It has been almost twenty years since the first time I saw Fight Club. I read the book a few months after first seeing the book. I think I was in eighth grade. It made a lot of sense to me at the time.
But one detail has repeatedly stumped me about the film. The kind of detail that you might not notice if you just watch the movie once or if you gave the book a single read-through at some point in your life.
This was not my experience. For me—a white teenage male living in the suburbs—the book and the film were compulsively rewatchable and rereadable. It further ignited my desire to be a writer and led me to the other writers I would read throughout high school and college, Kurt Vonnegut and Bret Easton Ellis and David Foster Wallace.
So as I re-read and re-watched, the one detail that didn’t work for me grew more significant. What some might call a mistake and others a plot hole and others would just dismiss.
The detail was the idea that the protagonist of Fight Club—the character played by Edward Norton, called Narrator in the film’s closing credits and Jack in much of the discourse around the film—would care about life insurance. (I’ll refer to the character as the Narrator throughout the rest of this blog post.)
Life insurance pays off triple…
The line I’m referring to is in both the novel and the film. It appears in the first act of both, before we have officially met Tyler Durden. The Narrator fantasizes about dying on one of his frequent business trips.
Here’s the paragraph in question, from the third chapter of the novel:
Life insurance pays off triple if you die on a business trip. I prayed for wind shear effect. I prayed for pelicans sucked into the turbines and loose bolts and ice on the wings. On takeoff, as the plane pushed down the runway and the flaps tilted up, with our seats in their full upright position and our tray tables stowed and all personal carry-on baggage in the overhead compartment, as the end of the runway ran up to meet us with our smoking materials extinguished, I prayed for a crash.
In the film, it occurs here:
Life insurance pays off triple if you die on a business trip.
Here’s what confused me so much about that line: there is no one in the Narrator’s life that he could possibly care about receiving his life insurance. And especially not anyone that he would hope would benefit from a triple-payout.
We do not know everything about the Narrator, but things we do know are that a) he is not married b) he has no children c) he is a recall campaign coordinator d) he knew his dad “for about six years” e) no other family is ever mentioned f) there appears to be no one else the Narrator’s life, at least not at the beginning of the book or movie.
At the beginning of Fight Club, the Narrator has an apartment full of nice things, a job he does not like, no family and no friends. He seems to have no concerns about world peace, social justice or any kind of charity. So why is this character worried about life insurance?
“…if you die on a business trip.”
There is only one answer I can think of. And this is where this becomes a fan theory.
The Narrator—before his apartment exploded, before he lost his job, before he started his fighting club and met Marla and allowed Tyler to take his life over—just wanted a really nice funeral. His life insurance would go toward a funeral. A bigger payout, a better funeral.
One of the only things we know for certain about the pre-Durden Narrator is that he was a fairly materialistic person, as demonstrated by the famous apartment scene:
A triple payout because he died on a business trip, earning him a great funeral. Attended, presumably, by his co-workers and the people he knew through the support groups he attended, before the founding of his club. Maybe the distant family members referenced in early chapters would attend but there is no reason to think he would want them there.
Yes, this is a small, quiet, sad fan theory. But it’s the only explanation I can think of for a small detail that has always bugged me about Fight Club.
Need another Fight Club article? Check out I am Jack’s Fight Club Fan Theory.