We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman [the narrator] is created.—David Fincher
Fincher said Fight Club was a coming of age film, like the 1967 film The Graduate but for people in their 30s. Fincher described the narrator as an "everyman"; the character is identified in the script as "Jack", but left unnamed in the film. Fincher outlined the narrator's background: "He's tried to do everything he was taught to do, tried to fit into the world by becoming the thing he isn't." The narrator cannot find happiness, so he travels on a path to enlightenment in which he must "kill" his parents, his god, and his teacher. At the start of the film, he has killed his parents. With Tyler Durden, he kills his god by doing things they are not supposed to do. To complete the process of maturing, the narrator has to kill his teacher, Tyler Durden.
The character is a 1990s inverse of The Graduate archetype: "a guy who does not have a world of possibilities in front of him, he has no possibilities, he literally cannot imagine a way to change his life." He is confused and enraged, so he responds to his environment by creating Tyler Durden, a Nietzschean Übermensch, in his mind. While Tyler is who the narrator would want to be, he is not empathetic and does not help the narrator face decisions in his life "that are complicated and have moral and ethical implications". Fincher explained, "[Tyler] can deal with the concepts of our lives in an idealistic fashion, but it doesn't have anything to do with the compromises of real life as modern man knows it. Which is: You're not really necessary to a lot of what's going on. It's built, it just needs to run now." While studio executives worried that Fight Club was going to be "sinister and seditious", Fincher sought to make it "funny and seditious" by including humor to temper the sinister element.
Uhls described the film as a "romantic comedy", explaining, "It has to do with the characters' attitudes toward a healthy relationship, which is a lot of behavior which seems unhealthy and harsh to each other, but in fact does work for them—because both characters are out on the edge psychologically." The narrator seeks intimacy, but he avoids it with Marla Singer, seeing too much of himself in her. While Marla is a seductive and negativist prospect for the narrator, he instead embraces the novelty and excitement that comes with befriending Tyler Durden. The narrator is comfortable being personally connected to Tyler Durden, but he becomes jealous when Tyler becomes sexually involved with Marla. When the narrator argues with Tyler about their friendship, Tyler tells him that being friends is secondary to pursuing the philosophy they have been exploring. Tyler also suggests doing something about Marla, implying that she is a risk to be removed. When Tyler says this, the narrator realizes that his desires should have been focused on Marla and begins to diverge from Tyler's path.
We decided early on that I would start to starve myself as the film went on, while [Brad Pitt] would lift and go to tanning beds; he would become more and more idealized as I wasted away.—Edward Norton
The unreliable narrator is not immediately aware that Tyler Durden originated in him and is being mentally projected. He also mistakenly promotes the fight clubs as a way to feel powerful, though the narrator's physical condition worsens while Tyler Durden's appearance improves. While Tyler desires "real experiences" of actual fights like the narrator at first, he manifests a nihilistic attitude of rejecting and destroying institutions and value systems. His impulsive nature, representing the id, conveys an attitude that is seductive and liberating to the narrator and the members of Project Mayhem. Tyler's initiatives and methods become dehumanizing; he orders around the members of Project Mayhem with a megaphone similar to camp directors at Chinese re-education camps. The narrator pulls back from Tyler and in the end, he arrives at a middle ground between his two conflicting selves.
Norton said, "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." Pitt said, "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." Fight Club also parallels the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause; both probe the frustrations of the people that live in the system. The characters, having undergone societal emasculation, are reduced to "a generation of spectators". A culture of advertising defines society's "external signifiers of happiness", causing an unnecessary chase for material goods that replaces the more essential pursuit of spiritual happiness. The film references Calvin Klein, IKEA, and the Volkswagen New Beetle. Norton said of the Beetle, "We smash it ... because it seemed like the classic example of a Baby Boomer generation marketing plan that sold culture back to us." His character also walks through his apartment while visual effects identify his many IKEA possessions. Fincher described the narrator's immersion, "It was just the idea of living in this fraudulent idea of happiness." Pitt explained the dissonance, "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."
The violence of the fight clubs serves not to promote or glorify physical combat, but for participants to experience feeling in a society where they are otherwise numb. The fights tangibly represent a resistance to the impulse to be "cocooned" in society. Norton believed that the fighting between the men strips away the "fear of pain" and "the reliance on material signifiers of their self-worth", leaving them to experience something valuable. When the fights evolve into revolutionary violence, the film only half-accepts the revolutionary dialectic by Tyler Durden; the narrator pulls back and rejects Durden's ideas. Fight Club purposely shapes an ambiguous message, the interpretation of which is left to the audience. Fincher elaborated, "I love this idea that you can have fascism without offering any direction or solution. Isn't the point of fascism to say, 'This is the way we should be going'? But this movie couldn't be further from offering any kind of solution."