Jacob Eisenberg explains why On the Road and Fight Club have a lot more in common than people think . . .
When comparing the character dynamics and plot progressions between the protagonists of both Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and David Fincher’s Fight Club, it is apparent that Fincher – intentionally or not – utilized a storyline that is strikingly similar to the one Kerouac published over 40 years earlier. By creating an escape from oppressed society, which in On The Road was “the road” and in Fight Club was “the Fight Club,” and by creating unique bonds between the protagonists, both storylines take the audiences into alternative worlds within their respectively oppressed mainstream societies.
In On The Road, Jack Kerouac introduces the reader to a depressed Sal Paradise immediately. Sal opens up to the reader by sharing, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead” (Kerouac 1). From the get-go, the audience knows Sal Paradise as a man who clearly struggles with society. The reader also learns within the first few pages that Sal has always dreamed of packing up his belongings and traveling West. Sal, a struggling writer who lives with his aunt in New Jersey, is in search of inspiration for his next book. Without a sense of place in society, Sal’s desire to uproot his life and experience an adventure is anything but surprising.
In Fight Club, the story’s protagonist begins his narration by telling the audience that he has not slept in six months. After visiting his doctor in hopes of receiving medication for his insomnia, the Narrator (Edward Norton) is told to visit cancer support groups at the local church to experience “real pain.” The Narrator takes his doctor up on the offer and becomes enlightened; at these seminars, the Narrator feels liberation. By seeing the pain and hardships of people afflicted with deathly ailments, the Narrator is perversely comforted. Unfortunately, the comfort the Narrator receives from these seminars is fleeting after he discovers another “imposter survivor” who follows him from seminar to seminar and spoils the “authentic pain” he gathers from each support group. The Narrator returns to his narcoleptic ways as he struggles to find an alternative escape from society.
Dissatisfied with his life in New Jersey, Sal spends all of his savings to travel West. After originally miscalculating his route, he ends up in Chicago without any money to his name. Undeterred, Sal hitches rides throughout Midwestern America and makes his way to Denver – the location where he agreed to meet his best friend, Dean Moriarty.
After meeting the unusual Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on an airplane during a return flight from a business trip, the Narrator drives home only to find his apartment burning down. Without a place to stay or a friend to turn to, the Narrator instinctively calls Tyler to meet at a local bar. After a few drinks at the bar, Tyler offers the Narrator a place to stay if, and only if, the Narrator punches Tyler as hard as he can. The Narrator reluctantly complies and punches Tyler in the ear. Before the Narrator knows it, the spontaneous rushes of violence and companionship he feels with Tyler liberate him from his oppression.
While on the road, Sal feels more freedom than ever before. Generally sheltered throughout his upbringing on the east coast, Sal meets men and women of all ages on the road and realizes the true beauty of having no set agenda. While he lacks money, the freedom of taking life day-by-day brings Sal the most happiness. As Dean points out to Sal late in the novel, the road presents unique opportunities for anyone and everyone who travels it, ”What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow… I’ll tell you. Sal, straight, no matter where I live, my trunk’s always sticking out from under the bed, I’m ready to leave or get thrown out. I’ve decided to leave everything out of my hands” (Kerouac 251). With the road perpetually sitting in the duos’ backyard, every day offers a new experience.
After the Narrator discovers the thrill of violence, he and Tyler agree to continue fighting in public on a daily basis. Subsequently, the duo starts to assemble a cult following. Around the city, masses are lured to the fights as each punch offers the audience an opportunity to relieve themselves from the oppression of the daily corporate grind. After several weeks of fighting, Tyler legitimizes the cult by renting a venue underground and by formulating a rulebook for what he calls“ The Fight Club.” For the Narrator, the appeal of the Fight Club is easy to see, “After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down… When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved” (Fincher). As a new fight was presented each night, everyone had a chance to feel saved.
As Sal becomes more infatuated with the road, he continues on his journey West with Dean. Throughout the duos’ travels, Sal grows to idolize his best friend for his charm and his ability to effortlessly win the heart of any girl in any setting. Moreover, Dean was not simply attractive to women because he was physically beautiful; Dean had an ingenuity that made everyone gravitate toward him: “But Dean’s intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete, without the tedious intellectuality. And his “criminality” was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea- saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for joy rides)” (7). Sal understands that his friend has both the brilliance to fit in with the intellectuals yet the grittiness to hang with the bandits.
By the time Fight Club is up-and-running the Narrator begins to praise Tyler for his ability to build nothing into something from the ground up. While the Narrator never knows exactly what Tyler is thinking, he is always intrigued with what Tyler’s next course of action will be: “You had to give it to him: he had a plan. And it started to make sense, in a Tyler sort of way. No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide” (Fincher). Tyler had both the capability to connect with anyone he wanted to but also to distance himself from people when he wanted to focus on his vision.
As Sal and Dean progressed on their journey, their distance from society helped them gain new perspectives on just how oppressed corporate America had become. For Sal, a man who yearned for the open road and an escape from materialism, winding up in Times Square after traveling the country gave him newfound opinions of the city workers: “Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream – grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City” (98). Essentially, Sal realizes that materialism in America is a vicious brainwashing cycle that passes on from one generation to the next and that once you become engulfed in society, there is really no escape until death.
Very similarly to Sal’s ability to assess society after distancing himself from it, the Narrator is opened up to similar cynical beliefs of corporate America as he continues to spend more time with Tyler. Tyler’s cynicism is so well articulated that his visions are hard to dismiss: “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place,” (Fincher). Over the course of several weeks, the Narrator transformed from being a self-admitted materialist who spent hours weekly browsing through catalogs in search for dining sets to becoming a man who realized materialism is a purgatory in which the consumer will never be set free.
Eventually, Sal and Dean grow apart as Sal begins to grow more comfortable with the idea of easing back into society and Dean becomes more manic and more eccentric with his continued travel. Sal, now past his days of idolizing Dean, realizes that his old friend is clearly more lonely and depressed than he ever led on. While the idea of Dean accompanying him on a journey several years prior would have delighted Sal, the news that Dean was following Sal to Mexico made the protagonist weary: “Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me… I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wrath to the West. I knew Dean had gone mad again “(259). For years, Sal had looked up to Dean and his free spirit. Now, Sal realized that Dean’s free spirit was perhaps too eccentric to be sustained. After this realization, the duo’s relationship is never quite as strong.
As Fight Club becomes an established success in the underground world, Tyler sets his sights on creating an even larger cult following by leading even more hazardous illicit activities. Tyler leads an operation called Project Mayhem and intentionally excludes his best friend, the Narrator, from the operation’s launch because he knows his friend will try to end the operation before it gets started. Once it is revealed that Operation Mayhem’s grand scheme is to burn the city’s largest banks to the ground in order to completely destroy any form of monetary equity, the Narrator stands his ground in the way of Tyler’s plan. “Tyler, I’m grateful to you; for everything that you’ve done for me. But this is too much. I don’t want this.” Tyler snaps back at his friend by saying, “What do you want? Want to go back to the shit job, fucking condo world, watching sitcoms? Fuck you, I won’t do it” (Fincher). While the Narrator has a sense of moral boundaries that prevent him from hurting innocent civilians within the banks, Tyler sees every civilian as a guilty and villainous product of materialism. Tyler’s persistence to follow through with Operation Mayhem is the final straw in the duos relationship as the Narrator makes it his mission to stop his long-time friend’s plan from being executed.
In both stories, the protagonists are introduced to alternatives to oppressed America and utilize these alternatives to better understand what it truly means to be alive. While there are differences between the stories, it is fair to say that the blueprints each storyteller took to captivate the audience were eerily similar. Both protagonists are introduced as depressed participators in mainstream America and both follow up on unique opportunities to escape the norm and experience the beauties of independence. Thanks to Dean Moriarty and Tyler Durden, both Sal Paradise and the Narrator enjoyed the true American Dream of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Emma. “Final Paper.” Digication E-Portfolio. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2012. <https://bu.digication.com/ekg1342/Final_Draft1>.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2000.
“Fight Club.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0137523/>.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.
“Sal Paradise.” Shmoop. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2012. <http://www.shmoop.com/on-the-road/sal-paradise.html>.
3 thoughts on “The Road, The Fight Club, and The Pursuit of Happiness”
Really nice analysis, and strong use of quotes to support your claim. Just a note, it’s not Fincher’s storyline, for the most part – it’s Chuck Palahniuk’s.
Also, your conclusion is something that, thanks to a really well written essay, i got the sense of without having to actually read the conclusion – it reads more like an abstract than a part of the essay. Where I was left think, and where i think you could really expand in a conclusion, is the idea that both of the main characters are shun a culture of commidity, and yet they commodify Dean and Tyler as means to better ends for themselves.
Your essay made me consider and link two works that I really like in a new and interesting way, and that’s a great characteristic in any essay.
That should say “where i was left thinking,” not “left think,” and “both characters shun” not “are shun.” Oops.
Thanks so much for reading, Ben! Really strong idea for the conclusion. I appreciate the support and thoughtful comment.
All the best,