in this film, the double has been used to illustrate the dual nature of the human being: sometimes it's the good and the bad within all of us or at other times it's the difference between our external behavior and our repressed inner nature. It does this by completely separating the two opposing elements in our nature that are, in reality, hopelessly intermingled.

One of the first examples of the double occurs in Dostoyevsky's short novel, The Double. In this story, the main character is a meek and mild civil servant, who is so shy and retiring that he has no friends and hasn't spoken to his supervisor at work in weeks, if not months. He is unable to put himself forward. One day at the office, he sees a man who resembles himself to a remarkable degree. However, this man is outgoing and, in spite of just having appeared for the first time at the office, engages in a conversation eventually with everyone at the office, including the head of the department. Later, at a party given by his superior, our unnamed narrator again sees his double. While the narrator spends most of his time buried in the crowd and isolated from everyone around him, his double is the life of the party, acting in a way the narrator wishes he could.

Edgar Allen Poe's "William Wilson" features a schoolboy who discovers that he has a double among his fellow pupils, one with the same initials, the same physical appearance, and the same birth date. No one else seems to be aware of this. This double also frequently whispers advice and warnings to William Wilson that nobody else notices or hears. Moreover, the double frequently interferes with Wilson's activities for Wilson is an evil person. Either the double advises him to avoid actions which are harmful to others or frustrates them in some way.

Probably the most famous "double" tale in literature is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so much so that the names of the characters have become embedded in our everyday language. People are frequently characterized as being a Jekyll and Hyde. In this story, Dr Jekyll has discovered a drug that will allow either his good side or his evil side to dominate his entire being.

In a more modern retelling, one of the Episodes of the original Star Trek series had Captain Kirk the victim of a transporter malfunction which somehow separated him into two separate beings. One of these beings was his good side, and the other his evil side--an up-to-date version of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, but with the difference that both sides existed independently of the other. What was intriguing about the division was that the evil side had Kirk's energy and drive, while the good Kirk was weak and ineffectual throughout most of the episode.

There are other examples of the double in both literature and in film, but I think this post is long enough. If any wish to look further into the topic, I would recommend the following work as an excellent starting point:

C. F. Keppler, The Literature of the Second Self, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson , Arizona, 1972. He has also published a novel, The Other, in which "centers in the unique relatiohship between the first self and the second self.


  1. As a woman, this movie was difficult for me to watch. I'd be curious to hear the opinions of guys who say it. I could be totally wrong, but to me Tyler Durden was the suppressed male side of the main character. Men of the post- baby boom generation ( the movie implies) have embraced their female side so much that they've forgotten what it is to be a man. With the main character, once the "primal male" is set loose he then goes too far in the other direction. Or am I seeing it all wrong?

  2. Scott,

    Chuckle...Just had to get that in, didn't you?

  3. Cheryl,

    Interesting speculation. I too would like to hear some males and females jump in here and comment.

    I'm not so sure I can accept a Jungian interpretation here, but I do think you are right about tapping into a source of anger and frustration in many men.

    The baby boomers and post-boomers have experienced as much social change as any other generation in this country, and I wouldn't argue too strongly against the contention that they experienced more change than any other generation.

    Prior to the 50s and early 60s, the division of labor and behavior was fairly clear--there was men's work and there was women's work. There were things men could and could not do, and there were things women could and could not do.

    During the late 60s and early 70s, that all began to change. Women's options multiplied and many males who defined themselves as males by the things they did now find standing next to them.

    If a woman could do man's work and that work was how some men defined themselves, then what does it mean to be a man?

    Well, there's one form of behavior that many agree appears to be more often found in males than in females--violent behavior. That's what the Fight Club did for those males, but not for all males either, you will notice. It seemed as though the Fight Clubs attracted primarily males in low level positions, or in positions where they couldn't fight back without losing their jobs. It gave them an opportunity to strike back at someone.

  4. One thing that got me thinking was the part in the movie where the "homework assignment" was to pick a fight with a stranger. The main character said how difficult it was to start a fight. I was wondering if that's true today, and if it'd have been easier to start a fight in the 1050"s? Have men changed alot in how they relate to each other?

  5. Cheryl,

    I'm not sure that it's any easier or harder to start a fight today than it was back in the 50's.

    One point that has struck me is that military basic training spends considerable time getting the recruits to the point where they will kill someone, even in wartime. There's considerable propaganda about the evil nature of the enemy and the use of pejorative terms--gook, slant eyes, rag heads, etc.--which dehumanize the enemy.

    Anti-war stories and poems generally point out that getting to know the enemy tends to make it more difficult to kill, unless under direct attack. It is a crime in most military organizations to "fraternize with the enemy."

    Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about this issue.

    The Man He Killed

    "Had he and I but met
    By some old ancient inn,
    We should have sat us down to wet
    Right many a nipperkin!

    "But ranged as infantry,
    And staring face to face,
    I shot at him as he at me,
    And killed him in his place.

    "I shot him dead because--
    Because he was my foe,
    Just so: my foe of course he was;
    That's clear enough; although

    "He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
    Off-hand like--just as I--
    Was out of work--had sold his traps-
    No other reason why.

    "Yes; quaint and curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
    You'd treat if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half-a-crown."

    This would suggest that there is reluctance in most men to hurt or kill someone.

    The scenes in the film, initially anyway, were set inside bars or outside in the parking lot. (There was a country-and-western dance place several blocks away from where I live, and it was common to see a fight in the parking lot every Friday and Saturday night.)
    Alcohol played a significant role in those situations.

    I had just seen a war film set during the Vietnamese war. The first part of the film was set in a Marine boot camp. The training shown in the film was remarkably similar to that in the boot camp.

    I think that normally most people try to avoid hurting others, which is why it was so hard to simply go out and get in a fight with a stranger. But, in situations of high stress or because of the consumption of alcohol, violence is much more likely to occur.

    My speculations anyway.