Humor in Pulp Fiction

The 1994 cult classic Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino highlights humor, violence, poeticism, and symbolism. The clever plot slowly connects three different stories into one throughout the film. Jami Bernard from the Daily News states, “Tarantino uses his innate feel for the pace, antecedents, technology and pure joy of cinema to weave together stories and characters, wing poetic license to cut back and forth between stories and time frame”. Each character serves as an antagonist, bringing their own wit and persona to the storyline. However each character brings their own vices that we see them struggle with throughout the film. Each character acting on their fixations provides as the sanctioning agent, or the force driving the narrative, throughout the film and ultimately brings some characters to their own demise. Carrie Rickey, an Inquirer Movie Critic explains, “Like Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold, including his beloved, the frighteningly gifted Tarantino is also cursed: He turns everything, including characters he cares about, into jokes”. Through this dark humor of Tarantino, we are provided with bits of comic relief throughout this otherwise serious movie.

The film opens with a man and a woman casually talking in a restaurant about a seemingly taboo subject, robbing businesses. The man or as Jules later nicknames him, “Ringo” talks about how he is done with stealing and ultimately talks himself back into robbing the current restaurant they are in. The woman, Yolanda provides us comic relief by stating every time Ringo goes off on one of the tangents that he sounds like a duck and begins to imitate one by quacking at him. By doing this Yolanda gives the audience relief through making this joke to ease the tension. The vice that Ringo and Yolanda struggle with is greed, they both justify robberies as easy cash and agree that a restaurant would be the easiest due to none of the workers caring and other customers would not want to try and be a hero. Their Bonnie and Clyde antics lead them into someone they would not want to run into, a hitman by the name of Jules.

Jules is one of Marcellus’s hitmen that is always concerned with being professional and stern with clients that he is sent to deal with. When Jules and his partner are going to speak to a client he states that he has to get into character before going into their apartment and talking to them, even implying that it is too early anyways so they should hang back. On their way to the apartment, “the two thugs entertain themselves by engaging in rapid-fire combative exchanges on every subject from McDonald’s restaurants in Paris to the relative cleanliness of pigs and dogs (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)”. Once they go into this young man’s apartment, Jules seems to already have a script of what he is going to say, being very articulate with his words and trying to intimidate everyone in the room. Jules even goes as far to make the situation even more uncomfortable by asking the client, Brad if he could have a bite of his burger and drink his soda to wash the burger down. Once Jules and his partner get a briefcase that belongs to Marcellus from Brad’s apartment, Jules further intimidates Brad by shooting one of his friend’s laying on the couch. After killing his friend, Brad is shaken and Jules remains calm then begins to ask him what Marcellus Wallace looks like leading into the famous, “Say What Again” scene. If we look at this scene through the lens of Incongruity theory, stating that people laugh at what surprises them or what they see as strange. This whole scene is hilarious in a twisted and strange way. Brad is so overwhelmed with what is going on he cannot stop saying “what” to every question Jules asks him which in turn makes Jules crazier. Jules puts on a persona of being spiritual by having a Bible verse memorized, Ezekiel 25:17. Later in the film he reflects that he only said it to sound really wise and smart. When Jules and his partner were at Brad’s apartment, one of his friends was hiding in the bathroom and had a gun. When Brad’s friend came out to shoot them, all of the bullets miraculously missed. This event occurring served as an epitome for Jules, who then chose to leave the hitman profession. Little to Jules’s knowledge, the next mission his partner went on solo would kill him. Jules luckily escaped the fate his partner could not.

Vincent Vega is the stoic sidekick to Jules and is also a hitman for Marcellus Wallace. Unlike Jules, Vincent does not care about being professional. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times describes Vincent Vega as, “…all sleepy boyishness and drug-mellowed bemusement, and seeing him so charming in the unexpected guise of a minor league thug is to remember why audiences fell in love with him in the first place”. Vincent’s vice is his addiction to heroin, the audience gets to view him buying and shooting up. This vice in turn comes to haunt him as he takes out Marcellus’s wife Mia Wallace out for the night. Marcellus asked this favor of him to keep his wife company. One can immediately tell that there is a connection between Vincent and Mia strictly through their witty dialogue back and forth. Stephen Hunter of The Baltimore Sun describes Mia’s relationship with Vincent as, “All this is very droll: she’s much smarter than he is, plays adroitly with him, but somehow we feel his personality imprinting himself on the situation”. It can easily be assumed that Marcellus is not a well-fit husband for Mia, because he is only ever seen with her in two very short scenes, and they do not even interact. Vincent does have thoughts of sleeping with Mia but chooses not to act upon them as it would ruin his relationship with his boss. After he takes Mia out for the night, she asks him to stay for another drink to which he agrees. He is in the bathroom contemplating his actions, Mia finds the heroin in his coat and mistakes it for cocaine. describes the process, “When you snort heroin, heroin is absorbed into the mucous membrane of your nose and throat. It enters the bloodstream, and is carried to the brain. In the brain, heroin produces its major effects on the central nervous system primarily through interaction at specific nerve sites”. The website also describes that snorting heroin is very unpredictable concerning overdose. In Mia’s case she does overdose, which causes Vincent to take her to his drug dealer’s house. The entire tense ordeal results in Vincent having to inject her with adrenaline to revive her heart. After this whole tense scene takes place, Lance’s girlfriend provides us with relief by saying, “Wow, that was trippy”, and begins to laugh.

Throughout these three different stories intertwining we can see a glimmer of hilarity through the gore and violence. Given the slick one liners and long dialogues give us something to laugh at as someone is about to overdose, or contemplate robbing a restaurant. Gary Thompson, a Daily News Movie Critic explain Tarantino’s motives, “Pulp Fiction also makes it clear, despite its gory content, that Tarantino isn’t just some punk nihilist on a sick joyride. His movies are all about consequences”. All of the characters in Pulp Fiction must make choices, not all were explained in this paper but what they choose sets their fate in stone. Giving these characters life and death choices put the audience at the position of not wanting to look away to see what happened next. As we see them making choices between their vices or a way out really make them contemplate their next move or they just keep in line with their regular routine. Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribute states, “This movie gets its charge not from action pyrotechnics but from its electric barrage of language, wisecracks and dialogue, from the mordant ’70s classicism of its long-take camera style and its smart, offbeat, strangely sexy cast”. The violence is highly complimented by the humorous dialogue of each situation giving us rhetoricians humor lenses to look at these scenes from.