His Name is Robert Paulson: Authenticity and Relationships in Fight Club

“I think of it as a fascist rhapsody posing as a metaphor of liberation . . . We’re not meant to root for one man or another. We’re meant to root for blood; that is, to appreciate the glory of bloodshed as a moral protest against the deadening perfection of corporate society…No fascist vision has ever been lovelier…” – David Denby, The New Yorker

“[Fight Club] is morally repulsive and socially irresponsible. It will become Washington’s poster child for what’s wrong with Hollywood. And Washington, for once, will be right.” – Anita M. Busch, The Hollywood Reporter

“Deeply Misogynistic” – Susan Stark, The Detroit News

 I have been called a nihilistbut I would describe myself as a romantic. I’m always looking for narratives that bring people together. . . all my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.” – Chuck Palahniuk

“You know, the condom is the glass slipper of our generation. You slip it on when you meet a stranger. You dance all night, then you throw it away… the condom, I mean, not the stranger.” – Marla Singer

Fight Club, directed by David Fincher, and based upon Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, premiered in 1999 and immediately received attacks from critics for its visceral, violent imagery and perceived misogynistic and fascist attitudes.  The film hit at a sensitive time in America.  Just earlier that year in April, the tragedy of Columbine occurred leaving people understandably shaken.  Wouldn’t a film like Fight Club, with its supposed glamorization of anti-social behavior and its in-your-face attitude negatively influence impressionable audiences?  What would be the takeaway from a movie like this?

Whatever its long-term effects, it was a major box office bomb.  Fight Club grossed only $37 million from its U.S. and Canada run, and earned just over $100.9 million in theatres worldwide, ultimately failing to profit much from its $63 million budget.  Fast forward about nineteen years, and facts have changed.  Fight Club is a cult classic, making number 16 on Rolling Stone’s 25 Best Cult Movies of All Time Reader’s Poll, and Tyler Durden is an extremely popular anti-hero, well known for his stick-it-to-the-man attitude.

Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt

The film is now recognized by critics as a masterfully made work of art, a valid attack on consumer culture and an intelligent exploration of nihilistic and existential philosophy.  It questions the validity of the American Dream and how we perceive our values as individuals. Yes, many viewers recognize the film’s assessment of America’s spiritual malaise and the question of how we find meaning, but what they fail to comprehend is how the film also supplies a remedy to this ailment. Underneath all the darkness and seemingly unanswerable questions, Fight Club provides a direction for those who feel lost in the world.  The answer lies in establishing authentic relationships and appreciating everyone’s true individual self. What drive this? Nothing less than love.

This kind of authenticity is what the Narrator is desperately yearning for from the outset of the film. To him, everything seems a “copy, of a copy, of a copy.” He’s disillusioned with the ingenuine nature of society and its ‘single serving friends’ and frustrated with his employer’s fraudulent business practices that reduce individuals to statistics and put lives at risk. To fill the void, he collects material possessions, but these only weigh him further down. His depression manifests itself in insomnia, and it’s only when he starts attending support groups that he finds peace. Identifying himself falsely as Cornelius, the Narrator experiences his first release in the arms of Robert Paulson, a man who has developed breasts because his body upped his estrogen due to his testosterone being too high. By faking illness, the Narrator tricks Bob into giving him the attention he craves, dishonestly using him as a tool to gain catharsis and sympathy. As he and Marla say, “If people think you’re dying, they really listen, instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.”

Ed Norton and Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club

But Marla’s presence ousts the Narrator’s refusal to be authentic himself. His own lies are shoved back at him, and he’s shown that he’s reducing others to commodities, just as society has done to him: “Marla—the big tourist.  The faker. With her there, I was a faker too. Her lie reflected my lie, and suddenly, I felt nothing.” He splits up the groups with her, but at the last second, strangely asks for her phone number. He claims it’s so they can switch groups if they want to, but the truth is that he’s attracted to her. Her presence in his life is the final catalyst for the creation of his alter ego, Tyler Durden.

Whereas the Narrator is weak-willed, average looking, and attached to his possessions, Tyler is confident, extremely attractive, and rebellious in nature. As he tells the Narrator, “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I f*ck like you wanna f*ck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I’m free in all the ways that you are not.” Creating this new persona is the perfect way for The Narrator to attract Marla, a woman who is just as much in need of true human connection as he is. Tyler’s anti-consumerist philosophy and ability to “let that which does not matter truly slide” is more than enough to gain and keep her affections.


Unfortunately, the Tyler persona has no interest in forming a healthy, loving relationship with Marla, and the feelings of sensitivity that the Narrator may have lying deep within are covered by his defense mechanisms and the lies to himself that he finds Marla disgusting. Although Tyler rescues Marla from suicide, the couple’s relationship consists solely of sex. Tyler is only interested in using her as a plaything. Furthermore, he’s willing to discard her if she ever learns the truth. He even advises the Narrator to “get rid of her.” And when Marla attempts to emotionally connect with the Narrator, he rebuffs her advances and shuts her out. Marla’s commentary on the similarity between condoms, glass slippers, and strangers is a thinly veiled jab at how she perceives her treatment at the hands of her lover as well as criticism for the way sex is abused in current society.  Sex becomes a transaction, a commodification, an act separate from that of forming a respectful relationship.   Marla feels used and abused, which only reinforces her own sense of worthlessness. She’s so desperate for human connection, however, that she keeps returning, hoping for a meaningful romantic connection.

Tyler’s propensity for using and commodifying people does not end with Marla.  Although Fight Club begins as a way for the men of society to express their anger and to finally return feeling to their numbed spiritual selves, it quickly evolves into Project Mayhem, a fascist terrorist group, with Tyler as the demagogue. The members practically worship Tyler as a god and do not question his orders: “Why was Tyler Durden building an army? To what purpose?  For what greater good?  In Tyler we trusted.” Each member is stripped of his individuality and identity. All are required to wear and own the same clothes: two black shirts, two pairs of black pants, one pair of black boots, two pairs of black socks, and one black jacket. Tyler has set up his own franchise, his own group of “space monkeys” on “Planet Tyler.” He spouts his nihilistic philosophy to them through a megaphone as they dig in the garden: “Listen up maggots. You are not special, you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re the all singing, all dancing, crap of the world.” The group’s acts of vandalism escalate, while the Narrator feels abandoned, jealous, and uneasy with the direction of the project.

The violence comes to a head in a scene that delivers one of the central themes of the film, that value lies in recognizing one’s individuality and true worth as a person. Out of all the members of Project Mayhem, the Narrator is closest to Bob. When Tyler yells at Bob and tells him he’s too fat to join the group, the Narrator doubles back and comforts him. So, when Bob is killed on one of Project Mayhem’s missions, the Narrator responds with tremendous anger and pain:

Fight Club gather around Robert Paulson

“You morons!  You’re running around with ski masks trying to blow things up!  What did you think would happen?!” The members quickly motion to bury the body in the garden and get rid of the “evidence,” but the Narrator stands his ground: “What are you talking about?  This is not a f*cking piece of evidence! This is a person! He’s a friend of mine, and you’re not going to bury him in the f*cking garden…this is Bob!” One of the members replies, “But in Project Mayhem, sir, we have no names.” The Narrator asserts his position once again, finally seeing the inhumanity of Project Mayhem: “No, listen to me.  This is a man, and he has a name. And it’s Robert Paulson, okay?” When the members still don’t acknowledge Bob’s humanity, the Narrator declares that Project Mayhem is over and begins his pursuit of and subsequent battle against Tyler.

It’s telling that Bob’s death is what ultimately brings the Narrator back to his senses and puts into motion the final act of the film. This scene serves as the turning point for the Narrator’s conscience. By highlighting this scene, Fincher reinforces his view of humanity as worthy of recognition and love. Furthermore, he rejects nihilism and fascism as valid philosophies and political systems.

The Narrator spends the majority of the third act attempting to right the wrongs he’s committed thus far. In his apology to Marla, he doesn’t shift the blame onto Tyler for the way he treated her, but takes full moral responsibility: “The full extent of our relationship wasn’t really clear to me up until now, for reasons I’m not going to go into, but the important thing is that I know I haven’t been treating you so well. . . I’m trying to tell you that I’m sorry, because I’ve come to realize that I really like you Marla . . . I really do. I care about you, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you because of me.  Marla, your life is in danger.” Unfortunately, his warnings and efforts to protect Marla amount to little, and she ends up being kidnapped by members of Project Mayhem.

When’s she’s brought to the top of the tower, the Narrator has already defeated Tyler, and regained his sense of self-hood. He no longer needs an alter ego to compensate for his shortcomings. He has become an authentic self. Marla at first reacts with anger at being brought to him, but when she notices the Narrator’s bullet wound, she shows concern and asks what happened. He acknowledges that yes, he did shoot himself, but that everything is going to be all right. Suddenly, the buildings in front of them explode. The two gaze at each other, hold hands and watch as the towers collapse.

The city burns at the end of Fight Club

This last scene serves as the final symbolic statement of the film. As the Narrator and Marla hold hands, expressing their love for each other, they look on as the literal embodiment of greed, capitalism, and materialism are destroyed. Fincher is asserting that the relationships we form with our loved ones hold infinitely more meaning than the attachments we have to our possessions. If we want to find meaning in life, we must focus on the people we are closest to. The Narrator and Marla may have rough times ahead, but if they rely on each other, they may just make it through.

Far from being fascist, misogynistic, socially irresponsible, and nihilistic, Fight Club serves as a warning and a condemnation of these attitudes and viewpoints. It encourages moral responsibility, community, authenticity, and love for one’s fellow man. It’s unfortunate that so many viewers have misinterpreted the film.

Written by Aaron Ploof


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  1. Totally agree with Eli’s comment. The movie has been misinterpreted by so many folks, and your article/essay beautifully explains it. Thanks for this thoughtful tribute. To me, both book and movie are modern masterpieces.

  2. Wonderfully worded and so creatively crafted, your piece shines the light on the deeper and more meaningful aspects of the movie that sadly get overlooked by a society hellbent on action and chaos. This is the external view that true fans will forever appreciate.

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