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The Psychology Behind Fight Club (1999), Explained

The Narrator and Marla

The Narrator and Marla

WARNING: Please do not read this essay if you’ve never watched Fight Club, as it contains major spoilers.

Let’s face it–movies aren’t credible sources of information. Either they oversimplify reality or stretch credulity to its limits. The last thing anyone should be doing is looking to any movie for reference. However, having actually studied psychology in college, I think that Fight Club (1999) might be the exception to the rule. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie that explored so many complex theories with such depth and clarity. The film does such a good job, in fact, that I think it would be great required viewing in any Psych 101 class.

What is it specifically that Fight Club explored in terms of human psychology? Below, I will go into a fully detailed deconstruction of the movie. However, just to refresh everyone’s memory, let’s do a recap first.

The Recap

Meet The Narrator, aka Jack. He is a white-collar corporate drone living an emotionally and spiritually impoverished existence. His entire life is based around acquiring things, and it appears that he has no one in his life, not even a best friend.

Consequently, he becomes depressed and starts suffering from insomnia. His doctor, annoyed by his whining, tells him to gain a greater perspective on life by going to a testicular cancer therapy group to see real problems worth stressing about. The Narrator goes and before he knows it, becomes addicted to therapy groups in general, because he gains the emotional support from them that is so lacking in his own life.

A few weeks later, a mysterious woman named Marla starts showing up at these same therapy sessions as well, and he instantly hates her on sight because she’s a distraction. Not only does it annoy him that she’s obviously faking illness, whenever she shows up, he can’t cry at therapy group sessions anymore. So now he wants her to quit becoming a “tourist”.

Marla and The Narrator meet at a therapy group session in Fight Club

Marla and The Narrator meet at a therapy group session in Fight Club

After he confronts her, she agrees to only go to group therapy on certain days. Shortly after, the Narrator goes on a business trip. On the plane trip back, he meets a strange man named Tyler Durden seated next to him. He notices that Tyler has the exact suitcase as his. Tyler introduces himself and hands him a business card. The Narrator disembarks and learns that he took Tyler’s suitcase by accident. To make matters worse, when he goes home, he finds that his apartment has been destroyed by an explosion. Having no place to go, he needs a place to crash. But where to go? He has no friends, no family. He decides to call Marla. Then he hangs up on her and decides to call Tyler.

Tyler, who lives in an abandoned house, happily accepts The Narrator as a roommate. Tyler proves to be a renegade who likes to pull little pranks here and there to show his contempt for American culture, which he feels is mired in capitalism and is in the grip of corporations. At first, he seems fairly harmless, but then he proposes something odd: a so-called “fight club”, an underground scene in which men come together several times a week to beat each other to a pulp and reclaim their manhood.

The Narrator has fun hanging out with Tyler, when all of a sudden Marla calls the house one night suggesting that she’s overdosed on pills. Tyler runs to her rescue, brings her home and starts having sex with her. Unfortunately for the poor Narrator, he not only has to put up with the much-hated Marla dropping by on a regular basis, he has to hear her and Tyler’s raucous sex marathons every night.

Over time, the fight club morphs into Project Mayhem, a terrorist cell in which fight club recruits are handed out “homework assignments” to vandalize symbols of American capitalism and consumerism. Horrified, The Narrator begs Tyler to stop, as it’s clear what Project Mayhem has become. Tyler then disappears and the next morning, The Narrator wakes up to find that his home has now become the HQ of Project Mayhem, which is now planning more terrorist attacks.

Determined to find Tyler, The Narrator travels cross country, only to learn to his horror that Tyler has been going around to every major city creating new Project Mayhem terrorist cells. He also learns that for whatever reason, these new recruits think that he’s Tyler. After The Narrator retreats to his hotel room, Tyler then suddenly appears and drops a bombshell–he never existed and has been a figment of The Narrator’s imagination the entire time.

The Narrator then realizes that he, as Tyler, had rigged several large high rises to explode. He also realizes that Marla is in danger because Project Mayhem members see her as a threat. He gives her a bus ticket out of town, then goes downtown to start defusing all the bombs Tyler planted. As he’s defusing a bomb at the first building, Tyler shows up again and for the first time, becomes The Narrator’s bitter adversary.

The two men duke it out. Just as their epic battle reaches a feverish pitch, Tyler pulls his trump card. He has the recruits of Project Mayhem abduct Marla and bring her to their location. Desperate to save her and free himself of Tyler, The Narrator shoots himself in the face. Tyler dies.

Seeing that he’s injured, Marla tends to The Narrator, who sheepishly tells him that she’s met him at a weird time in his life. Then a slew of high rises, which Tyler had rigged to demolish, collapse. The end.

The Narrator and Marla

The Narrator and Marla

Mind blowing, right? But what can it all mean? Why does The Narrator go crazy? Why does he invent Tyler? What is going on? To fully understand Fight Club, we have to learn a few psychological concepts about the nature of the mind and personality.

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