Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino, arguably his most popular work, is a complex parody of popular culture. The story is a mixture of dark humor with violence and nonlinearity, along side a willingness to mix genres in a way that makes no sense. Pulp Fiction seems tragic, but isn’t. There’s no real punchline. It could be a joke, but it never is. Before we can begin to understand the film’s story, let’s first examine the characters.
We will first look at Jules Winnfield & Vincent Vega. The film’s main focus is on their adventures together, as they are unquestionably the stars of the story. These escapades include murdering college students, using heroin and being generally horrible. Jules & Vincent have a genuine camaraderie, even though Jules is the more competent of the two. Vincent is the foil, a bumbling idiot who has been well disguised by his partner’s strengths. Jules and Vincent have a great camaraderie. Vincent is a bumbling, idiotic fool, but is well hidden by Jules. The police are not a concern in this major metropolis. Jules and Vincent shoot a couple of young adults at daylight in a car. They then hold a man up with a gun in daylight and accidentally shoot him. Then they drive the car around to a home, a car covered in blood. After they arrive at the house and are drenched in blood, someone comes to hose them down in front of everyone. This is not noticed by anyone. It is fascinating because it transports the viewer to a world where violence and horror are almost comical. It is interesting to see how the police would react if such obvious crimes as shooting in a vehicle and waving guns around in broad daylight did not attract their attention.
Pulp Fiction seems to have very few problems that are not resolved violently. Pulp Fiction is a film that tells three stories. The first one concerns Vincent Vega’s untimely death. The second involves Jules Winnfield retiring and the third involves Butch Coolidge who cannot fight. Vincent and Jules appear to resort to violence almost exclusively to solve all their problems. Butch kills his opponent at the boxing ring in order to maintain his life. Even the nonviolent exchanges between characters can be interpreted as a threat or hint of violence. For example, Vincent’s fear that Mia will die from an overdose of heroin leads him to stab her with a syringe of adrenaline. This is one of the most disturbing moments in the movie. There isn’t much violence onscreen, but the violence is still overshadowed by the rest of the story. The reader is left with the impression that there will be more horror and violence than what is shown.
Pulp Fiction glorifies violence throughout the entire film. Jules & Vincent start the film with some funny jokes. They then quickly move on to violence and threatening. The film does not revolve around this. This allows us to relate to them and form a bond. The bond that we develop with the protagonists, especially Jules, Vincent and the other two, makes us accept and even enjoy the random acts of violence throughout the movie. You only need to look at the “I’ve just shot Marvin!” scene as proof. Vincent makes a joke out of the horrific thing he did. The viewer sees it as a huge joke. Jules knows the answer to the dead man’s problem in the automobile, and Vincent has become too drugged to care. The audience, who are already numb to violence, nods in agreement and smiles. Tarantino ups the ante with each horrific act in the movie. From the violent stabbing of someone in the chest and multiple, somewhat understated murders, Tarantino takes the horror to new heights. The audience is becoming increasingly numb to violence, and it’s almost as if the characters are accustomed to it. The film begins to satirize itself, or better put, the outcry about violence in films and media. Pulp Fiction seems to celebrate violence. The plot advances even though we know that it is doomed to failure. The plot is cyclical, beginning and ending roughly half way through the film. This makes it seem like a single jumbled loop, with violence on either end.
Pulp Fiction has other meanings. To unravel another meaning, and to undermine the interpretation of Pulp Fiction as a satire based on violent movies in general, you only need to carefully analyze Jules Winnfield’s character. Jules is an extremely competent hitman. He’s also hot-blooded and intelligent. He is able to cover up his partner who appears incompetent, due to his impressive performance. However, he has a moral dilemma. Vincent attributes their near-death encounter to chance, while Jules claims it was a miraculous event. Jules, who is plagued by guilt throughout the entire film, decides to quit after the disastrous outcome of his first job with Vincent. Jules plays a major role in instigating the horrible acts of violence throughout the film. Quentin Tarantino also allows for two acts of altruism in the film. Butch Coolidge saves Marsellus, the man planning to kill him, even though he could have run away. Marsellus ignores the thousands of dollar cost of Butch’s kindness and lets him go. It is clear that this generous act was well-compensated. However, it wasn’t necessary for the film. Butch’s willingness to risk his freedom in order to help an enemy is perhaps the only truly heroic act of the movie. Butch, in a seemingly reward for heroic behavior, is free to ride away with his girlfriend along with thousands of dollar of stolen money. In contrast to the idea that the film celebrates violence, this scene shows that even though it’s violent, the hero is the person who takes action to protect someone else. The film does celebrate violence in general, but the man who succeeds is the one who lets his pride override and helps someone else.
This philosophy can be applied to Jules Winnfield. Jules’s crisis of religion defines him, and this is what seems to frame the entire film. The film opens and closes in a café, during a robbery that is orchestrated by minor characters we don’t understand. The film builds up to this moment as Jules experiences a crisis in faith. He realizes that the verse he misquotes may be more than an intimidation. Honey Bunny/Pumpkin hold up a cafe, collecting wallets from everyone and trying desperately to get Marsellus’ briefcase. Jules stares at them, points his gun at Pumpkin, then talks them into leaving the cafe. Jules, who has worked as a hitman and enforcer for many years, realizes that this is the first time he can be trusted to do his job without being used. Jules seems to think that he could dispatch the two criminals by himself, or at least wait until Vincent showed up with a gun. But instead, he lets them go, and allows them to live their lives. He allows the two criminals free to continue their lives with the money he gave them. This breaks the circle of violence the movie might have descended into.
Vincent Vega’s 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. Tarantino ends Vincent’s story abruptly in the middle of his film while retelling chronologically the events that led up to Butch’s fight and escape. Butch shoots Vincent after he leaves his gun at the bathroom and goes to retrieve the gold timepiece that was left in his home. It is telling that only one protagonist survives in the movie. Vincent, who refuses to consider any chance to change during the movie, becomes a heroin addict to block out any thoughts of regret. His indifference to others leads to his downfall. Pulp Fiction’s portrayal as a violent film satire is contradicted by the fact that the violent character gets his due in the middle.
Pulp Fiction has a lot of violence, but Tarantino does a great job at desensitizing you to this violence. Also, it punishes people who don’t try to change. Pulp Fiction functions as both a satire and cautionary tale in this regard. It is a warning against society’s disregard for the taboo of violence. Tarantino’s Pulp Fictin is undoubtedly a movie about violence. Two hardened criminals and boxer rampage through L.A. streets with no police officers in sight. But the film also shows how accepting such an existence and world can have serious consequences.