Freudian Psychosexual Stages of Development in Fight Club

Fight Club (1999)

In my previous posting about Fight Club I argued that the fight scenes are not meant to be taken literally, but represent a struggle taking place “inside the head” of the narrator. In other words it is a psychological film, and those who watch and interpret it primarily as being a violent action movie are missing its main point. So what is the nature of the psychological struggle that takes place? That is the issue I will address in this posting.

Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development posits that attaining a healthy adult sexuality does not happen automatically. [1] It requires that the child first pass through a series of developmental stages. The passages for males and females are somewhat different, and here I will only describe the male passage since Fight Club is about masculinity.

The events that occur during the film Fight Club can be mapped onto Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development so effortlessly that it seems pretty obvious this had to be intentional on the part of the screenwriter/director. [2] In this commentary I am going to make explicit a few of the most obvious mappings.

The major stages of development in Freud’s theory are typically labelled: Oral, Anal, Oedipal, Latency, and Genital (the final mature adult stage). A psychologically healthy male emerges only when these stages are navigated successfully during childhood via interactions with the mother and father. A male who gets hung up for some reason and does not pass through all of the stages successfully as a child will need to undergo psychoanalytic therapy as an adult to become psychosexually healthy.

Psychoanalytic therapy relies heavily on transference, a psychological process that allows misplaced interactions with the actual/literal “mother”, “father”, etc., to be replaced by interactions with surrogate, or symbolic, “mother figures”, “father figures”, etc. For example, a male who never satisfactorily resolved feelings about his father during one or more of these stages might be able to transfer feelings towards his father onto the psychoanalyst during therapy, and in this way work through the developmental stages as an adult.

In Fight Club, we meet an unnamed protagonist (played by Edward Norton) who also provides voice over narration during the film. We learn in the course of watching the film that this narrator was prevented from passing through all of the developmental stages in the normal way, by interacting with his parents while growing up because, he tells us, “I didn’t know my dad. … He went and married another woman.”

Thus, the only way the narrator is going to be able to attain psychosexual maturity will be if he is able to transfer his feelings about his mother and father onto symbolic “mother” and “father” figures and work through the developmental stages therapeutically. In an early scene the question is posed, “If you could fight anyone … one on one, whoever you wanted, Who would you fight?” The emphatic, unequivocal answer was, “My Dad”. This appears to have been the motivation for creating a Fight Club, to allow fighting with other men to act as a sort-of psychotherapy that allows transference to take place.

The Oral Stage of psychosexual development occurs right after birth while a baby is nursing and deriving pleasure at the breast of the mother.

In the film, this stage is carried out symbolically during the opening scenes in which the narrator clings to the bosom of Bob, a member of a support group for individuals with testicular cancer. Bob, a character with no testicles and large breasts (or as the narrator refers to them, “bitch tits”), serves as the symbolic “mother figure” that allows the narrator to move successfully through the oral stage.

The Anal Stage typically happens concurrently with toilet training, and involves learning when it is appropriate to experience the pleasures of urinating and defecating, and when gratification of these pleasures needs to be restrained.

This stage is exemplified in the scenes in which the narrator’s alter ego, Tyler (played by Brad Pitt), is having trouble following rules, such as that one should not, as the narrator puts it, “fart on the meringue or piss in the soup”.

The Oedipal Stage is the most complicated. In brief, a young boy falls in love with his mother and desires sexual relations with her. However, the boy either knows or becomes aware of the fact that his father already has a sexual relationship with the mother; has no intention of allowing another male to share that relationship; and will probably punish the boy if these sexual feelings towards the mother are found out. Around the same time, the boy notices that many individuals his own age, namely girls, do not have a penis. He starts thinking/worrying that perhaps fathers cut off the penises of anyone caught trying to have sex with their mother!

In the film, the narrator meets a biological woman, Marla (played by Helena Bonham Carter) who elicits from him a subliminal desire for a sexual relationship. Marla thus serves as the symbolic “mother figure” during this passage through the Oedipal Stage.

The members of the fight club engage in bare-knuckled-fist-fights just for the fun of it, and adopt an authoritarian set of rules and ethical principles enforced and promoted by violence. This men-only Fight Club embodies masculinity, and the leader, Tyler, serves as a symbolic “father figure”.

As would be expected based on a Freudian theme of an Oedipal passage, uncertainty and confusion soon appear regarding the father’s and son’s sexual relationship with the mother-figure Marla. The narrator desires a sexual relationship with Marla, but it is the father-figure Tyler who appears to actually be engaging in sexual relations with her. These scenes become increasingly disjointed and confusing for viewers of the film, as well as for the narrator who exclaims in exasperation at one point, “I’m six years old again, passing messages between my parents.”

In the midst of this confusion the narrator begins to become increasingly nervous that this father-figure Tyler is going to punish him out of jealously. Earlier in the film the narrator’s apartment had exploded, and now Tyler asks him ominously, “Why do you think I blew up your condo?”

And the narrator cannot help but notice all those cohorts around him (members of the testicular cancer support group) who no longer have testicles. Is that a warning sign of what can happen to men who try to have sex with their father’s wives? The narrator’s worst fears are realized when he is kidnapped by members of the Fight Club and threatened with castration, escaping only by the skin of his scrotum!

In Freud’s theory the Oedipal Conflict is resolved when the son ultimately identifies with the father, attaining the insight that he is about to become a man just like his father. Then the father and son are able to reconcile, leaving the father free to continue sexual relations with the mother unimpeded, and the son free to move on towards sexual maturity and a search for his own mate. When this resolution happens during psychotherapy via transference it is usually accompanied by a gesture/gift in which the father-figure gives a phallic symbol to the son, with the implied message – you can relax now, I am not going to take your penis.

The resolution of the conflict in Fight Club is somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation. There appear to be some attempts, mostly on the part of Tyler, to arrive at such a reconciliation. However, the narrator seems to want only to kill this symbolic father figure that he has created. Following several scenes near the end of the film where it is revealed that the character Tyler is not physically present, but exists only in the narrator’s mind, we see from the narrators point of view that he is trying his best to kill Tyler. Not succeeding, he finally asks Tyler, in exasperation, “Why can’t I get rid of you?”. Tyler answers, “You need me”, parroting Freudian dogma that the narrator will never be able to become a healthy man unless he uses these opportunities to interact with a surrogate father-figure and resolve the Oedipal conflict.

Ultimately, rather than identifying with the father and reconciling, the narrator kills-off his projected father figure. In the next to last scene of the film (parts of which were mirrored in the opening scene), the narrator puts a gun in his mouth and shoots. Next we see the back of Tyler’s head blown open as he falls to the floor dead and then disappears. Then the narrator is shown alive with only a bullet wound in his cheek.

And in the final scene of the film the narrator is seen holding the hand of the mother-figure, Marla. One interpretation of this scene would probably be that the narrator resolved the Oedipal conflict by identifying with his mother instead of with his father. This might mean that he matured into a more nuanced form of manhood, one that incorporated the feminine aspects of his sexuality.

Another plausible interpretation would be that the narrator matured into a healthy male who was gay rather than straight. Homosexuality of the narrator is implied in several scenes earlier in the film. For example when the narrator asks Tyler if he could sleep overnight at Tyler’s home, there is an extended dialog in which Tyler responds repeatedly in a flirtatious manner, “Only if you tell me why you want to spend the night with me.” In another scene, Marla looks at a scar on the narrator’s hand and asks, “Who did this?” When the narrator responds with only, “A person”, Marla continues, “Guy or Girl?” The narrator, annoyed and/or embarrassed responds, “Why would you ask if it’s a guy or a girl?” Marla retorts, “Why would you get bent if I asked?”

The final frames of film, each held for a fraction of a second, show imploding buildings and a penis. It seems that, one way or another, the narrator got his symbolic gesture that he could keep his penis, and is now ready to move successfully out of the Oedipus Stage.

In Freud’s theory, a male passes from the Oedipal Stage into a Latent stage of psychosexual development, giving some quiet time for the individual to consolidate his sexual identity before beginning to operate as a mature man. So that is where we leave the narrator as the film closes. I think I probably join with men from across all times and places in wishing him all the luck in the world.

Ron Boothe



1. I make no assertions here about the value or validity of Freud’s theory. My only intent is to demonstrate that the thematic content of the film maps onto the theory.

2. Fight Club was directed by David Fincher. Screenplay is by Jim Uhls, adapted from a book of the same name published by Chuck Palahniuk. I have not read the book so do not know if the mappings onto Freudian Theory are adapted from the book or were added on by the director/screenwriter. The arguments made in this essay are based only on what is depicted in the film.

2 thoughts on “Freudian Psychosexual Stages of Development in Fight Club

  1. Why did he slip through most Freudian of the stages as an adult rather than as a child or teen, like most of us do?

    1. Freudian theory would argue that many adults are not psychologically healthy because they did not progress properly through all of the psychosexual developmental stages while they were growing up. The purpose of undergoing psychoanalytic therapy as an adult would be to use transference to try to remedy this situation and become healthy. As I stated in the footnote to my posting, I do not necessarily agree that Freudian theory is valid — I am simply showing how the film Fight Club maps onto the way psychoanalytic therapy would use transference to treat an adult who, for whatever reason, did not progress through the stages of psychosexual development properly while growing up.

      There are many reasons why a child or adolescent might, hypothetically, not pass through the stages properly while growing up. Perhaps one or both parents were absent during critical periods while the child was growing up, or the interactions with one or both parents were abnormal due to a stressful relationship, etc.

      In Fight Club, the narrator informs us that he was not able to interact with his biological father because his father had deserted the family when the narrator was only 6 years old.

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