Our main character, played by Edward Norton, is a man with no name. He attends support groups for diseases he doesn't have—sickle-cell anemia, brain parasites—wearing name tags displaying names that aren't his—Cornelius, Rupert, Travis.
He does this because he has insomnia. "For six months I couldn't sleep," he says. But for some reason, the fake support groups help him sleep. They give him an emotional release he doesn't normally get in his waking life, working a soulless corporate job in compliance and liability for a major automobile company.
Here's the kind of heartless work he does for a living:
NARRATOR: Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply it by the probable rate of failure, B, then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C—equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
What he's doing is turning human life into a commodity. He's putting a price on it (a low one) and doing so not only cheapens the lives of others, but his own. Maybe that's why he can't sleep; he feels worthless. So he's desperate to find some meaning.
We ended that last segment on such a happy note. Ah, meaning! But his meaning turns out to be meaningless. It's all just stuff he's acquired, from his furniture to the support groups. It's all fake and disposable, and it takes the appearance of Marla Singer (another "tourist") to reflect it back to him…and he doesn't like what he sees.
The realization of how meaningless his life is, coupled with the delusions brought on by insomnia, cause him to create Tyler Durden, the version of himself that he wants to be. When he says things like, "Tyler's words coming out of my mouth. I used to be such a nice guy," he's displacing his true identity on to this imaginary person.
Of course, he doesn't know any of this until the very end of the movie. Until then, Tyler is his role model. Tyler is the one setting up fight clubs across the country, not him. Tyler is the one creating Project Mayhem, not him. Tyler is the one trying to reset society to zero because he believes that men need to live a primal existence in order to find meaning, not him.
Also, to our narrator, Tyler is the one having sex with Marla, not him. He seems to be jealous of her (because of the homoerotic tension between our narrator and his own alter ego), and he accuses her of latching on to a stronger person. "Why does a weaker person need to latch onto a strong person?" he asks, unaware that he's talking about himself. He's latching onto a stronger person, even if that person happens to be, well, himself.
Our narrator's disassociation from reality is just…impressive. As Tyler, he sets up chapters of fight club and Project Mayhem across the country and somehow doesn't remember any of it: "Tyler had been busy. Setting up franchises all over the country."
However, once Project Mayhem starts and terrorist acts happen, our narrator tries to stop it. The consumer part of his personality battles the anarchist side, and capitalism wins. Of course, the only way to defeat a person who is basically all your violent tendencies personified is through violence, so our narrator shoots himself in the head, and somehow this wipes Tyler out. Tyler always told him he needed to hit rock bottom, and you can't get much more rock bottom (rock bottomiest?) than intentionally putting a hole in your head.
With that the movie ends. Where will our not-so-trusty narrator go from here? Back to the IKEA catalog? Start a family with Marla? Keep running amok, but in a slightly less devastating way? Whatever happens to dear ol' Tyler, we know that Marla will be holding his hand through it all.
Before we officially "meet" Tyler, when our main character sits next to him on a plane, we see him in a series of subliminal flashes, like near a copier or behind a doctor. This is our first clue that Tyler is not what he seems.
There are tons of clues to Tyler's true identity as a figment of our narrator's imagination throughout the film. One of our main character's first remarks to Tyler is "We have the exact same briefcase." Tyler smirks because he knows that it is the same briefcase…because they are the exact same person.
Tyler Durden is an anarchist imaginary friend whose purpose, ironically, is for our main character to be more honest and real with himself. Our narrator uses sarcasm as a defense mechanism, and Tyler immediately shoots him down: "How's that working out for you? […] Being clever?"
In order to keep it real, Tyler blows up our narrator's apartment (which means he blew up his own apartment), forcing him to move in together (i.e. move in with…himself) and work odd jobs. One of Tyler's jobs is projectionist:
TYLER: Someone has to be there to switch the projectors at the exact moment that one reel ends and the next reel begins […]
This job which serves a dual purpose: 1) It enable Tyler to splice porn into family films. 2) It's commentary on the fact that Tyler is the movie's projectionist, sending us subliminal hints and tricking us, through the storytelling, into not realizing that he and the narrator are the same person until the end. Clever girl.
As things get more extreme—Project Mayhem blows up buildings, policemen are threatened with castration—our narrator questions Tyler's motives. Or his own motives. Whatever. Tyler tries to convince him otherwise, saying, "Stop trying to control everything, and just let go. Let go!" At this point, our narrator literally lets go of a car steering wheel leading to an accident (that car really needs it alignment checked) and figuratively lets go, Frozen-style.
Unfortunately, when Jack/narrator finds out that Tyler is planning on blowing up buildings, that's going too far. As he starts to realize just how deep Tyler's plan goes, he seems to be more concerned with eliminating this uncertainty within him, this entire personality he created, no matter what the plan may be.
TYLER: You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you could be, that's me.
But our narrator decides, for unexplained reasons, that this isn't who he wants to be, despite having no problems going along with the plans for the entire movie.
When our narrator realizes he is Tyler, Tyler starts appearing crazier than ever. Brad Pitt shows up with a shaved head, a chipped tooth, and a fur coat out of a Macklemore video over a mesh shirt. Oof. Poor choice, Tyler.
Here, Tyler briefly transforms into the movie's antagonist, even though the antagonist had been society for the previous two hours. Instead of Man vs. Society, we now have Man vs. Himself in both its purest and most wacked-out form.
Tyler is "killed" when our narrator puts a gun in his own mouth and pulls the trigger. But do you think Tyler is really dead, or does he still live somewhere deep inside Jack?
Marla Singer might have one of the best entrances in movie history. She walks into a support group smoking a cigarette, exhales, and says "This is cancer, right?" Awesome. Like our narrator, she doesn't care what kind of cancer; she needs some misery to feed off of.
Her presence rubs our narrator the wrong way.
NARRATOR: Her lie reflected my lie, and suddenly, I felt nothing.
He hates her because he hates himself. Lucky for us, this hatred gets some good lines like, "If I did have a tumor, I'd name it Marla" and "Marla. The little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it, but you can't."
And he can't let her go. As much as he wants to hate her, he can't, because the two of them are so similar: depressed, empty, and nihilistic. Our narrator blows up his own apartment; Marla walks into traffic. Both have a death wish, but what both really want is human connection.
As our narrator is wrapped up in his him vs. Tyler identity crisis, we don't actually get to learn anything about Marla. We know she really hates herself when, after a cry-for-help suicide attempt (that's clue number one to the self loathing) she pretends to be someone else and tells the cops,
MARLA: The girl who lives there used to be a charming, lovely girl. She's lost faith in herself. She's a monster. She's infectious human waste. Good luck trying to save her!
She and Tyler get closer, but to her, an outsider, she knows that our narrator is Tyler Durden from the beginning. This is why Tyler is always telling himself not to tell Marla about him, because she'll blow the whole split-personality deal. This is why Project Mayhem works to keep them apart…at least at first.
It doesn't work for long. Our narrator/Tyler calls her and she tells him that he's Tyler Durden, prompting the climax of the movie. And even though he's a flat-out crazy person who, to her, turns on her constantly and speaks of himself in the third-person, she seems to forgive him in the end. Why? Do you think these two crazies could possibly ever work out?
Aside from Marla and Chloe, every named character in this movie is a man. Bob is a man, too. A man with boobs. Our narrator explains, "Bob had b****-tits."
The reason Bob is bustier than Jayne Mansfield is because he was "a juicer," a bodybuilder who took steroids. It shrunk his testicles, and his chest grew in response to testosterone treatments. Emasculated, he finds help at the testicular cancer support group.
There he meets our narrator. He hugs him to his chest, and our narrator cries:
NARRATOR: And that was where I fit […] between those huge sweating tits that hung enormous, the way you think of God's as big.
To our narrator, Bob is kind of the perfect human being. He is both man and woman. He is masculine at fight club, and nurturing with the pillowy hugs. Everything a guy needs?
Sadly, Bob doesn't survive. He joins Project Mayhem, helped by our narrator, and ends up getting shot doing "homework" for Tyler. In death, though, Bob lives on as a method of inspiration for Project Mayhem. The nameless men, the space monkeys in black, who work for Project Mayhem chant Bob's name for motivation.
THE MECHANIC: In Project Mayhem, we have no names. […] In death, a member of Project Mayhem has a name. His name is Robert Paulson.
"His name is Robert Paulson" becomes their chant. Ironically, by memorializing Bob and giving him a name, they take away his identity. He becomes more of an abstract icon, an icon the members of Project Mayhem practically worship, than an actual human being.
Jared Leto's character doesn't even get a name. He's just so beautiful that he's called Angel Face. He joins fight club, and then Project Mayhem, and then starts being doted on by Tyler. This makes our main character jealous, even though our main character is Tyler, so he's jealous of himself for giving attention to a hot guy. Or something.
Sweaty homoeroticism aside, what our narrator is really jealous of is that fact that Angel Face knows the ultimate plan of Project Mayhem and our narrator doesn't. He's being kept in the dark by the Tyler side of his personality, and, since Tyler has brought out our narrator's latent aggression, the only way he knows how to handle it is to beat the snot, blood, and teeth out of poor Angel Face, turning his face into meat loaf (but not Meat Loaf) in the process. "I felt like destroying something beautiful," our narrator says to explain his brutality.
Angel Face never speaks. In the world of Fight Club, beauty doesn't have a voice. Only the ugly side of human nature is allowed to speak.
Chloe is worth mentioning simply to quote one of the film's classic lines:
NARRATOR: Chloe looked the way Meryl Streep's skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around the party being extra nice to everybody.
She's also the only other named female character in the movie besides Marla. (Fight Club definitely fails the Bechdel test.) Chloe is a person in a support group for a legitimate reason, like Bob. And, like Bob, she dies. Marla tells our narrator this, but he doesn't really seem to care. He's too busy dealing with his own problems, as he has from the very beginning.
We learn part of Project Mayhem's mission when Tyler threatens Police Commissioner Jacobs. They intend for the common man—clerks, waiters, car washers—to rise up and take control of society.
TYLER: The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not f*** with us.
It's the 99% rising up against the 1%.
If the police commissioner doesn't do what they say, Project Mayhem threatens to cut off his balls. While we're tempted to dismiss this as simply a crass threat, balls (and masculinity in general) are the driving force behind Fight Club. Bob lost his. In fight club, guys are constantly trying to demonstrate how manly they are through violent acts.
And the police commissioner? His balls "are ice cold." Because to them, a man who isn't in fight club, especially one actively trying to stop fight club, might as well not even have any balls…or a single ounce of testosterone in his body.
There are a few other characters worth a quick mention, like Ricky, the office boy who is the best example, actually, of what it's like to join fight club. He's one of the first members, and the very first person to show up to apply for Project Mayhem. He works a thankless job and Project Mayhem and fight club are the only way he can feel important.
There's also the Mechanic, who doesn't have a name but has plenty of speaking lines. It's he who starts the "His name was Robert Paulson" chant.
Two other men don't join fight club, but get a scene apiece. One is Lou, the own of Lou's Tavern. Very creative, Lou. He tries to stop fight club, and beats Tyler senseless in the process. But Tyler lets him, and this masochistic craziness frightens Lou more than any violent act ever could, and he lets fight club stay in the basement of his bar.
Finally, there's Raymond K. Hessel, one of the characters with a full name. Tyler drags him from the convenience store he works and threatens to kill him and then lets him go saying, "If you're not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead." See, being a veterinarian is Raymond's dream, but, having been beaten down by society, he ended up working a dead-end (literally) job.
Our narrator is appalled at how Tyler threatens Raymond, but then he realizes that Tyler has a point. After he lets poor Ray run home to start vet school applications, Tyler says, "Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel's life."