After posting my short story The Banished God on this blog, I thought it might be fun to dig up some of my other older writing. The following is my thesis paper I wrote for my English BA. I always like to joke that I wrote my thesis on Conan the Barbarian, which is true, but the works of Robert E. Howard serve as more of a frame for a discussion on masculine existentialism in Richard Yate’s Revoltionary Road and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Enjoy!
Masculinity is in some ways a man’s greatest foe. It’s definition is ever changing, shifting with the times, but at the same time remaining grounded in tradition’s as old as man himself. It is a standard defined by conflict, conflict that can often be found within the folds of literature. Richard Yates Revolutionary Road and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club both pose powerful examples of men suffering within the confines of their current code of masculinity, who desperately seeking some outlet to take pride in themselves in the context of their gender, misguidedly pursue the standard of the hypermasculine.
Grounded in ideals of masculinity almost mythological in nature, the hyper-masculine figure is one defined by ideals of physical perfection and emotional control based primarily three behavioral dispositions, “(1)entitlement to callous sex, (2) violence as manly, and (3) danger as exciting.” (Tomkins, p.61) The hypermasculine is the wandering warrior, paying heed to no one, taking as he pleases from the world around him, be it land, treasure, or often enough, women. He would rather die than submit.
Examples of this sort of figure abound in literature. Beowulf though not endowed in the ancient literature with much of a libido -one must watch the recent film adaption to see him as a sexual character- is defined by an undeniable physical prowess. More contemporary, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories are centered around a character-the titular Conan- who is endowed with all the traits and appetites of the hypermasculine. He lives to fight, is exhilarated by the thought of danger, and with each new story finds himself both free of the girl he had pursued in the one previous and on the trail of yet another typically gorgeous woman.
Looking at many examples of the hypermasculine, another trait that often defines them is also a streak of existentialism. Conan for instance is a dramatic exhibitor of the idea that any person can do accomplish anything they want as long as they are willing to work for it. In the story The Tower of the
Elephant, upon hearing about a jewel located in the titular tower, Conan, wishing to steal, it goes ahead and does, despite the warnings of various people that it can’t be done. Even Conan’s god, named Crom by Howard is indicative of self-actualized view on life. “What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?” (p.133, Howard)
Conan represents a man as he should be under the standard of the hypermasculine. The world will do nothing to help or save you. It is a place out to get you, and if you want to make your way to anywhereyou must surmount the odds yourself. Relying on an outside force to better your life is a surefire way to ensure that your life remains the same. “Not just male, and not just masculine, the macho must be hypermasculine in ideology and action.” (p.64, Tomkins)
Variations of the hypermasculine code exist for other occupations besides the warrior. One can be a ladies man, focusing less on the violent ambitions of a warrior such as Beowulf or Conan and rather emphasizing the requisite of uncommitted sex. Prowess in verbal skills can also be substituted for physical power. Even the middle class, so often mired in work that would seem the antithesis of the hypermasculine has an outlet in this standard. “Other variations on the macho scrip may deemphasize physicality and violence in favor of adversarial competition for scarce resources within culturally acceptable organizational networks. Such scripts may be more characteristic of middle-class socialization… many of them have moderated the the simple reliance on physicality as masculine power to include the skillful uses of symbolic power and organizational power.” (p.83, Tomkins)
What this all essentially means, is that as long as you demonstrate excellent qualities in some facet of life, even if it completely voids the physical qualities necessary to that classic definition it draws on, one can still consider themselves of the hypermasculine. This is useful because in modern days the definition of what is masculine rarely encapsulates wholesale physical domination as it might have in a place like ancient Sparta. The average man is not a warrior and the average definition of masculinity is often less simple even than hypermasculinity itself. Where we see the hypermasculine emerge, especially in literature is often where we find characters in crisis with their masculinity. Revolutionary Road and Fight Club are symbolic of this trend.
Existential Failure and Revolutionary Road
In her book The Hearts of Men, author Barbara Ehrenreich comments on the generation of Americans represented by Frank Wheeler. Dubbing them the “gray flannel dissidents” she says, “He accomplished his major “developmental tasks”by his late twenties, found a wife, and made the appropriate adjustments to marriage, established himself in a white-collar job that would lead, over the years, to larger offices and longer vacations, bought a house, and nestled into the “congenial social group”… He was adjusted; he was mature he was, by any reasonable standard, a success as an adult male breadwinner. But he knew that something was wrong.” (p.29, Ehrenreich)
Revolutionary Road a book about many things, the smallest of which not being the battle to maintain one’s individuality, dignity, and masculinity in a world that all but demands you sacrifice all of them. This is a slight exaggeration perhaps. There is room for masculinity in the world of this book, but it is based around such a precise, constrictive definition that it is all but obvious that it will not work for everyone. This is the standard of the breadwinner. A growth of the ancient idea that there is work meant exclusively for men and women, the breadwinner ideal is simply the idea that a real man works a job that allows his wife to stay home and care for their children. In the eyes of society, unless you fall under some set of rare circumstances you cannot be a man without adhering to the breadwinner ideology.
Frank Wheeler is in the simplest terms a victim of this ideal. He is described throughout the book as a wholly brilliant man, gifted with undeniable intellect and destined for a life in the industry of thought. “Various ultimate careers were predicted for him, the consensus being that his work would lie somewhere “in the humanities” if not precisely in the arts…. Frank himself… hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit.” (p.22, Yates) Nothing is left in the book to make us doubt that Frank is not indeed a man of great intelligence, capable of great things. What the book lets us know most firmly is that he is not actually doing anything great.
This is mostly attributed to the early, and accidental beginnings of his and his wife, April’s family. “According to their plan, which called for an eventual family of four, her first pregnancy came seven years too soon.” (p. 48, Yates) Frank married in his twenties, around the time that the current social code dictated he was supposed to, but he maintained his ambitions at some greater life until the role of the breadwinner came knocking on his door. The interesting part of this is the fact that Frank himself chooses to take on this role. April, not at all interested in having a child at this point, informs him that she intends to perform a self-administered abortion. This occurs despite that the fact he doesn’t want a child either.
“…It wasn’t that the idea itself repelled him –the idea itself, God knew, was more than a little attractive- it was that she had done all this on her own… if she’d thought about him at all it was only as a possible hitch in the scheme.”(p.49, Yates) Frank’s objection is based off of what he perceives as April denying him the opportunity to take up his duty in society. By desiring to abort her baby, and more so in deciding to do so without consulting him, Frank feels as though he has been robbed of a decision that he was entitled to make. April’s independence circumvents the dependence that Frank requires of her if he is to be a man in the eyes of his culture.
His reaction as such, to fight with her until she submits to his will can automatically be labeled as classically masculine and even hypermasculine. “And it seemed to him now that no single moment of his life had ever contained a better proof of manhood than that, if any proof were need: holding that tamed, submissive girl and saying, “Oh my lovely; oh, my lovely,” while she promised she would bear his child.” (p.50, Yates) Frank, like any true macho man, when confronted with an opponent beats them into the ground. April submits and has the baby, which neither of them really want, a decision that forces him to enter in an even deeper, more subtle form of emasculation then he would have suffered had April indeed chosen to abort their child.
That Frank takes on the role of the breadwinner is not the immediate source of his emasculation. It’s that he takes on this position against his actual wishes. As we will recall, Frank and April had intended to have children, and considering the obvious importance of this to Frank’s sense of self, one can deduce that he had intended to be a breadwinner as well. The unintended conception of their first child however, forces Frank to take on a career well outside the potential of his intellect. In college his peers had placed him eventually in the humanities, likely writing brilliant works of literature to sustain himself. Rather, Frank ends up at the same company his father worked at, toiling away at a job that is relatively mindless.
The effect this has on Frank is immediately visible. Frank initially views his working at Knox Business Machines as a sort of joke, but “by the end of the first year the joke had worn thin, and the inability of others to see the humor of it had become depressing.” (p.77, Yates) Frank sees working at Knox as a joke because it is so clear to him that he doesn’t belong there. That being said, as his life progresses and he gradually becomes more a part of the white collar world he becomes aware that as long he works there he is no better then the men around him. In fact, he is actually worse, “It’s as if everybody’d made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. The hell with reality! Let’s have a whole bunch of cute little winding roads and cute little houses painted white and pink and baby blue; let’s all be good consumers and have a lot of Togetherness and bring our children up in a bath of sentimentality- Daddy’s a great man because he makes a living. Mummy’s a great woman because she’s stuck by Daddy all these years…” (p.65-66, Yates)
Frank exhibits an astounding amount of both bad faith and self-delusion here. He proclaims the ills of middle class society, but at the same time exempts himself from them. He acts as though the fact that he can see the foundational corruption around him allows him to transcend it. The reader and even the characters around him are aware that he is just as guilty of the levied charges as anyone else. He took on a job he hates as part of a willing but undesired acceptance of a role he wasn’t ready to take. He had options. April could have aborted her pregnancy and their lives could have gone on as planned, but rather, because he felt his defined social role as a man was at stake he chose to give up those ambitions that would have elevated him above the problems of society and set himself up as one of its victims. He goes into work each day so that he too can say about himself, “Daddy’s a good man because he makes a living.” April confronts him with this later on. “…Everything you said was based on this great premise that we’re somehow very special and superior to the whole thing and I just wanted to say ‘But we’re not! Look at us! We’re just like the people you’re talking about! We are the people you’re talking about!” (p.110, Yates)
Frank is indeed aware of this fact, and it can be attributed as the source to much of, if not all, of his problems throughout the book. He is a part of a society that demands conformity, when the very point of his life for a great deal of time, was the avoidance of such a fate. In terms of the breadwinner model of masculinity, he is a success. He works a good paying job, he has a house, a family and consistent social group, but nonetheless he takes little pride in it because it isn’t what he wanted to do, or what he was meant for. He is emasculated by his role as breadwinner because those characteristics of himself that he most valued, those qualities that defined him as a man, are being squandered on a job where “you can sort of turn off your mind every morning at nine and leave it off all day, and nobody knows the difference.” (p.77, Yates)
Frank Wheeler’s attempts to reclaim his masculinity in this environment are thoroughly grounded in the definition of the hypermasculine. Having achieved“success” as a modern man and still finding himself dissatisfied, he hearkens back to that more primordial standard of physicality and sexuality. The physical part of being a man, defined by perfection of body, violence and hard labor, is a lesser presence in the book, but it is still there. Yates portrays this in an early section of the novel that shows Frank in the process of completing some yard work. “…Once the puffing and dizziness was over, he began to like the muscular pull and the sweat of it, and the smell of the earth. At least it was man’s work.” (p.45, Yates) Frank here is trying to prove himself masculine in the most primitive sense of the word; he’s a man because he can perform physical labor. “Lowering his eyes with the solemnity of this thought, he could take pleasure in the sight of his own flexed thigh, lean and straining under the old O.D., and of the heavily veined forearm that lay across it and the dirty hand that hung there… so that his temples ached in zeal and triumph as he heaved a rock up from the suck of its white-wormed socket… because he was man.” (p.45-46, Yates)
Compare this passage to an image of Conan the Barbarian poised to do battle. “He stood like an image of unconquerable primordial –legs braced far apart, head thrust forward, one hand clutching the wall for support, the other gripping the ax on high, with the corded muscles standing out in iron ridges…” (p.22, Howard) While there is most certainly a difference between Frank Wheeler the pencil pusher lifting a rock, and Conan the Barbarian about to split someone’s skull, the similarity in the language is unmistakable. Frank is admiring himself in the same way the narrator of Howard’s story admires Conan: for his physical attributes. Frank may not take pride from his day job, but he is still trying to assure himself that he is in fact a man, even if only on the basis that he is strong enough to lift a heavy stone.
In terms of Frank’s seeking the hypermasculine as an alternative to the supposed pride of a being breadwinner, Revolutionary Roadtakes on a much more explicit focus on his sexuality. Callous sex, generally with multiple partners is one of the key requisites of becoming a hypermasculine figure. Tomkins and Mosher provide example of a typical macho script, “You’re not a ‘real man’ until you’ve scored ten times,” or “You’re not a real man unless you take what you need.” (p.72, Tomkins) This essentially what Frank does with Maureen Grube. Yates writes, “and then in the warmth and rhythm of her flesh he found an overwhelming sense of this is what I need; this is what I needed; his self-absorption was so complete that he was only dimly aware of her.” (p.98, Yates)
Frank dissatisfied with his life initiates and adulterous affair basically with the intention of making himself feel like a man again. He seeks out Maureen only as he needs her and after sleeping with her for the first time actually dreads the conversation that he knows is going to follow. More specifically, he doesn’t wish to apologize for something he knows should not have happened. “Did the swan apologize?” He asks himself. “Did an eagle apologize? Did a lion apologize? Hell, no.” (p. 101, Yates) Noticing immediately the way that Frank characterizes himself as primarily predatory animals, one should immediately be drawn to his reference of Leda, who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan. Ignoring the anatomical problems that would accompany such a coupling, one should once recognize that in terms of sexual activity, rape is as callous as it gets. Frank in this way is again subtly identifying himself with hypermasculine figures, seeking out more specifically the variation that Tomkins and Mosher describe as the “stud.” He chooses to see himself as a figure dominating a sexual relationship, using this fantasy as a means to escape his reality.
Other examples of Frank taking pride in sexuality permeate throughout Revolutionary Road. After he has taken his hated position with Knox, Frank tries to reassure himself that he is still different from the men he works with partially via the fact that he is married to April, a woman who by most accounts is gorgeous. “…And there a beautiful, disheveled girl would be waiting, a girl as totally unlike the wife of a Knox man as the apartment was unlike a Knox man’s home. Instead of after-work cocktails they would make after-work love…” (p.77, Yates)
April is Frank’s initial escape from the world he lives in, but as their lives progress she becomes an equal part of that world, that he tries to escape through Maureen. Perhaps the most striking indicator of Frank’s attitude toward sex in relation to his masculinity comes from the following, “the first thing he had to do, when the elevator door slid open at the Fifteenth Floor, was to walk up and deal like a man with Maureen Grube.” (p.120, Yates) To Frank, Maureen was merely a tool meant to bolster his waning pride. Once he had used her to fulfillment he had little interest left and chooses to cast her aside. That being said, Frank doesn’t have the luxury of being a fantasy hero like Conan wherein each new story wipes his romantic slate clean. When life begins to turn against Frank again, he once more chooses to use Maureen, complicating an already complex situation further.
As noted in the introduction, there is room in macho code for some variation. In this sense Frank Wheeler almost achieves the status of hypermasculine via his emulation of the stud/cocksman. That being said, he falters in the most key requisite of this standard: that of the existentialist. Earlier, the reader will recall a cited moment wherein April Wheeler calls out Frank on his bad faith. “We’re just like the people you’re talking about! We are the people you’re talking about!”(p.110, Yates) Following this exclamation, April offers a solution to the problem of Frank’s white collar emasculation. They will move to Europe where she will work to support them while he takes some time to decide what he wants to do with his life.
She recognizes that he is wasting himself at Knox, and desires to give him that opportunity he lost when he forced himself too early into the role of the breadwinner. April goes so far as to take on the blame for their current situation, “I put the whole burden of the thing on you…if you want this baby it’s going to be All Your Responsibility. You’re going to have to turn yourself inside out to provide for us.” (p.112, Yates) Knowing the situation with a little more objectivity perhaps than April, we can look at this claim a bit more dubiously, but she is very quick to accurately identify that core problem which has been plaguing their relationships for years. “It’s got nothing to do with definite, measurable talents –it’s your very essence that’s being stifled here. It’s what you are that’s being denied and denied and denied in this kind of life… You’re the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You’re a man.”(p.115, Yates)
After years of toiling at a job he hates, someone has finally told him that he doesn’t have to do this. April tells him that there are more ways to be a man than to simply be a provider, and that if he doesn’t step up and find a path that truly suits him, he is going to waste away. “The past could dissolve at his will and so could the future; so could the walls of this house and the whole imprisoning wasteland beyond it, towns and trees. He had taken command of the universe because he was a man, and because the marvelous creature who opened and moved for him, tender and strong, was a woman.” (p.115, Yates)
Frank’s elation at this statement is certainly understandable, and to his credit, while he is committed to the idea of moving to France he does seem like a genuinely different person. The brilliance of his college days, watered down by his tenure in the world of the middle class, returns to him. Whatever he’s talking about ends up not even mattering, “the very substance of their talk, after all, the message and rhyme of it, whatever else they might be saying, was that they were going to be new and better people from now on.” (p.126, Yates) Frank and April at this point are simply satisfied to know that their lives are not going to continue as they have been.
Then out of the blue they are hit with another pregnancy. The mirroring here of their earlier situation, the first pregnancy which April wanted to abort, is obvious. Neither one of them wants the baby, but once agan Frank, feeling the pull of responsibility as the breadwinner decides they should have the child, even if it means delaying their departure to France. And despite the rejuvenating effect it has seemed to have on his and April’s relationship, Frank is actually relieved when he learns of the pregnancy. “The pressure was off; life had come mercifully back to normal.” (p.207, Yates) Despite the slow, frustrating, and metaphorical castration Frank has been undergoing in middle class America, it is a nonetheless comfortable place to be. “In avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations.” (p.22, Yates)
Going to Francewould have meant having a goal -finding himself- and, more importantly, facing the depth of his limitations. To play the part of an intellectual struggling to break free from mediocrity is easy. Actually fulfilling that was too scary for Frank to face. So even though he says, “it doesn’t mean we can’t go… it just means we’ll have to find another way of going,” it is obvious that his resolve has broken, something that April can sense. “A little while! Two years? Three years? Four?…It’s hopeless.” (p.207, Yates) Frank convinces April not to abort the pregnancy, essentially rebooting that series of events that led them to their current circumstances, only with greater eventual consequences. In the end, April, fed up with their life and Frank’s obvious existential cowardice attempts to abort the baby after it has become unsafe and dies.
Frank Wheeler fails to achieve the hypermasculine not because he lacks physical and sexual prowess. He fails because in the end he gives in to bad faith. Going to France might have saved his marriage and his dignity as a man, but doing so also put him at risk of failure. By staying in Americaand staying with his current, mindless job, he sets himself up in a way so that he is incapable of failing. The hypermasculine existentialist would have looked at April’s pregnancy and said, “Okay, we’ll go any ways” but Frank gives in to those outside forces that say it would be wrong, and irresponsible to do so, even if it means saving his soul. Frank sells his soul for a car, and house, and wife and kids. Only his wife dies, his children rendered motherless, and the only thing left to occupy his home and drive his car is a shell of the man he once was, and could have been again.
The Power of Violence and Fight Club
“What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women.” (p.50, Palahniuk)
From its very opening of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is almost a tribute to emasculation. The protagonist of the story, who is apparently so insignificant as to lack even a name of his own, is visiting support groups. He bounces between diseases like a tennis ball, making himself feel better about his own existence by purposely surrounding himself with the diseased and dying. Perhaps the most poignant of these groups is the aptly named Remaining Men Together: support group for testicular cancer patients.
The reader is immediately met with the figure of Big Bob. Big Bob is an embodiment of a declined hypermasculine figure. A former body builder, he owned a successful line of gyms. He was married three times, suggesting a sexual appetite leaning towards the callous. When we meet him at the beginning of Fight Club though, this is all a thing of the past.
“Bob cries because six months ago, his testicles were removed. Then hormone support therapy. Bob has tits because his testosterone ration is too high. Raise the testosterone level too much, your body ups the estrogen to seek a balance.”(p.17, Palahniuk)
Fight Club’s protagonist then adds.
“Bob loves me because he thinks my testicles were removed, too.”
Big Bob is a symbol of what the book views as the modern man; a masculine that in the eyes of society has little reason to remain the domineering, force of nature American’s had long viewed as a necessity of sheer survival. “Ever since the Second World War, the Communist threat had stood guard, in the national conscience, against the feminizing effects of consumer culture.” (p. 103, Ehrenreich) Big Bob is the representation of a man existing in a world where threats like communism have all but vanished and the emasculating forces of comfortable consumerism have taken hold and left him a sobbing wreck looking to other men who have literally lost their balls for comfort.
The aesthetic of the support group is the complete antithesis of the hypermasculine. Where in the classical lore of not just America, but men themselves, the masculine figure would stake out his status via action these men are demonstrated as trying to do so through the exploration of emotion and words, which are stereotypically feminine methods of discourse. That the book’s protagonist would seek the company of such men to make himself feel better about his own circumstances is a relatively firm suggestion as to the state of his masculine well-being. The strong imagery of the novel’s opening should serve quite well as an indicator of just how strongly the novel will focus on both the disenfranchisement of the modern male and that figure’s pursuit of an ideal wholly in line with that of the hypermasculine.
The world as presented in Fight Clubcould easily be seen as the culmination of the trend just rearing its head in Revolutionary Road. Where in Revolutionary Road the social conditions that led to Frank Wheeler’s feelings of emasculation were much tied into the problems with the breadwinner social order of the time,Fight Club takes things a step further. In Fight Club things have progressed to where the breadwinner standard by which men are judged has been all but abolished. Women are now perfectly capable of supporting themselves in most cases and men have taken on many of the formerly effeminate qualities of rampant consumerism. They work all day at jobs they hate with only their bank accounts and possessions as symbols of their accomplishments, and as the book demonstrates rather early on via the gas explosion that destroys the protagonists apartment, these are easily taken away.
The very act of work, once at least endowed with the importance of supporting a wife and family has been reduced to a consumerist tool, and one that can often be humiliating in its practice. “The hotel caters the party and when somebody wants the food they get the food and the wine and the china and the glassware and the waiters.” In the world of Fight Club people have become almost interchangeable, falling at the end of a long list of commodities. “To them you’re just a cockroach.” It should serve as no surprise that men, given no direction as to what to do or where to go in the post breadwinner world, would seek solace in an idea as old as man itself, the fight. (p. 81, Palahniuk)
In this context, Fight Club is, at its core, an existentialist journey for the involved men to not just retake the dignity and strength they are deprived of in the current world order, but to actively change the world order to reflect the hypermasculine ideal they embrace. This journey is a rather straightforward one, seeing the men rise from their mediocre places in society to positions of empowerment.
The aforementioned example of the support group aside, the protagonist, appropriately nameless as an example of a man robbed of power and identity, serves as a fine road map through Palahniuk’s interpretation of this journey. When the novel opens, he has achieved what many would consider some fine goals in life. He has a comfortable job, a condo and a slew of belongings that should make any person happy. This said, he is restless. The routine of his life isn’t bringing any happiness and no matter how he might pretend, his efforts at buying into the dominant consumer culture are failing. They are a lie.
Hence why he goes to the support groups; to be surrounded by people who are worse off than himself. This is also why his initial contact with Marla makes him so uncomfortable, because she recognizes him for what he is. “With her watching, I’m a liar.” Marla, forces him to face the fact that he doesn’t belong in this circle of people, which forces him to confront the fact that he doesn’t belong in the other lifestyle either. “In this moment, Marla’s lie reflects my lie, and I all I can see are lies. In the middle of all the truth.” (p. 23, Palahniuk) A confrontation that is made all the more forceful by the destruction of his condo.
“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled.” (p.44, Palahniuk) The narrator may not be pleased with his life in any solid sense, but it still provides for him a comfortable sense of stability he had. This is much like Frank Wheeler who when presented with his own existential moment of choice, was unwilling to step away from his current life. Once this obstacle is removed he is in a position where the only choice remaining to him is to change his life.
“Oh,Tyler, please deliver me.” His pleading is not that of a former homeowner reaching out to a friend, but rather a man desperately seeking an avenue with which to express himself now that the final, flawed method suggested by society, consumerism, has been destroyed for him. Palahniuk is quick to indicate the method of deliverance. Meeting Tyler in a bar, the narrator asks the soon to be social leader if he can move in with him. Tyler then tells him that he wants something first. “There, drunk in the bar where no one was watching and no one would care, I asked Tylerwhat he wanted me to do.” (p.46, Palahniuk) The connotation here is obvious. Though no sexual act is explicitly implied, one can deduce that the narrator thinks that Tylerwants to perform a sexual act on him, or to be performed on sexually. The book up until this point has been building a case of complete emasculation for the narrator. This is the culmination as the narrator seems perfectly ready to give in to Tyler’s presumed urges as long as he can have a roof over his head. He is willing to submit himself to another man, taking on a role most stereotypically reserved for the feminine. Juxtapose this with the primitively masculine desire that Tyler expresses, when he asks the narrator simply to hit him. With this the book signals the end of emasculation as the narrator, and the men of the novel begin to retake the reins of their lives and stake out their masculinity in the only way they know how: they fight.
“The cultural descendant of the nomadic warrior is the macho man”, (Tomkins, p.64) and the code of the nomadic warrior was often defined by its focus on single combat. The titular fight clubs tap into this age old test of masculinity.“…Two men per fight, one fight at a time, no shoes no shirts, fights go on as long as they have to.” (p.50, Palahniuk) The members of the fight clubs engage each other in the most primitive way possible. They use no weapons, just their fists and the fights themselves end up being less about combat and more about a catharsis of classic male pride. “You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words… There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.” (p.51, Palahniuk)
The fight clubs are very much about establishing oneself as a figure capable of the hypermasculine. Unlike Frank Wheeler, who sought out masculinity primarily via the avenue of sexual promiscuity, the men in Fight Club pursue the sense of identity they’ve lost through sheer physicality and force, tapping into the same vein of power that drove Beowulf to prove himself by facing Grendel with his bare hands. They are linking themselves to the sort of primal instinct that is often considered a defining characteristic of the likes of Conan who is often described by Robert E. Howard as like a “panther” or some other creature of vicious nature.
The book is also careful to maintain a general focus on white collar society. This segment of the population is, by the mere lack of any substantial blue collar examples, demonstrated by Palahniuk as that most mired in consumer culture and the emasculating effect it has on people. “Now I go to meetings or conferences and see faces at conference tables, accountants and junior executives or attorneys…” (p.54, Palahniuk). These men are the most problematic because by the status quo of current society there is little for them to complain about. They are comfortable, they have known little hardship in their lives, unlike the blue collar working class which is often centered around physical labor. There are a few minor examples of such men participating in the fight clubs, Big Bob for instance was a body builder, and a mechanic features prominently for a few pages, but overall, the general populace of the fight club movement is demonstrated as being one “with perfect teeth and clear skin and the kind of job you bother to write the alumni magazine about getting.” These are the men whose sole qualifier of masculinity, the role of breadwinner, has been stripped from them.
That the book rejects their way of life should be of no surprise to anyone, especially considering the ties it maintains to the trends of hypermasculinity. The white collar world is one governed much through fear. Those on top have little to lose, while those on the bottom \through a single misstep can lose their jobs and all the comforts that are supposed to define their success in life. The rich and wealthy are displayed here in no uncertain terms of disdain:“to them you’re just a cockroach.” (p. 81, Palahniuk) They treat working Joe’s like the narrator poorly because they know all the repercussions of a bad relation would befall the man lacking wealth. As Howard writes, “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split.” (p.63, Howard) The men of Fight Club emboldened by their ritualized violence soon find themselves more willing to split the skull of society.
“Getting fired,” Tylersays, “is the best thing that could happen to any of us. That way, we’d quit treading water and do something with our lives.” (p.83, Palahniuk) Embracing the existential tendencies of the hypermasculine, the men of Fight Club labor initially to in the least make their lives more tolerable, partly through the sabotage of the upper class. Take the actions of the narrator and his alter ego Tyler. Working as waiters they partake in a routine sabotage of their wealthy client’s food.“Last week, I tell Tyler, when the Empire State Lawyers were here for their Christmas party, I got mine hard and stuck it in all their orange mousses. Last week, Tyler says, he stopped the elevator and farted on a whole cart of Boccone Dolce for the Junior League tea.” (p.80, Palahniuk) While the imagery likely fits the worst nightmares of any person who has ever eaten at a restaurant, the novel is careful to only ever show the ruined food being served to the rich. “The giants, they’ll send something back to the kitchen for no reason at all. They just want to see you run around for their money.” (p.80, Palahniuk) The waiter’s repay their patron’s treatment in kind, “We’ve turned into the guerrilla terrorists of the service industry.” (p.81, Palahniuk) These acts are important because they mark the beginning of the progression away from fearing society and the rich people who that governs the lives of the observed men. It is most certainly not a definitive move away; the act carries with it some risk, but is largely still rather passive aggressive.
As the novel progresses however, the men become more bold and open with their actions. When Seattle’s police commissioner threatens their beloved fight clubs they are not in the slightest way passive in their response. Tylerdescribes the scene, “One [man’s] between his legs with the knife… and I’m whispering in his most esteemed police commissioner’s ear that he better stop the fight club crackdown, or we’ll tell the world that his esteemed honor does not have any balls.” When said official begs the deranged fight club members not to castrate him, Tyler responds succinctly. “We have nothing to lose except fight club.”
Where once the men in question were at the bottom rung of society, the removal of their inhibitions toward violence turns the table. Men like the commissioner would have been considered successes in the modern, consumption driven world, but when faced with its victims, and the hypermasculine power they have alternatively embraced, he finds his many achievements redundant. All that mattered was the bodily injury he was being threatened with, and the emasculation he would suffer as a result. Robbed of their fear and endowed with the simple, yet effective powers of their bodies, Fight Club’s men easily transcended the power of the commissioner which was firmly based in rules and regulations that the classic hypermasculine can rarely be bound by. (p.165, Palahniuk)
“Remember this,” Tylersaid. “The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life… So don’t fuck with us.” (p.166, Palahniuk) In their research, Tomkins and Mosher explain that, “Engaging in acts of daring aggression sets the “real boy” above the scared and crying inferiors who hang their heads in shame.” (p.69, Tomkins) Revolving their lives around violence, the men of Fight Club are shown to be subsequently fearless.
And following closely with examples of the hypermasculine hero, the men of Fight Club don’t limit themselves to merely reforming their own lives. They look at the world around them, noting the degraded state of “civilization” and decide that for them to ever live in a positive way, the world has to be changed. In line with their current state of physical awareness the men, lead by Tyler Durden, opt to return the world to a state of barbarism in which they feel they would most thrive. “Imagine, Tyler said,“stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers; you’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of the life, and you’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the SearsTower. Jack and the beanstalk, you’ll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.” (p.125, p. Palahniuk)
Compare this to Howard, who writes in a Conan story, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind… Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always triumph.” (p.100, Howard) In the view of the fight clubbers, the civilized world, for all its benefits and comforts is decadent and corrupt. Their hope is to return society to that state of barbarism in which hypermasculine men like Conan thrived. Like the fantasy barbarian, who conquers the civilized kingdom of Aquilonia and then rebuilds it better than it was before, they want “to break up civilization so we can make something better out of the world.” (p.125, Palahniuk) The end of the novel sees Tyler’s plan come to fruition. They bomb various centers of civilized society out of the hope that it will fall and yield a barbarism that can then be molded like clay.
There are some problems of course with Fight Club’s trip from emasculation to masculinity. The seeming goal of the fight clubs is to rekindle the lost power of the men who join them. They have been stripped by society of their pride, and any means to attain and then forced to submit themselves to a routine of consumerism that controls their every thought. By the end of the book however, though given an awareness of their physical prowess they are then enthralled in another, equally restrictive regime of thought: Tyler’s. The whole point of the fight clubs is voided by their eventual evolution into Project Mayhem, wherein the men have been freed from their white collar work, but then become almost literal employees of Tyler Durden. That they have been previously liberated is rendered inconsequential by their subsequent bondage toTyler’s dogma.“To be “feminine” is to be a slave, not a warrior.” (Tomkins, p.75) Tyler is certainly a charismatic leader, but nonetheless, by submitting to him the men of Fight Club are giving into to the same perceived feminine weaknesses they were trying to rid themselves of. A driving characteristic of the hypermasculine is their desire to avoid submission, to be that force that people submit to.This is not the case in Fight Club.
The aforementioned examples demonstrate in a sense, not the quality of the hypermasculine as source of masculine pride, but rather it’s use -often negative- in the escaping the issues of masculinity in a modern day. Frank Wheeler chose to play the stud in order to escape the manner in which the masculine code of his society was conversely emasculating him. It was easier to sleep with Maureen Grube than it would have been for him to shrug off the disapproving glances of the other men around him and go to Paris with his wife to find his own sense of pride.
Similarly,Fight Club sees men hearkening back to the masculine script of another time rather than finding their own unique replacement for the rather weak consumerist standard of modern society. They choose to fight simply because it is the easiest way they could think of to feel like men. That it was easily subverted toward another cause is evidence of it’s insubstantial nature.
In the end the hypermasculine standard that means the most, existentialism, is the one that the concerned men fail the most. Frank Wheeler’s ultimate failure as a man isn’t because of his shallow focus on sexuality. He fails because he turns his back on existentialism and decides to continue his role as the suffering breadwinner. Similarly, the men of Fight Club do regain some genuine pride, but it’s subsequent loss to Tyler’s fascism is a similar send up to the importance of self choice and existentialism. In the end it seems that most masculine thing a man can do is shirk any other’s concept of manliness, and simply do what makes himself feel the most powerful.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. W.W. Norton: Random House, 1996.
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. Random House, 1961.
Howard, Robert E.. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. Del Rey, 2002.
Howard, Robert E.. The Conquering Sword of Conan. Del Rey, 2005.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. The Hearts of Men. Anchor Press, 1987.
Tomkins, Silvan S., and Donald L. Mosher. “Scripting the Macho Man: Hypermasculine Socialization and Enculturation.” Journal of Sex Research 25(1988):