Tyler Durden as The Narrator’s Ambivalence Towards Marla and Change
The Narrator has a major problem. He has succumbed to the illusion that only buying things will make him happy. He is also trapped in a boring, spiritually empty existence in which it appears that he has no interesting hobbies or active social life, isn’t in a meaningful human relationship and doesn’t have a close network of friends. Feeling empty and lonely, he develops insomnia. The insomnia isn’t just a sleeping disorder, however. It’s his subconscious telling him, “Look, you are absolutely miserable, and you can’t keep living like this. You have to do something.”
When Jack starts going to group therapy sessions as a “tourist”, it’s a small step in the right direction. He begins to develop a social life, in that he starts going someplace after work to socialize with other people instead of wasting time looking for what to buy next in his IKEA catalog. He also creates a network of friends who he can share his feelings with. After a while, things couldn’t get any better, and The Narrator is finally able to get some shuteye.
But then Marla shows up at one of the group therapy meetups, and the insomnia returns. Why? It’s not because of what The Narrator says (that she’s ruining his ability to cry at group therapy sessions). It’s because he’s secretly attractive to her and wants to be with her. However, he is terribly threatened by her.
Why is he threatened? Well, for whatever reason, The Narrator is conflicted about women and sexual relationships. On one hand, it seems as if he’s completely rejected the idea of having a female presence in his life; on the other hand, there is another part of him that deeply seeks female companionship. We know this because of the running joke about Robert Paulson and his tits. The movie plays the character off as just a cheap joke about a man with female breasts. But there was actually a very clever reason behind Bob’s character. The Narrator’s attraction to Bob and his tits reflects his subconscious desire to be with a woman.
When Marla starts to show up at the group therapy meetings, one part of his mind goes, “Hmm, I’ve been cradling man boobs for the past several weeks. Here comes a woman with actual boobs. Maybe I should hook up with her.” But then the other side of him that is terrified of the idea of being with a woman immediately puts its guard up and perceives Marla as threatening, to the point of seeing her as The Narrator’s mortal enemy.
There is another reason why The Narrator is threatened by Marla. She is a rebel who lives life on the edge, doesn’t care about the rules and isn’t trapped in an empty, materialistic, vacuous lifestyle. If he hooked up with her, there is no question that her anti-establishment, rebellious attitude might rub off on him and that she would be the one to help him break out of his miserable consumerist, conformist, buttoned down lifestyle. Yet irony of ironies, although she would be the perfect catalyst in helping him change for the better, he isn’t emotionally and mentally ready to break out of his routine. If anything, he is practically scared to death. It would be too much of a change.
One last reason why The Narrator is threatened by Marla is that he doesn’t feel he’s good enough for her, in the sense that he perceives her to be too edgy and cool for him. She wears cool clothes, smokes cigarettes and would probably be the type to look down on and reject a conformist dork like him. Self-conscious, he becomes terrified of rejection.
Now, here we have The Narrator desperately wanting to be with Marla, who could not only alleviate his loneliness but change him. However, at the same time, he is too scared to get into a relationship with her. What to do?
The first thing The Narrator does is resort to the defense mechanism known as reaction formation. This is when you make yourself act and feel the opposite of what you’re really feeling. A classic example of this defense mechanism is of the schoolboy who keeps dipping a girl’s pigtails in the inkwell as if he hates her, when the reality is that he has a crush on her. In The Narrator’s case, he decides that Marla is a morally reprehensible human being for being a “tourist”, when it’s obvious that he’s intrigued by her because she is just like him; like The Narrator, she is hopping from therapy group to therapy group to find something missing in her life.
After he confronts Marla, he demands that she only show up at therapy sessions on specific types of the day so he doesn’t cross paths with her. This is a defense mechanism fittingly called avoidance, in which a person deliberately avoids a person or situation that he finds potentially upsetting or threatening.
The Narrator’s decision to avoid Marla works for a while. However, there’s a problem. Defense mechanisms may be effective in hiding your feelings and desires from yourself, but they don’t eliminate the issue that caused you to seek the defense mechanism in the first place. So, The Narrator finds that in spite of mentally convincing himself that he absolutely loathes Marla and needs to stay away from her, the deepest part of himself–his subconscious–refuses to let the matter drop and decides that he will be with her no matter what another part of himself says.
This results in a personal crisis in which one half of him wants to be with Marla and the other half doesn’t. Because he can’t do both, he has a nervous breakdown. Not only does he have a psychotic break (loses touch with reality), he develops a split personality. In short, The Narrator’s neurotic conflict over Marla becomes a full-blown psychosis.
The mental breakdown happens even before he gets on the plane on his business trip. In a clever attempt to force him to hook up with Marla and turn his life around, one half of The Narrator’s mind rigs his apartment to blow up so that when he comes back from his business trip, he’ll have no choice but to live his life without his cherished possessions and call Marla for a place to stay. But the other half of his mind–the part that is terrified of hooking up with Marla and changing his life–thwarts him by showing up as Tyler Durden before the plane touches ground.
When The Narrator gets off the plane and goes to his apartment building to find that he no longer has a home, he is forced to make a choice. Either he can hook up with Marla and change his life for the better or continue to be a conformist loner obsessed with material possessions. He calls Marla, but immediately gets cold feet and hangs up on her. Then he pulls out Tyler Durden’s business card and makes the fatal decision. He chooses to continue being mired in his miserable existence, even if it means inventing an imaginary friend to enter a relationship with over a real human being.
Ah, but does The Narrator make a definitive choice? Does he really choose an imaginary friend over Marla? Does he really make a clean break from her?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at Tyler Durden for a second in terms of his clothing, hairstyle and attitude. Tyler is definitely a unique, one-of-a-kind person. However, he’s very similar to Marla in that he and she both have quirky personalities, are anti-conformist, wear funky clothing and seem to live life on the edge. They’re also heavy chain smokers and have unkempt hair.
Some people noticing the similarities have argued that this means that Marla never existed and was just another figment of The Narrator’s imagination. But this isn’t the case at all. The reason why Tyler looks and dresses so similarly to Marla is for the same reason The Narrator was drawn to Rob Paulson and his tits. He invented Tyler in place of a relationship with Marla. Yet his attraction to Marla was so strong that his subconscious made Tyler embody some of the traits he found most attractive in her (the wild hair, non-conformist attitude and clothing).
Here is another clue that Tyler is also The Narrator’s wish to be with Marla. What was in Tyler’s suitcase that caused him to be held up by airport security? A dildo. Given Tyler’s anarchism, it’s very easy to write it off as an expression of his eccentric personality. However, we can’t, since The Narrator is the one who bought it and put it in his briefcase. There had to be a reason why he chose a dildo as opposed to something else, like a snake or spider. The reason is that with Marla on his mind, he has sex on the brain. He not only wants to enter into a relationship with her, he wants to bang her in the worst way.
So, in the telephone booth scene when it seems as if The Narrator has made a choice, the reality is that he never did. Of course, he thinks he did. He thinks that by inventing Tyler as his new best friend, he has made the choice to avoid getting into a relationship with Marla. The problem is that because Tyler was born out of his conflicted feelings about Marla, Tyler becomes both a rejection of and a subconscious wish to be with her.
Initially, The Narrator is able to fool himself into thinking that he’s made a clean break from Marla forever. For a while, he gets lost in Tyler’s “world” (his anarchistic activities, pseudo-intellectual ramblings and home-grown soap company). He also gets caught up in setting up and running the fight club.
But lo and behold, look what happens. Somehow, The Narrator’s subconscious concocts a scheme to get Marla into his life. It imagines that Tyler rescues her on the night she tries to commit suicide, then starts banging her. The Narrator then deludes himself into seeing himself as the third wheel in Tyler and Marla’s relationship and an unwanted witness to their loud and raucous sex marathons. But we all know that this is nonsense, since it’s really The Narrator having sex with Marla as Tyler and that it was he who had answered her phone call and rescued her.
What on earth is going on there? This scheme on the part of The Narrator’s psyche is a clever spin on the defense mechanism known as dissociation. Dissociation is the act of mentally checking out of something you are doing or is happening to you, to the point where you either feel it’s not happening to you or it’s happening to someone else.
A form of dissociation is Dissociative Identity Disorder, or Multiple Personality Disorder. In this version of dissociation, you disown your actions and experiences by deluding yourself that they’re being done and experienced by another person. For example, a religious woman can be so ashamed of having sex that the only way she can have it is to switch into another identity in which she becomes a dominatrix who spits in the eye of religion. In The Narrator’s case, he adopts Tyler’s personality in order to have his cake and eat it, too. One half of him fulfills his desire to sleep and engage in a relationship with Marla. The other half of him disowns that desire by imagining that it’s really Tyler having sex with her.
As The Narrator’s personal conflict worsens, the two parts of his personality that are feeling conflicted over Marla start fighting for dominance. A key battle occurs when Tyler decides to pour lye onto The Narrator’s hand to test his commitment to “the cause”. As he’s writhing in agony, he tries to “find his cave” (a peaceful place that he can mentally retreat to when he’s upset). He immediately sees Marla there. But he is unable to hold onto that image for long because the pain from the lye is too unbearable.
Of course, it’s not Tyler torturing The Narrator; it’s The Narrator pouring lye on himself. But what on earth for? This is a twisted take on what’s known as aversion therapy. Based on Pavlovian theory, aversion therapy uses pain or some other undesirable sensation to get someone to quit a bad habit. For example, a smoker might wear a rubber band so that whenever he gets a craving for a cigarette, he snaps it against his wrist. In The Narrator’s case, he burns himself in a desperate bid to associate Marla with pain in order to get himself to stop pining for her. He also scars himself so that he will have a permanent reminder that he is to avoid thinking and feeling for her at any cost.
After The Narrator scars himself, it seems as if Tyler–and the part of himself that wants to avoid Marla–has finally won. But this is yet another illusion, just like the scene inside of the phone booth when he decided to call Tyler instead of Marla. Don’t believe me? Look at what shape the scar takes. Even though it was formed by Tyler kissing The Narrator’s hand, it has more of the shape of a woman’s pouty lips:
Why? Once again, Tyler becomes a symbolic representation of the conflict The Narrator feels within himself. On one hand (no pun intended), the painful scar is symbolic of his rejection of Marla and his commitment to Tyler’s anarchism. On the other, the lips represent his burning desire (burning desire–get it?) to be with her. So, try as he might, he can’t get her out of his system.
In spite of all of these major clues that he’s as obsessed with Marla as ever, The Narrator doesn’t get it. He still thinks he’s completely erased her from his life. It’s not until Bob dies when slowly but surely, the part of him that seeks human connection begins to reassert itself and he is eventually able to “wake up” to the reality of what’s been happening to him. He then snaps out of his psychosis, lays claim to the part of himself that he’s been fighting against since the very beginning and finds the courage to be with Marla.
The Narrator is also finally able to recognize and accept the conflict that initiated his breakdown, which we learn in the opening scene of the movie when he says:
“And suddenly I realize that all of this: the gun, the bombs, the revolution… has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.”