Analysis of "Fight Club’s" Unreliable Narrator with Dancygier’s Cognitive Approach


Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

24 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Chapter One: In-Depth Analysis
2.1 First / Intermediate Review

3. Chapters 2-30: Broad Analysis
3.1 Second Review

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

My analysis of Fight Club completely relies on the cognitive approach from “The Language of Stories” by the cognitive linguist Barbara Dancygier. Crucial to the understanding of this approach is that it is about meaning construction, or how we read stories and create meaning. Hence, it is not my interest to suggest a prescribed interpretation of how the story is intended to be read, but to accompany the process of how meaning emerges out of textual choices, such as grammar, lexicality or simple tense variations. The effect of my agentivity shall thus only be noticeable in my navigating through the story, not in its interpretation. The framework or toolkit that the discipline of cognitive linguistics provides is not in itself a way to understand stories but rather a scaffold that has to be enriched by means of blending, compression and conceptualization, which underlie the topology of the story. The acquaintance with these concepts is a requirement prior to reading this paper since I will not explicitly elaborate on them. Over the course of the analysis I will primarily focus on the representation of the narrator’s mind, but I will also try to find a balance between story-driving and linguistically important extracts in order to simulate the telling of the story in a miniature format. I want my analysis to not disrupt the original sequence of events, but follow the story of Fight Club by keeping in registry with its sequence.

In anticipation of the analysis to come I attentively encourage to invest some time into reading the story prior to being exposed to its content. Bret Easton Ellis, an American novelist, praised the novel in saying that it was “told brilliantly”, an assessment that might be best to come to personally. Before I had read about Dancygier’s framework I understood Fight Club as a novel to mirror the zeitgeist of our time with a strong emphasis on transgressions. Indeed, the established circle of men, the so-called fight club, represents violence as a means to achieve goals, portrays self-destruction as an unorthodox way of self-improvement, and ultimately embodies the permission to exert violence. But the vital question is why an author would go all this way through an unreliable narrator with dissociative identity disorder in order to focus on violence when he could have set the focus on the fight club alone. In truth, the nature of the narrator encourages a more complex understanding of the story than the reduction to the theme of violence alone. With Dancygier’s framework it is possible to analyze even small linguistic elements, such as lexical items, without losing the focus of the overarching story. Au contraire, it enables to view portions of the narrative and integrate them into higher spaces by means of compression, which ultimately contributes to the understanding of the story as a whole.

The structure of this paper is twofold: after an analysis of the first chapter, there will be an intermediate review which summarizes the most important results, and after analyzing subsequent chapters, there will be a second review. Both reviews function as a “dump” of information in order to not overwhelm the reader with too much accruing information leading up to the conclusion. There are mainly two reasons why I cover the first chapter of the novel in such detail and seemingly rush through the following ones. On the one hand, the exposition of Fight Club qualifies for a detailed analysis because it introduces the reader to the viewpoint of the narrator and contains essential information about the story, which can potentially anticipate the outcome of it. On the other hand, I want to demonstrate that it is equally possible to analyze a portion of a narrative text in-depth and integrate it into the overall understanding of the story, as well as to look at various extracts from different chapters in the novel and still contribute to the meaning construction in the same way. Since my analysis relies on only this one book by Chuck Palahniuk I will deliberately discontinue the mention of the working title and only specify the respective pages.

2. Chapter One: In-Depth Analysis

In keeping with the motto of creative writing, the opening lines in (1) are as unexpected and shocking as they are expected to be. Crucially to the pertaining story, they open up the spaces of the events to come as they indicate different modes of time, introduce the narrator’s epistemic viewpoint and, at the same time, function as a narrative anchor for the duration of the whole story.

(1) Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden. (Fight Club, p. 11)

The novel is structured as a present-tense/first-person narrative with a narrator who remains unnamed throughout the story. The setup of the story-viewpoint space (SV space) as a first-person narration heavily impacts the main-narrative space (MN space) since the distance between the two is severely reduced, or compressed. A strict distinction between the narrator on the level of the SV space and the narrator on the level of the MN space becomes virtually impossible since they cannot be distinguished neither by their register of speech or grammatical choice nor by their name. The only point of reference of the narrator-cum-character is the pronominal I. For the sake of convenience, I will occasionally refer to the unnamed narrator as Joe. The name is not an arbitrary choice but part of a recurrent expression of what starts off as an allegory of the body and then, over the course of the story, becomes a way for the narrator to express his emotional state in a third person style.

There are two remarks about the first sentence from (1). Tyler gets me a job as a waiter and Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth are two originally independent narrative spaces which are blended into one. Tyler did not push a gun in the narrator’s mouth immediately after getting him a job as a waiter. The effect of this blending becomes visible when considering the deictic after that which suggests a sequence of events, a particular direction of progress where one is following the other. But the succession of these events is not an immediate one; it merely appears in a reduced form of time due to being compressed along the temporal axis. The second sentence is also temporally bound as far as it hints at a thriving friendship between Tyler and Joe in a time span before the incident with the gun. In fact, the whole paragraph is linked to a temporal ground suggesting a present narrating time and a past narrating time in respect to the narrator’s current temporal location. Now that he is confronted with his own death, he starts to remember how he ended up here, becoming friends with Tyler and working as a waiter. In the last sentence (People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden) we are introduced to the epistemic viewpoint of the narrator thinking or talking to himself. The difference, as I will argue, is not of importance to the meaning construction of the story but it is a linguistically intriguing style of discourse which I will come back to in the first review. The rather indiscernible detail of random people asking Joe whether he knew about Tyler Durden is not simply a question that checks the status of factual knowledge, as in “Yes, I know Tyler Durden”, but it rather implies a certain capacity of acting, a potential or intention of Tyler which Joe is expected to know as well. The expectation to know about something implies a crucial, little extra of information. But the reader is left dangling as this is just a setup of a narrative space that will be gradually filled with purpose in the following chapters and is thus not only a marker for epistemic stance but also functions as a narrative anchor, as a space builder suggesting the availability of a narrative space without expounding it right away. In a sense, the first paragraph leaves the impression of an anticipated summary being told. As such, it opens up the main narrative spaces and informs of a shared history between the two men.

The next extract is an allusion to the ambiguous nature of the narrator. Tyler, as it will become evident, is the driving anarchic force that Joe goes along with. Being threatened with a gun by Tyler, Joe reminisces about how the silencer holes were drilled.

(2) With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. (p. 11)

A sensible question to ask would be if there were two men necessary to drill holes into one gun. Palahniuk makes use of an inconspicuous pronoun (we) in relation to the narrator’s psychological disposition, yet he provides a satisfactory explanation at this stage in the story, namely the close friendship between Tyler and Joe, and the reader is readily accepting that both of them drilled holes into the gun in an ostensibly joint effort.

A considerably more salient comment that recurrently finds its use after scientific excursions into Tyler’s expertise can be found in (3). Shortly after the narrator finishes his instructional monologue about the manufacture of nitroglycerin he mentions how he acquired that knowledge.

(3) You take 98-percent concentration of fuming nitric acid and add the acid to three times that amount of sulfuric acid. Do this in an ice bath. Then add glycerin drop-by-drop with an eye dropper. You have nitroglycerin. I know this because Tyler knows this. (p. 12)

Previously, we have been introduced to a shared history between the two men; here we are acquainted with a lot more than that - their shared epistemic viewpoint. While it is not necessary to conclude that the full range of their individual epistemic viewpoints is aligned, it seems that there are moments when they share a connection of some kind. Of course, for the first time reader it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that Joe has been exposed to Tyler’s intentions long enough to know about explosives. But a vigilant eye would at least halt at this point and wonder.

A significantly more subtle detail that is easily overlooked is another use of the pronoun we in combination with the sensory verb hear in (4). The narrator describes his current situation which seems inseparable from Tyler’s presence and, what is more, they also happen to share sensory experience.

(4) So Tyler and I are on top of the Parker-Morris Building with the gun stuck in my mouth, and we hear glass breaking. Look over the edge. It’s a cloudy day, even this high up. This is the world’s tallest building, and this high up the wind is always cold. It’s so quiet this high up, the feeling that you get is that you’re one of those space monkeys. (p. 12)

Why is it so important for the reader to know that both, Tyler and Joe, hear the glass breaking? It would seem a harmless alternative to substitute we for ‘I’ since there is no apparent consequence if Tyler would not have heard it. Moreover, there is no sign of reaction, no sensory evidence that would tell the narrator about Tyler also hearing the breaking of the glass. How then is it possible for him to tell, not guess, whether Tyler also hears the glass breaking? On-stage first-person narrators are naturally presented as capable of only a limited epistemic viewpoint which resides within the boundaries of a character, but here it easily seems to extend to Tyler in the form of direct experience. It seems vital to the understanding of the complex relationship between Tyler and Joe to mention the perception in the plural and to leave an evidential marker. The author could have chosen an alternative form, such as we can hear glass breaking, which would give the narrator more of an equivocal option to suggest knowing another character’s mental state insofar as to provide the availability of a sound that one could possibly hear but not commit to say that he/she actually consciously perceives it. But as another example below (6) will reiterate, the choice of pronouns with their implicative consequences, such as the hear example, is not incidental.

By the same token, the imperative style used here (Look over the edge), as well as making use of the generic you in subsequent phrases including its use in (3) is not meant to casually address the reader as this is not intrusive narration. The particular style follows a different pattern in resembling instructions found in recipes, do-it-yourself projects and the like. We can further assume that these instructional fragments are not spoken discourse (but they may very well be part of a discourse space) because the narrator neither addresses a specific character nor the reader. The ultimate addressee of the instructional narration is somebody with the intent of following these instructions, which, in this case, is the narrator himself. It may not be evident right away, but the fact that the narrator is addressing himself in a third person style is a reflection of his mental health problem and as such it is a remarkable technique that does not arouse suspicion while reinforcing the underlying psychological disposition which, at this point, is not an issue to the reader because he/she does not know about it.

A simple blend and narrative anchor from (4) worth mentioning is the compound expression space monkey combining the meaning of cosmic space and an animal capable of being trained to perform simple tasks. Here it is used in an ambivalent manner, on the one hand designating the top-down point of view when looking down from the tall building Tyler and Joe are on top of, similar to the imagination that a monkey shot into space would have the same top-down view. And on the other hand, it is alluding to Tyler’s crew which is hauling desks out of the windows of the building, hence the shattering glass. The crew is a trusted circle of men who can be considered supporters or followers of Tyler. As a narrative anchor this blend will also participate in further narrative spaces when the narrator or Tyler refer to their followers as space monkeys who were specially trained for a specific assignment.

Another recurrent theme is the countdown to zero. Tyler and Joe are on top of a building that is supposed to collapse in ten minutes. They have blasting gelatin wrapped around the foundation columns of the building in order to topple it and let it slam onto the national museum, Tyler’s real target.

(5) We’re down to our last ten minutes. (p. 13) It is not clear how the narrator knows about the remaining time since it is not explicitly supported by linguistic means. Neither is it communicated to him nor does he show any signs of deduction that might lead him to believe it is the last ten minutes. Still, we can be certain that it is his “voice” which plainly informs us about the last minutes of their lives. It is a plain statement since there are no emotive markers or signs that the narrator would be agitated. The countdown itself is not a physical device with a display; it is rather a mental construct that depicts the inevitability of death in various forms throughout the novel. The pronoun accidentally falls into place with Joe and Tyler as speakers

(We), but it might as well be conceived as an unspecific use of it, as a generic pronoun. Either way, the resulting effect, that is, the affectless mediation of vital (maybe not to the reader but definitely to the characters) information, remains the same.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Analysis of "Fight Club’s" Unreliable Narrator with Dancygier’s Cognitive Approach
University of Osnabrück  (English studies)
Cognition and Poetics
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ISBN (Book)
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analysis, fight, unreliable, narrator, cognitive, approach, fight club, dancygier, club, linguistics, poetics
Quote paper
Ernst Stolz (Author), 2013, Analysis of "Fight Club’s" Unreliable Narrator with Dancygier’s Cognitive Approach, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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