Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s arguably most popular film, is a complex pastiche of popular culture. Its unique blend of dark humor, violence, and nonlinear and disjointed storytelling, as well as its willingness to throw genres together with no seeming rhyme or reason, combine to make a story about the normal lives of a bunch of morally bankrupt individuals. Pulp Fiction would be a tragedy, but it never seems to be that tragic. It would be a comedy, but there’s never really a punchline.
In order to begin to read the film, we must first look at the characters themselves, and the roles they play in the greater story.
First of all, we can look at the two hitmen, Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. Together, they are unarguably the protagonists of the film, and the vast majority of the film is dedicated to their escapades as a duo. Their escapades, of course, are entirely immoral, involving the murder of a handful of college-age kids, heroin abuse, and general just being horrible people.
In the midst of their violent rampage through LA, however, Jules and Vincent take time to debate religion, culture, and the ethics of rubbing a married woman’s feet. They seem to have a genuine camaraderie, although Jules seems to be the far more competent in the duo, leaving Vincent to be the foil – a bumbling idiot who is very well camouflaged by his partner’s strengths.In reading this film, one important choice to recognize is that Tarantino seems to write so that there is no police involvement anywhere over the course of the film. In fact, for being in a major metropolitan area, nobody seems at all worried about the police and their influence on matters. For example, after shooting a few young adults in broad daylight, Jules and Vincent drive their car away, holding a man at gunpoint in broad daylight, accidentally shoot this man, and then drive around with a bloody car to a house. At this house, they stand in the yard, soaked in blood, as someone hoses them off in front of the entire neighborhood. Nobody bats an eye at this. This is interesting, as it pulls the viewer into a separate world, one in which violence and horror seems to be commonplace, and almost comedic. If such obvious things as waving around guns in broad daylight and shooting people in a moving vehicle does not draw police attention to you, one questions how ridiculous the crimes would have to be before there would be police involved.
In addition to this gaping lack of police intervention, normally a necessity in a crime film, there is very little over the course of Pulp Fiction that does not seem to be solved violently. There, of course, are three major stories in Pulp Fiction: the tale of Vincent Vega and his untimely demise, the tale of Jules Winnfield and his retirement, and the tale of Butch Coolidge and his inability to throw a fight. Vincent and Jules seem to use violence to solve almost all of their problems, while Butch is a boxer who kills his opponent in the ring, and resorts to violence to keep himself alive from then on. Even the nonviolent segments between the characters threaten or hint at violence in some way: Vincent’s panic as Mia nearly dies from a heroin overdose leads to Vincent stabbing her with an adrenaline needle in one of the most disturbing scenes of the film. Admittedly, there is not much direct violence in this film, but violence still manages to overshadow the majority of the film, allowing the reader to anticipate far more violence and horror than is ever shown on screen.
For the majority of the film, Pulp Fiction seems to glorify this violence. We start with a few jokes from Jules and Vincent, and then immediately jump into violence and threatening. That, however, is not the majority of the film. We see these protagonists talk to each other about nothing for long stretches of time, which allows us to identify with them, and bond with them to a degree. This sort of bond we form with the three protagonists – but especially Jules and Vincent – forces us to accept and almost enjoy the random and seemingly senseless acts of violence over the course of the film. To evidence this, one needs to point solely to the “I just shot Marvin in the face!” scene. Vincent immediately quips about the horrible thing he has just done, and to the viewer, it is all portrayed as one big joke. Jules knows how to solve the problem of the dead man in the car, and Vincent is too strung out on heroin to be anything more than apathetic about it. This, of course, only furthers the duo’s dynamic, and the audience at this point kinda nods and smiles along, already desensitized to violence. Tarantino seems to up the ante over and over again with the horrific acts in the film, going from robbing a diner, to multiple somewhat downplayed homicides, to stabbing someone viscerally in the chest, and so on and so forth upwards to rape and the wholly brutal scene with Marvin. The audience seems to become more and more desensitized to the violence as the film goes on, until it seems to just be a fact of life for the characters involved. At some point, it starts to feel like the film is satirizing itself – or, to put it better, satirizing the uproar over violence in film and media. In this reading, Pulp Fiction is a movie that celebrates violence, in a sense. As a viewer, one is pushed into a situation where they root for these characters, even as they do horrific things, and the plot moves forward even as we know one is destined to fail. The cyclical nature of the plot – beginning and ending at the same point, roughly halfway through the chronology of the film, accentuates this greatly, allowing the film to seem as if it is one jumbled circle, sandwiched on both ends by the threat of violence.
However, this is not the only meaning that lies within Pulp Fiction. To unpack a different meaning, and upend the stability of the interpretation that Pulp Fiction is merely a satire of violent films in general, one must merely look at and thoroughly analyze the character of Jules Winnfield. Jules is a hyper-competent hitman, hot-blooded, intelligent, and intimidating. His frightening efficiency allows him to cover for his seemingly incompetent partner, but he seems to be the more morally troubled of the two. After their near-death experience, Jules proclaims it a divine miracle, while Vincent merely writes it off to luck. Jules seems to be troubled with his conscience throughout the majority of the film, deciding to retire after how badly the original job with Vincent went down. This morality present in the film seems to contradict the violence that is omnipresent throughout it, as Jules is one of the primary instigators of the horrific acts that happen over the course of the film, and also allows himself to play the role of the intimidator in the hitman duo. In addition to this, Quentin Tarantino allows two major acts of altruism to happen over the course of the film. First, the escaped Butch Coolidge, who could just run away, goes and saves Marsellus Wallace, the man who is planning on killing him. This act of kindness is reciprocated when Marsellus allows him to go free, ignoring the thousands of dollars that Butch had cost him. This act of generosity is obviously well-compensated, but was not necessary to the film, especially when read as a celebration of violence. This moment might be the only truly heroic moment in the film, as Butch willingly puts his own freedom at risk to help his enemy. As a seeming reward for his heroic behavior, Butch is allowed to go free, riding off into the sunset with his girlfriend and thousands of dollars of stolen money. This contradicts the reading of the film as a celebration of violence, as even though this scene is violent, it is the man who acts to save someone else from violence who is the most successful over the course of the film. While the film celebrates violence on the macro level, allowing violence to seep into almost every scene of the film, the man who follows his pride and attempts to help someone else is the true victor.
This ideology can also apply to Jules Winnfield himself. Jules is a character defined by his crisis of faith, and the film seems to be bookended by his actions. The film begins and ends in a cafe, in the midst of a robbery orchestrated by two minor characters, ones who we never truly understand. Over the course of the film, we build the storylines leading to this moment, and Jules has a crisis of faith, allowing him to realize that perhaps the religious verse he misquotes horribly applies to him in more ways than just intimidation. The movie, shot out of chronological order, seems to build to the resolution of the cafe scene, where Vincent excuses himself to the bathroom, and Honey Bunny and Pumpkin hold up the entire store, collecting everyone’s wallets and trying to lay claim to Marsellus’s briefcase. The scene seems like a perfect set-up for a closing shoot-out, but instead Jules just stares them down, pointing a gun at Pumpkin, and talks them out of the cafe, after some interesting theological discussion. Jules seems to realize that, over the course of his career as a hitman or enforcer, he has been used solely as a tool for evil men, and he intends to rectify that by allowing himself the freedom to go off on his own and succeed. It seems we are meant to believe that Jules was capable of dispatching these two on his own, or at least stalling until Vincent came out with a gun, but instead he ushers them out the door, allowing them to continue their lives. His ability to allow the two criminals to go free with his money seems to break the circle of violence that the movie could have descended into, and instead give it a dual meaning, both about the violence that humanity is capable of and the acts of genuine kindness that we can also manage.
Out of the main protagonists, the only one who does not have this moment of epiphany, in which they allow themselves to act unselfishly, is Vincent Vega. His story ends abruptly, in the middle of the film, while Tarantino is retelling the chronologically later events of Butch’s boxing match and subsequent escape. Butch goes back for the gold watch that was left at his house, and shoots Vincent, who, in a moment of idiocy, left his gun on the table and went to the bathroom. It seems telling that the man who does not change at all over the course of the film is the only protagonist not to survive. Vincent, instead of accepting any of the chances to change offered to him over the course of the film, sinks into his heroin addiction in order to ignore any second thoughts about his life, and his uncaring attitude leads to his demise. Again, this conflicts with the view of Pulp Fiction as a satire of violent films, as the truly violent character is given his comeuppance in the middle of the film.
As such, the viewer must simultaneously keep in mind Pulp Fiction’s violence – and Tarantino’s ability to desensitize you to that violence – and also its punishment for those who make no effort to change their violent ways. In this sense, Pulp Fiction seems to function both as a satire of modern views on violence, and a cautionary tale as to what happens when society allows itself to entirely disregard the taboo on violence. While Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is obviously a movie that glorifies violence, following two hardened criminals and a boxer as they rampage through the streets of L.A. without a police officer in sight, it also shows the audience the ramifications of accepting such a life, and such a world, fully, showing with near glee the violence that these men cause and the tragic stories of their lives.