The most common argument as to what the film is primarily about is that it deals with the conflict between young people and the corporate value system of advertising which has become an integral part of the society in which they find themselves. In this sense, the film is very much anti-materialist, and deals with the schism created when someone can no longer tolerate the value system with which they are simply expected to comply. This system of advertising has become so ingrained into all aspects of contemporary society that when one tries to reject it, one is quite literally engaging in a personal revolution. Furthermore, the film probes the problems caused by the system and a corporate dominated society insofar as it examines what that society has done to the men who inhabit it. Males, traditionally, the hunter/gatherer, have been reduced to what Louis B. Hobson calls "a generation of spectators" ("Get ready to rumble", Calgary Sun, (October 10th, 1999); available here), their inherent "abilities" as men no longer needed for the smooth running of society (as Tyler Durden points out in the scene where he chastises The Narrator for knowing what a duvet is, asking how such knowledge helps in "the hunter/gatherer sense"). Instead of a need for survival and a desire for moral and spiritual well-being, man is instead driven by a desire for material "things," a desire instilled by a society of advertising which defines a person based upon their possession of what Jim Slotek calls "external signifiers of happiness" ("Cruisin' for a bruisin,'" Toronto Sun, (October 10th, 1999); available here). This in turn creates a pointless and ultimately empty obsession with possessing items which ultimately come to possess the owner, and causing an abandonment of the search for spiritual happiness. It is this very society which the film critiques.
However, this is but one interpretation of a film which is open to a virtually any reading. A good way to engage with the various possibilities as to meaning is to look at what some of the filmmakers themselves have said about their own interpretations of the work. This selection of quotations offers a broad cross section of their opinions:
Chuck Palahniuk (author): We are a nation of physical animals who have forgotten how much we enjoy being that. We are cushioned by this kind of make-believe, unreal world, and we have no idea what we can survive because we are never challenged or tested.
[Movie EPK; quoted here] Jim Uhls (screenwriter): "It's about numbness and alienation and finding self-empowerment through drastic means" ("How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD).
Brad Pitt: "Fight Club is a metaphor for the need to push through the walls we put around ourselves and just go for it, so for the first time we can experience the pain" ("Club fighting for a respectful place in life," Post-Tribune (March 15th, 2001); quoted in Wikipedia article).
Chuck Palahniuk: "It offers people the idea that they can create their own lives outside the existing blueprint for happiness offered by society" ("How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD).
Edward Norton: To me it's very much a story about a person who feels at odds with everything he's expected to engage in. Who hits a juncture in his life and chooses to move toward the seduction of negativity and nihilism. There's this presentation of a guy who's kind of hilariously desperately out of sync with all the things he's supposed to participate in, who kind of has this Elaine Robinson, or in Marla's case, he has this women who's kind of like his female doppelganger. She is him. And he recoils from it. It's like he recoils from the image of himself and moves toward what turns out to be this idealized vision of himself, as opposed to himself the way he is. There's this moment that I really like in the phone booth where he attempts to call her. There is this moment where he could call her and go after the simple human connection that ultimately by the end he kind of realizes he should have gone after all along. And he almost calls her, and he hears her voice and it sounds too much like him and he hangs up and he goes the other way. He goes toward this idea of a new version of himself. And explores that negativity and all its excess. That's what interested me. This idea of the seduction of the negative. Like, you know, sort of Tyler as Mrs. Robinson. This exploration that has consequence, terrible, terrible consequence and that you have to wake up from it and ultimately reject it to get to a sort of new middle ground. Tyler gets him to give up on God, but ultimately he has to give up on Tyler and give up on the excesses of what Tyler is suggesting that men ought to be. He's found what his own boundaries are, he's not his old self, but he's not willing to go all the way in this new self.
["Edward Norton Yale Interview", (October 3rd, 1999); available here and on all 2-Disc DVD versions of the movie] Bret Easton Ellis (author of Less Than Zero (1987), American Psycho (2000), The Rules of Attraction (2002) and Lunar Park): Fight Club rages against the hypocrisy of a society that continually promises us the impossible: fame, beauty, wealth, immortality, life without pain. It's a relentless, dizzying take on the male fear of losing power.
["How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD] Ross Grayson Bell (producer): The underlying theme is that you have to break yourself apart to build something new. It is only when you realize that you're not your lousy hair, or your bad debts, or your fears that you're not good enough, that you can actually create a new life for yourself.
["How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD] Ross Grayson Bell: It shocks you into looking at who really controls your life: you or your fears. Once you make that distinction, you then have the choice to take control or not. It's better to have options than to be eternally bemoaning your lot.
["How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD] Ross Grayson Bell: It spoke to the heart of a disenfranchised generation, my generation. Like The Graduate (1967) two decades before, it spoke to the frustrations of ordinary guys trying to make sense of the sorry world previous generations were so smugly handing over to us like so much skid-marked underwear.
["How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD] Chuck Palahniuk: The first way in which a new generation takes control of society is through the culture: the arts, films, books, music. Through all entertainment. People who feel safe and secure in the existing society are frightened by ideas that threaten their power. People who hold the power in society want nice complacent forms of entertainment, films that comfort people and support the status quo.
["How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD] Brad Pitt: I think there's a self defense mechanism that keeps my generation from having any real honest connection or commitment with our true feelings. We're rooting for ball teams, but we're not getting in there to play. We're so concerned with failure and success like these two things are all that's going to sum you up at the end.
["Club fighting for a respectful place in life", Post-Tribune (March 15th, 2001); quoted in Wikipedia article] Edward Norton: I felt like it named a lot of things that I saw or felt in the energy of my generation. I've looked for things as an actor and director that I thought were specifically kind of generational nerve pieces or pieces that I thought were about my generation and its particular dysfunctions and relationships with the culture. And I haven't run into very many. And I never felt like the films that were getting made that were targeted at us, sort of the Reality Bites (1994) version of us as a generation, were very on-target for me. I always thought it was very baby boomer, kind of concocted, somewhat over-simplistic. And I thought a somewhat disdainful reduction of us to this kind of Gen-X, slacker, aimless, low energy, angst-ridden kind of banal realism and I just didn't buy it, and I certainly didn't respond to it. It didn't seem to me to speak to some of the deeper things that I was feeling. And this was the first thing I'd read where I just laughed all the way through it. I laughed because there were passages in it that were just instantaneously impressed in my brain. The idea of a generation that's had its value system largely informed by the advertising culture is really provocative to me. On a certain level, in the absence of collective spirituality, there is a notion that the external signifiers of your material life will make you happy. That you'll find spiritual peace through home furnishing. And it just made me laugh, it made me laugh because I was in the process of furnishing my house. And it was making me feel calm, for a while. And I felt like so much of what peeves me about the culture that I can't necessarily put a finger on, was named in this book. It was very focused on this idea of men and their sense of being displaced, their role in the culture being displaced. Of absentee fathers and the effect of that. There's stuff about it that are classically Nietzschean almost. I thought this is a piece about the challenge of individual self overcoming. Of making yourself evolve and of shattering old value systems and received value systems and institutional kind of hierarchies to free yourself individually. And about what happens, what are the practical limits of applying that as a philosophy in the real world. And at what point does that start to become the thing that it was seeking to free people from? The solution becomes negative and destructive and dehumanizing in the sense that all of these guys give up their names to become part of the movement that's supposed to be freeing them? I was thinking, "Jesus, you know, this is a critique of fascism." Or it's a critique of how Nietzsche becomes Hitler.
["Edward Norton Yale Interview", (October 3rd, 1999); available here and on all 2-Disc DVD versions of the movie] Edward Norton: It has a generational energy to it, a protest energy. So much of what's been represented about my generation has been done by the baby boomers. They dismiss us: the word "slacker," the oversimplification of the Gen-X mentality as one of hesitancy or negativity. It isn't just aimlessness we feel; it's deep skepticism. It's not slackerdom; it's profound cynicism, even despair, even paralysis, in the face of an onslaught of information and technology.
[Joanna Schneller, "Brad Pitt & Edward Norton Interview", Premier, (August, 1999); available here] Edward Norton: I feel that Fight Club really, in a way probed into the despair and paralysis that people feel in the face of having inherited this value system out of advertising.
[Stephen Schaefer, "Two of Hollywood's hottest thirtysomethings embrace mayhem and millennial meltdown in Fight Club", movies.com; available here] Edward Norton: This idea of our generation having its value system largely dictated to it by advertising culture and by all these cultural signifiers telling you what your life is supposed to be, what are the trappings of your life, that if you take them on will result in spiritual happiness. Like the idea of being sold all of our lives, the idea that you will achieve spiritual peace through home furnishing or your material possessions or that happiness is tied to lifestyle. And the phenomenon that I think our generation has been going through of waking up into adulthood and recognizing the emptiness of that promise and the inability of that promise to be fulfilled by those acquisitions and kind of the whole idea of a received value system really isn't working for you or making you happy and what do you do at that point? I've always felt that our generation in particular is a generation that is having its midlife crisis in its twenties. And I think that that on some level is a very healthy thing, but it is disturbing. I felt the film in those themes. It also dealt more specifically with how men in particular feel emasculated in the contemporary culture. It was kind of like some weird '90s version of reading Nietzsche in college. It was like Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It's about two people exploring how do we liberate ourselves from value systems that aren't ours or that have been applied to us and that we've been told we ought to accept and exploring the practical limitations of that kind of nihilism
[Edward Norton, Round Table Interview, (September 28th, 1999); available here] Edward Norton: Fincher was always very firm in saying that it needed to be a film about two people exploring certain questions and in the end, going in two different directions. There's a dialectic between Brad's character and my character and at the end, things happen a certain way, but you're essentially left without a pat theme or glib conclusion by the film. It doesn't get wrapped up in a neat package for you so that you can walk out and say, "Oh, the message of that film was this." You have to, in essence, take it out of the density of it all. You have to think about it a little bit and decide was Tyler's practical execution of this idea of self-liberation through kind of an anarchism negative. Did that become negative in its own right? Did the people surrounding them lose their identity as much as they had been before they got into this whole thing? Or was The Narrator afraid to go the final mile? And I liked all of that as a general approach to the film, the idea of wrestling around in it and leaving it in an audience's lap.
[Edward Norton, Round Table Interview, (September 28th, 1999); available here] Laura Ziskin (President of Production, Fox 2000 Pictures): The movie is really about the causes of violence and is, in fact, anti-violence, although it acknowledges those impulses in human nature. If art can't examine those issues then we are in a lot of trouble.
["How to Start a Fight" booklet, included with DVD] Edward Norton: It is the responsibility of people making films and people making all art to specifically address dysfunctions in the culture. I think that any culture where the art is not reflecting a really dysfunctional component of that culture, is a culture in denial. And I think that's much more intensely dangerous on lots of levels than considered examinations of those dysfunctions through art. I don't believe that it's the chicken and the egg question. I do think there is violence in our culture. I think there always has been violence in our culture in one form or another. I think that it's a very appropriate discussion to ask what are the ways in which the presentations of violence affect us. I would aim those questions more at films that present violence in a way where it's presented as entertainment or where violence is made an aesthetic in its own right. I think that there's a legitimate question as to how certain presentations of violence without impact affect us all. But I don't think that the violence that is in our culture means that art shouldn't examine that violence. I think that if we were to refrain from serious examinations in art of the kind of ways in which we're unhealthy or ways in which we're dysfunctional as a culture, then we wouldn't have most of the things we point to as landmarks in our cultural landscape. Nabokov wouldn't have written Lolita out of fear that an old man would go and molest a young girl. Scorsese would have never made Taxi Driver (1976) and the Beatles wouldn't have written The White Album, because Manson might use it as an outlet for his pathologies. My grandfather really didn't like The Graduate (1967). He thought it was negative and subversive, but my father loved it. And I think you would erase most of the serious discussion about our dysfunctions if you did that. I don't think it's the responsibility of filmmakers to account for every possible misinterpretation of a film that you might make. I would think that would quell serious debate too much. I think it would quell serious considerations of the ways that we're unhealthy. I think that it's a very, very appropriate film. Films are a potent, arguably one of the most potent, cultural mediums that we have right now and it's totally appropriate for them to be entertaining. But I think it's also critical that a medium as potent as film be examining the ways that we're unhealthy. And I've never worked on a film where violence was romanticized in the sense of being presented without impact or where the roots of it weren't being examined specifically as the intent of the film. And so I've never hesitated on that score where my films are concerned because I feel like it's very important sometimes to hold an uninflected mirror up to those things. Or to just hold any mirror up to those things. It's meaningful to me to work on pieces that wrestle around in territory that we're all very uncomfortable with. When we first started going out with the press on this Fincher said something like, "If it doesn't piss off a healthy number of people then we've done something seriously wrong." And I agreed. I hope it rattles people. I hope it dunks it very squarely in your lap because I think one of the things we strove very specifically to do with this was on some levels retain a kind of a moral ambivalence or a moral ambiguity - not to deliver a neatly wrapped package of meaning into your lap. Or in any way that let you walk away from the film like this, comfortable in having been told what you should make of it. Or what the theme was. And I think that's fine too. Another film that I worked on, American History X (1998), I think was a much more thematically packaged film. I think it was just like a tragedy. It was intended to have a prescriptive message. But this is not. But a big part of the intent of this was to point a finger at certain things and name them, and dump it in your lap and say, "What do you want to make of that?" I think it's intentionally surreal, it's intentionally metaphoric and I think it's not for kids.
["Edward Norton Yale Interview", (October 3rd, 1999); available here and on all 2-Disc DVD versions of the movie] Numerous scholars and critics have also offered their own interpretations of the film. For example:
Alex Burns (film scholar): It is a fable about postmodern consumer society and the potential for an American fascism. Fight Club belongs to a social protest movement that has emerged since the Cold War's endgame, typified by fears about trans-national corporations, media-savvy activists, and the demise of the traditional bi-polar political framework
["fight club: a postmodern consumer parable", disinformation, (May 3rd, 2001); available here] Adrian Gargett (film critic): The men who become members of Fight Club are victims of the de-humanizing and de-sanitizing power of contemporary society, inhabiting an essence of identity marketed by consumer culture. The only way they can regain a sense of individuality is by locating the primeval and "barbaric" instincts of pain and violence. The Narrator can only define himself in terms of male, consumer, insurance worker, insomniac, but he feels that he has lost any sense of self. He is confined by the mechanisms society adopts for categorization.
["doppelganger: exploded states of consciousness in fight club", disinformation, (August 22nd, 2001); available here] Jethro Rothe-Kushel (filmmaker): The film comments profoundly on America's problems of meaning (e.g. indentured servitude to capitalism in a land of freedom, violence in a land of justice, consumer Darwinism in a land of community, meaning in a post-modern reality that understands all meaning as a relative cultural construct, etc.). In sociological terms, [The Narrator], a white male, could represent the hierarchical leadership of the American patriarchy; "I was the warm little center that the life of this world crowded around." America seems to love him, but he feels hurt and betrayed by his culture and the dulled-down consumerist dreams he has inherited. Without Tyler, [The Narrator] is a spineless, volumeless, emotionless, placid, and flaccid half-man. His creation of Tyler allows him to reclaim his masculinity amidst a culture of post-feminist, cathartic, self-help groups. The film frames America lacking a public venue to integrate the emotional component of white male identity. When there is a communal or cultural void, history suggests that violence can complete that lack. Fight Club exposes the void and offers three solutions: crying, violence, and movies. It asks the question, what do you want to do with the Narrators of our country - those unwanted children of America who were raised on cultural action hero myths and yearn to live those stories?
["Fight Club: A Ritual Cure For The Spiritual Ailment Of American Masculinity", The Film Journal (February 2004); available here] Adrienne Redd (political and social critic): Prima facie, Fight Club is about masculinity, but with the crucial proviso that it is about masculinity among a specific class of American men: the burgeoning stratum of service or gray-collar workers. There was a time when blue-collar workers could invest in a kind of honor and mythology of hard physical work, but the world has changed and now former steelworkers are parking cars, waiting tables, and watching security monitors. They have not even the solace of big muscles and the solidarity of unions from which to construct their identities and with which to salvage their bruised egos. And as a character says in the film, they lack a great cause, like a war or depression, in which to test themselves. Fight Club is really about what it is to be a man who serves others (as women have traditionally) and how such men construct identity and meaning in their lives. That women now can take most of the jobs that men can is certainly a background fact, but the film explores other issues or sources of masculinity. This ties into the American dream and the mythology that anyone can become rich or become president. Part of the way that the working poor are lulled into cooperating and staying in the service of richer classes is by this unspoken promise that if they work hard they will ascend to higher security and status. The film is also about escaping conventional society. Representative of escaping out the top of a cold and constrictive society are the references to being a millionaire or a celebrity. Representative of escaping out the bottom are the constant references to "trying to hit bottom" to attain a freedom that doesn't come until one has nothing to lose
["Masculine Identity in the Service Class: An Analysis of Fight Club", Criticism.com (June 27th, 2004); available here] Hilary Johnson (film scholar): It is about the imminent large-scale social and economic obsolescence of the male species. Men are failing at work, at school and in families, in theory because the modern knowledge and skill-oriented world is basically testosterone-intolerant. While men's strength and aggression were useful in establishing the modern world, they are an impediment to its smooth day-to-day operation, a task better suited to the instincts and behavior of females.
[Village Voice; quoted in Nick Roddick, "Fight Club: How Hard to be a Man?", Urban Cinefile; available here]
Халохот, расталкивая людей, двигался по центральному проходу, ища глазами намеченную жертву. Он где-то. Халохот повернулся к алтарю.