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The Schizophrenic Protagonist in Fight Club

“Three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out of body experience” (Palahniuk, 19). In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club the unnamed protagonist warns the audience of his insomnia, implying forthcoming inaccuracies with his perception and story. Dr. Carol C. Nadelson writes in Schizophrenia: Losing Touch with Reality that schizophrenic individuals find it difficult “to distinguish between reality and imagination,” and that others have described the condition as “dreaming while [ . . . ] awake” or as seeing oneself from a distance (Nadelson, 24-25).

Palahniuk immerses the reader in the protagonist’s point of view, suspended between imagination and reality, which includes all depictions of Tyler Durden. In the protagonist’s mind his close friend Tyler Durden is a real person, but later as a plot twist the audience learns that Tyler Durden is the protagonist’s hallucination. Palahniuk patterns his plot and character development of the protagonist from symptoms of schizophrenia: the protagonist’s dissatisfaction and withdrawal from society and his hallucination of Tyler Durden. In The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia Kim T.

Mueser and Susan Gingerich write that “living in an environment with a great deal of conflict or criticism” can trigger relapses of schizophrenia (Mueser, 13). Palahniuk sets up the protagonist’s oncoming schizophrenic breakdown by first depicting him as dissatisfied with American commercial society. The story opens with the protagonist explaining ways to make homemade bombs, adding “[t]his how-to stuff isn’t in any history book” (Palahniuk, 13). The protagonist’s clear enjoyment from explaining the bombs highlights his conflict with his environment, while his comment on the U.

S. history canon suggests that he feels his story does not fit in with mainstream America. He criticizes what he considers to be purposeless American laborer lives: “Pull a lever. Push a button. You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die” (12). One fight club member adds, “I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived, [ . . . ] and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables” (149). The protagonist feels intense conflict with a society that does not allow its best people to succeed.

The protagonist flatly hates his job in his company’s Compliance and Liability department, which strongly contributes to his conflict with society (Palahniuk, 137). As well, constantly flying exacerbates his insomnia and disorientation, and he calls it a terrible way to travel (30). He describes his responsibilities in a self-mocking, contemptuous tone. You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C).

A times B times C equals X. [ . . . ] If X is greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt. If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don’t recall (30). His work in insurance exemplifies the kind of soulless lever pushing he sees everywhere in American society. He makes a decent salary and can afford expensive, trendy furniture and other possessions in his high-rise apartment, but he blows up his apartment and draws a conclusion about American materialism: “the things you used to own, now they own you” (44).

Immediately after blowing up his apartment, the protagonist calls Tyler Durden and immerses himself in his projection of Tyler’s world. “High levels of [social] support play a positive role in buffering the negative effects of stress on people with schizophrenia” (Mueser, 13). The protagonist realizes something is wrong with his health, and he labels his symptoms as insomnia. At his doctor’s suggestion he begins attending support groups for people with terminal illnesses. The protagonist is able to cry with the others, and he feels “lost inside oblivion, dark and silent and complete,” and he sleeps well (Palahniuk, 22).

The support group represses the protagonist’s negative schizophrenic symptoms until Marla Singer starts attending. The protagonist is unable to cry anymore because Marla makes him realize his dishonesty, as neither suffers from the afflictions of any of the support groups. Soon after Marla appears, the hallucinations of Tyler Durden appear as well. “The schizophrenic usually tries to withdraw from reality . . . utter loneliness . . . the fantasy world [ . . . ] is a torment” (Nadelson, 25). As the protagonist falls into Tyler Durden’s world, he loses track of the real world.

When describing Tyler’s job as a movie projectionist, the protagonist talks like it is his own job, though he does not realize he actually does work this job: “you have two projectors in the booth [ . . . ] I know this because Tyler knows this” (Palahniuk, 26). Palahniuk uses language that suggests that Tyler and the protagonist are part of the same person only upon a second read: the protagonist continues, “I don’t know how long Tyler had been working on those nights I couldn’t sleep” (27).

After blowing up his trendy, socially acceptable apartment, the protagonist moves into a dilapidated, isolated house—a place where mainstream American society cannot find him. In his mind he is living with Tyler in the house, and his sexual relationship with Marla only exists when he is Tyler. “Schizophrenia often contributes to the loss of [ . . . ] employment” (Nadelson, 28). Fight club causes the protagonist to show up to work with fresh cuts and bruises on his face. “I don’t even wear a tie anymore,” the protagonist says (Palahniuk, 126).

He learns that the company is building a case against him (138). By the end of the novel the protagonist has stopped discussing his work and apparently does not come in. He is totally focused on his life with Tyler and fight club. “ ‘Grandiosity’ is a kind of delusion in which schizophrenics assume some characteristic that makes them feel very special” (Nadelson, 38). Tyler Durden’s conception of fight club grows into an anarchistic organization that imagines “call[ing] a strike and everyone refuses to work until we redistribute the wealth of the world” (Palahniuk, 149).

Palahniuk normalizes schizophrenia to some extent by showing other men who are willing to follow the protagonist and Tyler. Though fight club originated as a schizophrenic person’s scheme, many other men find validation through their fights and communion, and the organization escalates into a violent conflict with mainstream society. In one example the windows of the Hein Tower are blown out to form a fiery, smiling face (118). Later someone jumps a man driving a Jaguar and crashes the car into a fountain (120). The protagonist summarizes the actions of fight club’s Project Mayhem: “Arson. Assault.

Mischief and Misinformation” (125). Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club describes the actions of a protagonist whose schizophrenia escalates with his disillusionment and conflict with his environment. The protagonist withdraws into his fight club world that he created with his hallucinated friend, Tyler Durden. Other men share a similar disillusionment, and as described by Nadelson’s conception of schizophrenic grandiosity, fight club grows into an ambitious, anarchistic organization that attempts to create a new history. Ultimately the protagonist commits suicide when he realizes that Tyler is a delusion.

The torturous fantasy he has created is too much to handle, and he commits suicide. Palahniuk has written a haunting, unnerving story seen through the perspective of a schizophrenic person completely disconnected with reality.

Works Cited

Kim T. Mueser and Susan Gingerich. The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia. New York: The Guilford Press, 2006. Nadelson, Carol C. Schizophrenia: Losing Touch with Reality. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000. Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

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