Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke: Protest Masculinity and the Effects of Father-Absence Crisis

Article Posted in: Essay


by – Mustafa Büyükgebiz, Vol.III, Issue.XXIV, January 2017

About the Author:

Mustafa Büyükgebiz is an Instructor of English at Pamukkale University, School of Foreign Languages where he has been a member since 2012. He completed his undergraduate studies at Pamukkale University, Department of English Language and Literature in 2008, his Master’s Degree in the same department in 2014 and has been studying PhD in the same field at Pamukkale University.



“This isn’t about somebody brave and kind and dedicated. He isn’t anybody you’re going to fall in love with” (Palahniuk,12). Victor Mancini, the narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s 2001 novel; Choke, describes himself in the beginning of the book with these words. He not only describes himself, but also gives a well-accepted image of manhood in society by using adjectives like ‘brave’ and ‘dedicated’. The society that we live in is surely named as a patriarchal one, and public opinion, popular culture, accepted norms and ideology are all shaped by a masculine point of view. Our everyday lives and even gender roles are defined and controlled by it. It is a common idea that men are the source of hegemony in the society and everybody and everything except men are destined to be discriminated and ruled. However, most people miss a vital question about this issue; “Are all men the rulers in society?”

Today, many academics of social sciences such as Michael S. Kimmel, R. W. Connell and Todd W. Reeser accept that man is the primary victim of this masculine society and hegemonic masculinity, and protest masculinity is getting more and more popular as an academic subject. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to analyse protest masculinity and father-absence as a cause of the crisis; and apply the theory of masculinity in Chuck Palahniuk’s offbeat novel, Choke.

Michael Kimmel explains the myth of male superiority in a satirical way by stating that “Originally, there was chaos, but men created society to get out of this chaos” (Kimmel, 7). This sentence may be seen as the creation myth of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is relatively a new term in social sciences, especially in literature, and roughly refers to the idealisation of being a real man and its qualities in a society. R. W. Connell defines the term in his article, Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.

It [hegemonic masculinity] was certainly normative. It embodied the currently most honored way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men (Connell, 832).

It is easy to infer from the quotation above that the term refers to authority and power in society. This authority defines the qualities of an ideal man and has the power of creating others. It would be too naive to think that all men share this power together in the world. The truth is that most men are on the side of ‘others’; some try to catch up with the requirements of hegemonic masculinity, some are beaten by it and some are still fighting against it psychologically.

At this point, father is an important symbol in patriarchal society. Victor J. Seidler asserts that

The visions of authority which we inherit within Western culture are tied up with conceptions of the father. Both Judaism and Christianity have learnt to think in terms of God The Father, though they have different conceptions of this relationship (Seidler, 272).

Father is seen as the source of authority in classic Western culture. As the boss of the family, he represents hegemonic masculinity and a role model for a boy. In patriarchal family model, father is a way to oppress and organize child’s identity. It shapes the boy’s behaviour and helps to construct his gender identity. Children are at the bottom of hierarchy at home and learn to respect the authority of their fathers. As Seidler states, “Children often resent the silent tensions that can fill the house when their father comes back from work. They learn to keep out of his way” (Seidler, 293).

In the novel, Choke, the protagonist and also the narrator of the novel, Victor Mancini, states that he has never met his father and does not know who his father is. Therefore, he adds that he has to learn who his father is in the novel to find out who he is. Her mother keeps the secret about Victor’s father in the beginning of the novel and says that

“I worry that I should tell Victor the truth about himself.” Propped on her stack of pillows, she says, “Before it’s too late, I wonder if Victor has a right to know who he really is” (Palahniuk, 70).

As the quotation suggests, father is also the source of identity for a child. Even if a child is with his mother, growing fatherless means growing without an identity. Lack of authority causes identity crisis for the boy and he forces himself to build a new masculine order without the presence of his father.

In this sense, in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, boy identifies himself with the father to construct his gender identity and feels himself capable of possessing mother. In other words, Kimmel suggests:

The moment of the resolution of theOedipus complex allowed the boy to identify with father (gender identity) and become symbolically capable of possessing mother (heterosexual). The boy becomes a gendered man and a heterosexual simultaneously. More central still: Gender identity and sexual organization are achieved through struggle between the individual boy and his parents (Kimmel, 7).

In the novel, Victor Mancini answers a question about his marital status by saying that fatherless sons are married to their mothers.

The truth is, every son raised by a single mom is pretty much born married. I don’t know, but until your mom dies it seems like all the other women in your life can never be more than just your mistress (Palahniuk, 70).

In this sense, Victor feels that he gains the possession of his mother and he feels himself responsible for his mother’s life and deeds. He pays his mother’s hospital expenses by working in a theme park and ‘choking to death’.

This acquisition of gender behaviour and construction of male sex order are matters of debate for academics of social science. Kimmel states that boy uses his need for maternal nurture (mother) to establish a healthy masculine behaviour and this causes him to “revolt against identification with his mother in the name of masculinity” (Kimmel, 13). Unconsciously, he builds an association between ‘goodness’ and ‘femininity’. It lets the boy identify himself as a bad boy and being such a character becomes a positive goal for him.

After a few blocks, all those backyards of beer, I know Denny’s being honest. I say, “You don’t think I’m really a secretly sensitive and Christlike manifestation of perfect love? “No way, dude,” Denny says. “You’re an asshole.” And I say, “Thanks. Just checking” (Palahniuk, 160).

This ‘gang behaviour’ – and juvenile delinquency- may be explained with sex role anxiety and masculine protest. The boy associates being a good person with his mother and femininity. Therefore, he rebels against this idea and performs bad behaviours to deny his feminine side. This makes the boy feel like a man.

In this sense, it is better to look at what protest masculinity is and its effects on masculine psychology. Gwen J. Broude defines protest masculinity in her essay titled Protest Masculinity: A Further Look at the Causes and the Concept as “instances of extreme forms of sex-typed behaviour on the part of some males” (Broude, 103). These extreme behaviours cause hypermasculine qualities. Therefore, protest masculinity and following hypermasculine qualities of a man are regarded as the outcome of father-absence especially by cross-cultural researchers. With the absence of father –or in other words, authority-, protest masculinity stands for an unconscious defensive attitude. The main reason for this is mostly identity conflict or feeling of insecurity as males.

In the novel, Victor Mancini is a suitable example for protest masculinity since the majority of his behaviours refer to primary feminine identification and secondary masculine identification in his early stages of life. Father-absence affects Victor’s psychology as an infant and maternal feature of his parental relationship stands for his primary feminine identification. According to Broude, “father-absence is assumed to lead to the perception on the part of very young child that it is the females who control the valued resources” (Broude, 105). This definition fits Victor’s situation completely. His life is shaped mostly by his mother and he tries to deny this feminine quality in his gender role.

Hence, it may be pointed out that authoritarian and vandal behaviours of man are mostly performed to deny and cover their weaknesses. Homosexual attitudes and tendencies are also regarded as weakness by patriarchal society and to overcome such tendencies, men appeal hypermasculine behaviours.

In the novel, Victor describes a scene from a porn movie that a man has a sexual intercourse with a monkey in which the man is passive and smiling. This scene affects Victor deeply and he states that he is in a better condition than the man and should stand still in his life.

As it was, his favourite website was pretty much not sexy, at least not to him. You could just go there, and there would be about a dozen photographs of this one dumpy guy dressed as Tarzan with a goofy orang-utan trained to poke what looked like roasted chestnuts up the guy’s ass. […] The kid never knew the man’s name. But he never forgot that smile. “Hero” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind (Palahniuk, 38-41).

Through the end of the novel, Victor’s having an anal experience with a sex toy also reveals his homosexual tendencies, but he tries to subdue these feelings since they seem to Victor like feminine qualities and damage his goal of proving masculinity. Being a helpful and loving person is also regarded as feminine by Victor. He avoids helping people and he constantly asserts that he is a useless jerk. Here, there are two main reasons of Victor’s attitude. Firstly, he accepts being a good person as a quality fits for women. Secondly, he associates love and goodness with his ‘father’, Jesus Christ, and feeling abandoned, he avoids having characteristics of his father. He stops visiting his mother and tries to persuade himself that he does not care anything. Due to this identity crisis, he develops a feeling of hate and anger against people, especially women.

We don’ need women. There are plenty of other things in the world to have sex with, just go to a sexaholics meeting and take notes. There’s microwaved watermelons. There is the vibrating handles of lawn mowers right at crotch level. There’s vacuum cleaners and beanbag chairs (Palahniuk, 198).

According to Todd Reeser, masculinity is not something natural. Unlike biologic facts, masculine features of a person are artificial and hollow. Therefore, men in patriarchal societies have to prove their manhood constantly. This creates a repetition of masculine behaviours and features. Reeser states this idea in his Masculinities in Theory

Why does masculinity have to be repeated, performed again and again? […] a man has no inner core, no essence, no nature underneath his gender, and that he needs to keep repeating gendered acts to show that masculinity does, in fact, exist in the face of a gender emptiness or a threat of emptiness. By tackling football players every day, our player is trying to convince us and himself that masculinity is natural and essential (Reeser, 82).

In this sense, Victor Mancini’s proof of his manhood is being a sexaholic. By looking for an opportunity for sex all the time, he tries to accomplish the goal of being a man in the novel. Like all other man in the society, Victor tries to be a part of hegemonic masculinity since being a part of it means being accepted by people. However, he experiences that he is far too away from being an ideal man and this causes Victor performing protest masculinity attitudes. His father-absence crisis and feminine aspects of his early childhood spent with his mother affect him deeply and prevent him from being a normal, loving, good person. On the contrary, he identifies himself with being a bad boy and a useless character. As it is stated in the beginning of this paper, Victor states that the novel “isn’t about somebody brave and kind and dedicated. He isn’t anybody you’re going to fall in love with” (Palahniuk,12).




Broude, Gwen J. “Protest Masculinity: A Further Look at the Causes and the Concept.” Ethos 1st ser. 18.March (1990): 103-22. American Anthropological Association.

Chapman, Rowena & Jonathan Rutherford. Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity. London: Lawrence &Wishart, 1988.

Connell, R. W. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender & Society 19.6 (2005): 829-59.

Kimmel, Michael S. The History of Men: Essays in the History of American and British Masculinities. New York: State U of New York, 2005.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Choke: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Reeser, Todd W. Masculinities in Theory: An Introduction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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