SPOILER WARNING: This post contains very severe spoilers that will not only ruin Fight Club the first time you see it, but also the second time. (Don’t ask if you don’t want to know and haven’t seen it yet.) You have been warned!
I love the film version of Fight Club. In fact, I think the film is one of the very few occasions that the film is actually better than the book. Of course, the book is genius as well, but I think the film really opened the story up and expanded upon it. It also rewards multiple viewings, since once you know the basic “secret” of the film you can’t watch it the same way you watched it going in blind. And each time after that, you pick up on new little details.
One of the major ways that I think the film is better than the book is in its portrayal of the trinity of the narrator’s personalities, each with a separate role and function in the narrator’s life.
“Wait,” I hear you cry. “Trinity? What trinity? There’s only two personalities: Jack (played by Ed Norton) and Tyler (played by Brad Pitt). There is no third personality of the narrator!”
Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Our narrator (I’ll call him “Jack” just for convenience’s sake) has three distinct personalities: Jack, Tyler, and… Marla Singer.
The Story So Far
To refresh your memory, here is the basic set-up of Fight Club: An insurance examiner (we never learn his name but he’s usually referred to as “Jack” because of a running gag parodying Readers’ Digest article titles) whose job is to calculate whether it would be more cost-effective to recall vehicles or just let motorists die and pay off their families, is having trouble sleeping. Prompted by a condescending off-the-cuff remark by his doctor he ends up attending support groups for the terminally ill. After his first attendance at a meeting for victims of testicular cancer he sleeps like a baby for the first time in ages.
Jack continues attending support groups for diseases ranging from Tuberculosis to ascending bowel cancer to parasites. One night Marla Singer, a strange looking woman smoking a cigarette, attends the testicular cancer group setting off a chain of events. He then meets a man on an airplane who starts telling him things he secretly wants to hear and encourages him to rebel against his consumer-driven lifestyle.
The twist is supposed to be that the man, whose name is “Tyler Durden,” doesn’t really exist; he’s an alternate personality that Jack’s mind created to cope with the stress brought on by the job that he hates, the stress of the modern world, and his inability to sleep.
I maintain that another twist, not apparent upon first viewing but pretty obvious upon multiple viewings, is that Tyler is not the only alternate personality created by Jack’s mind. There is pretty strong evidence in the film that Marla (as played by Helena Bonham Carter) is also a personality of Jack’s.
I am He as You are He as You are Me and we are all together.
One thing Hollywood consistently gets wrong is the idea that a person with “split personalities” would have just two, and that those two tend towards Good and Evil. This is not true in psychology; it’s only true in transporter accidents on Star Trek that allow William Shatner to chew the scenery.
In real life, people with dissociative personality disorder tend to have three or more personalities. Once an alternate is formed by a person’s psyche it becomes easier for others to be formed. Some people will develop personalities to deal with specific situations like self-defense, lust, or to rationalize inaction. (If you want to read a piece of fiction that deals with DPD realistically, go read Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff.)
To examine what role each of Jack’s personalities play, let’s pull out Freud’s psychic apparatus. While simplistic, it’s sufficient to describe these three personalities. The personalities roughly equate to the Id, the Ego, and the Superego.
Jack is the waking personality of our narrator; it is the personality that deals with the outside world most of the time, and is the most realistic of the three. Tyler is obviously the repressed, animalistic side of the personality always out for self gratification; he is the personality that does all the things that the narrator wants to do but his dominant personality (Jack) either is afraid to do or knows better than to do. Balancing out these two is the Superego or “conscience,” which helps the Ego keep the Id in check. This is the role that Marla plays.
One other thing you might find significant is the names of the personalities. “Jack” was (and some places still is) a common generic by-name for a man. “Tyler” comes from an old English term for the door keeper of a tavern (that is to say, a bouncer). And Marla? It’s an English corruption of “Magdalen,” believe it or not. Read into that what you will.
A Bird in a Guilt Cage
When we first meet Marla at 11:07 into the film, Jack is contemplating the fact that the affection he is getting from Bob (the man with bitch-tits, played by Meat Loaf Aday) is coming under false pretenses. “Bob loved me because he thought my testicles were removed, too. Being loved, pressed against his tits, ready to cry: this was my vacation.” Jack knows he doesn’t belong there and that he is, in essence, lying to Bob and the other men in the room. Then Marla appears, puncturing Jack’s illusion and emphasizing Jack’s lie to him. He calls her a “tourist,” echoing his reference to his own lie facilitating his “vacation.” This is best summed up by Jack’s narration at 11:42:
“Marla, the big tourist. Her lie reflected my lie, and suddenly I felt nothing. I couldn’t cry. So once again, I couldn’t sleep.”
Jack becomes angrier and angrier as he contemplates Marla’s interference in his lies. Just as he’s deciding to finally confront her, we see the second “Tyler Flash” of the film. These are single frames where director David Fincher digitally inserted an image of Tyler Durden into the action before we’ve met him. The first time we see a “Tyler Flash” is when the idea of attending the groups first comes up. Now as Jack is losing the benefit of these groups to his conscience we get another flash. The Tyler personality is asserting itself urging Jack to confront his conscience and get what he wants.
At 14:08 in the film, Marla has completely subverted Jack’s lie as she replaces Jack’s “power animal” in guided meditation. Marla is in Jack’s head — but is she just there now, or has she always been?
When Jack starts questioning the validity of his attendance, Marla appears to throw a bucket of cold water on the proceedings. Jack no longer feels the benefit of his lies because his conscience is eating away at him until his base emotions start rebelling.
Throughout this film, one common thing marks every re-entrance of Marla into Jack’s life: they all come when he is (or should be) feeling guilty about something.
The Marla Timeline
The rest of Marla’s appearance in the film is best viewed as a timeline, marking significant moments between herself and Jack (and, by extension, Tyler), and what leads me to believe that they signify that there is no person named “Marla Singer” except in Jack’s head.
When Jack confronts Marla at 14:27 she calls him out. “I saw you practicing this,” she says about the confrontation, but we have not seen Jack practicing anything. Perhaps she has seen him preparing what to say from inside his head? When the group comes together to let themselves cry, Marla appers to embrace Jack, but there is an awkward moment at 15:47 when the facilitator walks by and admonishes Jack to “share” himself “completely.” She only looks at Jack and does not acknowledge Marla. Could it be that she is admonishing him to share because Jack is really standing there alone, not sharing anything with anyone?
16:54 – While Jack is pursuing Marla, traffic stops for her. Later (17:50) when Jack is no longer pursuing Marla but is beckoning for her to come back to him, traffic doesn’t even notice her. This might be because Jack is actually the one crossing the street the first time and thinks he is yelling after her. The second time he remains in the doorway and summons back the personality that was about to disappear. Yes, when traffic stops Jack is still back in the door of the laundromat, but we know that the Jack personality ofter perceives things as if from the sidelines. This is clearly seen on at least one other occasion (see 24:31 below).
18:24 – After Jack and Marla reach an understanding that will keep them from seeing each other, a bus passes in front of Marla and Jack suddenly wakes up on a plane. Has the entire confrontation/reconciliation with Marla been a dream while he slept? (It’s established later that much of the Tyler personality’s active periods come while Jack is asleep.)
21:03 – The first actual appearance of the Tyler personality, coming as Jack is waking from a dream where two planes collide. Is Jack still asleep and just experiencing Tyler for the first time in his dream, the way he finally confronted his Marla personality?
24:31 – Jack stops walking out of the airline terminal and stares at the street. Tyler comes along and steals a car. (This actually happens because we hear someone react off-screen.) This shows that the Jack personality will on occasion stop in his tracks and observe what is going on when another personality takes over his body. This explains why traffic stops for Marla at 16:54; the Jack personality is on the sidelines but the body (under control of the Marla personality) is out in the street.
45:23 – Marla re-enters Jack’s life 8 weeks after he stopped going to support groups (the activity which triggered Marla’s appearance through guilt). She’s attempting suicide. Marla does not give Jack her address, yet his Tyler personality knows where to get her when he becomes aware of her. This is because Marla’s apartment building is in Jack’s head.
47:53 – The Tyler personality does not show up (become active) in the scene until after the Marla personality has left (i.e.: become dormant).
48:46 – Tyler recounts his meeting Marla. When he arrives she is about to die from the overdose but quickly recovers without any intervention by Tyler (i.e.: making her vomit, taking her to get her stomach pumped, etc.). By the time they leave at 49:53 she is fully conscious and relatively coherent. Seconds later she is groggy again and says that Tyler needs to keep her up all night. This is not Jack (being run by Tyler) keeping Marla conscious, it’s one personality keeping another in a semi-waking state.
50:55 – “Marla doesn’t need a lover, she needs a case worker.” Because she’s another manifestation of Jack’s mental illness?
51:00 – “She invaded my support groups, now she’d invaded my home.” Again, Marla is a manifestation of Jack’s guilt. He subconsciously feels guilty about the actions he has taken through his Tyler personality and summons Marla to stop them. However, the Tyler personality is too strong for Marla and overcomes her by seducing her.
55:28 – “Except for their humping, Tyler and Marla were never in the same room. My parents pulled this exact same act for years.” Jack uses the example of his parents to rationalize his alternates’ actions.
1:03:15 – Jack has just had a big confrontation with his boss, who has discovered the rules of Fight Club that Jack had left in the copy machine. Jack has threatened his boss which makes him feel guilty. Guilt = Marla! The phone rings and Marla is supposedly on the other line. The boss stares uncomprehendingly at Jack, then at the phone’s handset. This is because Jack has just picked up a phone that did not ring, and is talking to no one.
1:21:27 – The next time we see Marla is shortly after Tyler has threatened to shoot a man in the back of the head, Fight Club has destroyed the forerunner of an Apple store, and Tyler has given his “all singing all dancing crap of the world” speech. These are the most extreme actions the Tyler personality has perpetrated yet and at least one of which (the death threat) has caused Jack much emotional distress. Guilt = Marla! And Jack specifically tells her he wants her to stick around. (“You don’t have to go.”)
1:22:36 – “Why does a weaker person need to latch onto a stronger person?” Add “-ality” to those “persons.” Jack’s personality is nothing without his other two.
1:40:11 – Tyler has built his army and disappeared. “I’m all alone. My father dumped me, Tyler dumped me, I am Jack’s broken heart. What comes next in Project Mayhem only Tyler knows. The second rule is you do not ask questions.” Jack feels guilty. Bingo! Marla! The first words out of her mouth are the question the Jack personality is afraid to ask: “Who are all these people?” Jack chases Marla away; having been deserted by his id, he dismisses his superego.
1:46:46 – Having discovered that the Tyler personality is part of him, Jack seeks confirmation from his other personality. She confirms that Jack and Tyler are one and the same.
1:52:50 – This is one of the few moments that is tricky to reconcile to this theory. The waiter (who is a member of Project Mayhem) refers to Marla in the third person as “the lady” when he suggests avoiding the clam chowder. I’m willing to chalk it up to Jack’s brain reconciling things the way he reconciled people reacting separately to him and Tyler in the past.
2:09:08 – Marla’s last entrance comes after Jack has killed off the Tyler personality. With the maleficient personality dead, the lawgiver personality can manifest again. As the other Project Mayhem members (who never refer to Marla) leave, they stare confusedly at Jack, who is once more talking to himself.
Is Marla just another one of Jack’s personalities? I think the evidence is pretty good and I choose to believe it myself, but it’s not a slam-dunk guarantee.
For one thing, there is no hint at all that I’ve found in Chuck Palahniuk’s book that Marla doesn’t really exist. Of course there are huge differences between the book and the film (most notably the ending), so the fact that Palahniuk never intended Marla to be anything other than a real, breathing human (if he did in fact intend that) doesn’t impact her appearance in the film.
Did David Fincher set out to plant all of the hints that Marla could be just another alternate? He’s never said anything about it that I’m aware of. Still, Fincher is notorious for planting tiny details that can send a story spiralling off in a different direction when you notice them. Hell, all of Fight Club is one big mind-fuck the first time you see it.
One thing I’m certain of: if you go back and watch Fight Club again with this idea in your head, much like the first time you watched it after you knew who/what Tyler Durden really was, you’ll never see the movie the same way again.