A Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch: The Hidden Meaning Behind Pulp Fiction
by Alex Kenney
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is an odd film. It’s a seemingly complete narrative which has been chopped into vignettes and rearranged like a puzzle. It’s a gangster film in which not a single policeman is to be found. It’s a montage of bizarre characters, from a black mobster with a mysterious bandage on the back of his bald head, to hillbilly sexual perverts; from henchmen dressed in black suits whose conversations concern what fast food items are called in Europe, to a mob problem-solver who attends dinner parties early in the morning dressed in a full tuxedo. So, what is the film about? In general, we can say that the film is about American nihilism.
First, a quick run-down of the film…
Ringo and Honeybunny decide to rob a coffee shop. Jules and Vincent discuss what a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is called in France. They collect a briefcase which belongs to Marsellus Wallace from Brad, Marvin, et al. Before Jules kills Brad, he quotes a passage from the Old Testament. Marsellus has asked Vincent to take Mia (Mrs. Marsellus Wallace) out for the evening, and Vincent is nervous because he heard that Marsellus maimed Tony Rocky Horror in a fit of jealousy. Vincent buys heroin and gets high, then takes Mia out to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant which is full of old American pop icons: Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe, Ed Sullivan, Elvis; they win a dance contest. Mia mistakes heroin for cocaine and overdoses; Vincent has to give her a cardiac needle full of adrenaline to save her.
Butch agrees to throw a fight for Marsellus Wallace. Butch as a child receives a watch from his father’s friend, an army comrade who saved the watch by hiding it up his bunghole while he was in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. Butch double crosses Marsellus and doesn’t throw the fight; his boxing opponent is killed. Butch must return to his apartment, despite the fact that Marsellus’s men are looking for him, to get his watch; he kills Vincent. Butch tries to run over and kill Marsellus. They fight and end up in a store with Zed, Maynard and the Gimp, hillbilly sexual perverts. The perverts have subdued and bound Butch and Marsellus, and the perverts begin to rape Marsellus. Butch gets free and saves Marsellus by killing the hillbilly and wounding the other with a Samurai sword.
Returning to the opening sequence, one of the kids Jules and Vincent are collecting from tries to shoot them with a large handgun; he fails, and Jules takes this as divine intervention. Jules and Vincent take Marvin and the briefcase. Marvin is shot accidentally, and the car becomes unusable. Jules and Vincent stop at Jimmy’s, and Marsellus sends Winston Wolf to mop up. Jules and Vincent end up in the coffee shop which Ringo and Honeybunny are robbing. Ringo wants to take the briefcase, but Jules won’t let him. Jules quotes the Biblical passage again to Ringo and tells him that he would quote this to someone before he killed that person. This time, however, Jules is not going to kill Ringo. Ringo and Honeybunny take the money from the coffee shop; Jules and Vincent retain the briefcase.
As I said, in general, the film is about American nihilism. More specifically, it is about the transformation of two characters: Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Butch (Bruce Willis). In the beginning of the film, Vincent (John Travolta) has resumed from a stay in Amsterdam, and the content of the conversation between Jules and Vincent concerns what Big Macs and Quarter Pounders are called in Europe, the Fonz on Happy Days, Arnold the Pig on Green Acres, the pop band Flock of Seagulls, Caine from Kung Fu, and TV pilots. These kinds of silly references seem upon first glance like a kind of comic relief, set against the violence that we’re witnessing on the screen, but this is no mere comic relief. The point is that this is the way these characters make sense out of their lives: transient, pop cultural symbols and icons. In another time and place, people would be connected by something they saw as larger than themselves, most particularly religion, which would provide the sense and meaning that their lives had and which would determine the value of things. This is missing in late 20th century America, and is thus completely absent from Jules’ and Vincent’s lives. This is why pop icons abound in the film: these are the reference points by which we understand ourselves and each other, empty and ephemeral as they are. This pop iconography comes to a real head when Vincent and Mia (Uma Thurman) visit Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where the host is Ed Sullivan, the singer is Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly is the waiter, and among the waitresses are Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield.
The pop cultural symbols are set into stark relief against a certain passage from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 25:17 (actually, largely composed by Tarantino himself):
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
Jules quotes this just before he kills someone. The point is that the passage refers to a system of values and meaning by which one could lead one’s life and make moral decisions. However, that system is missing from Jules’s life, and so the passage becomes meaningless to him. Late in the film he tells us:
“I’ve been saying that shit for years, and if you heard it — that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant — I just thought it was some cold blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass.”
The absence of any kind of foundation for making value judgments, the lack of a larger meaning to their lives, creates a kind of vacuum in their existence which is filled with power. With no other criteria available to them by which to order their lives, they fall into a hierarchy of power, with Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) at the top and themselves as henchmen below. Things come to have value in their lives if Marsellus Wallace declares it to be so. What he wants done, they will do. What he wishes becomes valuable for them and thus becomes the guide for their actions at the moment, until the task is completed by whatever means necessary.
This is perfectly epitomized by the mysterious briefcase which Jules and Vincent are charged to return to Marsellus. It is mysterious because we never actually see what’s in it, but we do see people’s reactions to its obviously valuable contents. The question invariably arises: what’s in the briefcase? However, this is a trick question. The answer is really: it doesn’t matter. It makes no difference what’s in the briefcase. All that matters is that Marsellus wants it back, and thus the thing is endowed with worth. If Jules and Vincent had an objective framework of value and meaning in their lives, they would be able to determine whether what was in the briefcase was ultimately of value, and they would be able to determine what actions were justified in retrieving it. In the absence of any such framework, the briefcase becomes of ultimate value in and of itself, precisely because Marsellus says so, and any and all actions required to procure it become justified (including, obviously, murder).
In addition to the pop iconography in the film, the discourse on language here concerns naming things. What is a Big Mac called? What is a Quarter Pounder called? What is a Whopper called? (Vincent doesn’t know…he doesn’t go to Burger King.) When Ringo (Tim Roth) calls the waitress “garçon,” she informs him garçon means boy. Also, when Butch’s girlfriend refers to his means of transportation as a “motorcycle,” he insists on correcting her: “It’s not a motorcycle, it’s a chopper.” And yet — and here’s the crux — when a lovely Hispanic cab driver asks Butch what his name means, he replies: “This is America, honey; our names don’t mean shit.” The point is clear: in the absence of any lasting, transcendent objective framework of value and meaning, our language no longer points to anything beyond itself. To call something good or evil renders it so, given that there is no higher authority or criteria by which one might judge actions. Jules quotes the Bible before his executions, but he may as well be quoting the Fonz or Buddy Holly.
Pulp Fiction is in part about Jules’s transformation. When one of his targets shoots at him and Vincent from a short distance, empties the revolver, and misses completely, Jules interprets this as divine intervention. The importance of this is not that it really was divine intervention, but rather that the incident spurs Jules on to reflect on what is missing. It compels him to consider the Biblical passage that he’s been quoting for years without giving much thought to it. Jules begins to understand — however confusedly at first — that the passage he quotes refers to an objective framework of value and meaning that is absent from his life. We see the dawning of this kind of understanding when he reports to Vincent that he’s quitting the mob, and then, most significantly, when he repeats the passage to Ringo in the coffee shop and then interprets it. He says:
I’ve been saying that shit for years, and if you heard it — that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant — I just thought it was some cold blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means: you’re the Evil Man, and I’m the Righteous Man, and Mr. 9mm here — he’s the Shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean: you’re the Righteous Man, and I’m the Shepherd; and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. Now, I’d like that, but that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is: you’re the Weak and I’m the Tyranny of Evil Men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the Shepherd.
Jules offers three possible interpretations of the passage. The first interpretation accords with the way he has been living his life. Whatever he does (as commanded by Marsellus) is justified, and thus he is the Righteous Man, with his pistol protecting him, and whatever stands in his way is bad or evil by definition. The second interpretation is interesting and seems to go along with Jules’ pseudo-religious attitude following what he interprets as a divine-mystical experience. In this interpretation, the world is evil and selfish, and apparently has made Jules do all the terrible things he’s done up to that point. He’s now become the Shepherd, and he’s going to protect Ringo (who, after all, is small potatoes in mob terms, robbing coffee shops, etc.) from this evil. But that’s not the truth, he realizes. The truth is that he himself is the evil that he’s been preaching about — unwittingly — for years. Ringo is weak, neither good enough to be righteous, nor strong enough to be as evil, as Jules and Vincent. And Jules is trying to transform himself into the shepherd, to lead Ringo through the valley of darkness.
Of course, interestingly, the darkness is of Jules’s own making, such that the struggle to be the shepherd is Jules’ struggle with himself not to revert to evil. In this struggle, he buys Ringo’s life. Ringo has collected the wallets of the customers in the coffee shop, including Jules’s, and Jules allows him to take fifteen hundred dollars out of it. Jules is paying Ringo the fifteen hundred dollars to take the money from the coffee shop and simply leave, so that he (Jules) won’t have to kill him. Note that no such transformation has taken place for Vincent, who exclaims: “Jules, you give that fucking nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, and I’ll shoot him on general principle.” The principle is, of course, whatever means are necessary to achieve my end are justified, the end (again) most often determined by Marsellus Wallace.
This attitude of Vincent’s is clearly depicted in his reaction to Mia’s overdose. He desperately tries to save her, not because she is a fellow human being of intrinsic worth, but because she is Marsellus’ wife, and he (Vincent) will be in real trouble if she dies. Mia has value because Marsellus has made it so, not because of any intrinsic or objective features or characteristics she may possess.
The other transformation in the film is that of Butch. There is a conspicuous progression in the meaning and relevance of the violence in the story. In the beginning, we see killings that are completely gratuitous: Brad and his cohorts, and particularly Marvin, who is shot in the face simply because the car went over a bump and the gun went off. There is also the maiming of Tony Rocky Horror, the reason for which is hidden from all, save Marsellus. Again, this is evidence that it is Marsellus himself who provides the meaning and justification for things, and his reasons — like God’s — are hidden from us. (This may, in fact, be what the bandage on his head represents: the fact that Marsellus’ motives and reasons are hidden to us. Bandages not only help to heal, they also hide or disguise what we don’t want others to see.)
The meaninglessness of the violence is also epitomized in the boxing match. Butch kills his opponent. When Esmarelda Villa Lobos, the cab driver, informs him of this, his reaction is one of complete indifference. He shrugs it off. Further, when Butch gets into his jam for having double-crossed Marsellus, he initially decides that the way that he is going to get out of it is to become like his enemy — that is, to become ruthless. Consequently, he shoots and kills Vincent, and then he tries to kill Marsellus by running him over with his car.
The situation becomes interesting when Butch and Marsellus, initially willing to kill one another without a second’s thought, find themselves in the same unpleasant situation: held hostage by a couple of hillbillies who are about to beat and rape them. I noted earlier the conspicuous absence of policemen in the film. The interesting quasi-exception to this is the pervert, Zed. Marsellus is taken captive, bound and gagged. When Zed shows up he is dressed in a security guard’s uniform, giving him the appearance of an authority figure. He is only a security guard, and not a real police officer, however, and this is our clue to the arbitrariness of authority. In the nihilistic context in which these characters exist, in the absence of an objective framework of value to determine right, justice and goodness, Marsellus Wallace is the legislator of values, the ultimate authority. In this situation, however, his authority has been usurped. Zed holds the shotgun now, and he takes his usurpation to the extreme by raping Marsellus.
One night in 1978, John and Yoko went to Studio 54, the club that made headlines because of its impossible admission lines and guest lists. You had to be somebody to get in — somebody like Lennon or Roy Cohn, the former aide to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and assistant to the disgraced Richard Nixon. Cohn had become the club’s legal counsel and was in the men’s room washing his hands when Lennon came in. “It doesn’t matter how hard you scrub,” Lennon quipped, “you’ll never get the blood off.”
Cohn left in a huff, nearly colliding with the young playwright Tony Kushner at the door. Sensing the drama he had just missed, Kushner asked “Who was that guy?” But before Lennon could answer, John Travolta emerged from a stall, still fastening his belt, and rushed over to Lennon to introduce himself and insist that he had asked the producers of Welcome Back Kotter to have Lennon, instead of John Sebastian, write the show’s theme song.
The key here is that John Travolta was so excited to meet John Lennon, he forgot to wash his hands in the men’s room. That’s why Travolta’s Vincent Vega is the only major character in Pulp Fiction to die. He’s incontinent, not only in the ordinary sense of the word, but in the Aristotelian sense of being weak-willed and unable to do what true loyalty demands of him. And when he dies, his hands are dirty.
In most movies the audience knows within the first five minutes who will be the main character. That is no fun. In Pulp Fiction, you might watch the movie nine times and still not immediately grasp which is the main character. Vincent is the main character in the movie, which isn’t obvious until the script is put into sequence. When it is, it becomes very clear that Vincent is a bumbling anti-hero who becomes the victim of his own carelessness. None of his character flaws — selfishness, laziness, hubris, careless inattention, even weakness of will — is his “central flaw.” And we are supposed to overlook the fact that Vincent is a ruthless killer, because, frankly, everyone he kills is at least as bad as he is. As the Wolf says, “Nobody who’ll be missed,” at least by us. Tarantino doesn’t get preachy about character flaws in any case. The moral of the story doesn’t come from some lesson about what makes a hit man a bad person.
Apart from Vincent, it’s pretty hard to miss that Butch, filled with testosterone and pride as he is, has a soft spot for his dear departed dad, and dangerous though he is, he puts up with whining from Fabienne that none of us would begin to tolerate. And Jules…well, he is trying to be the shepherd. He is by far the most dangerous of the dangerous boys, but even he believes in miracles, scolds blasphemers, and reads the Bible.
It’s easy to miss, but Vincent’s “incontinence” — and I mean this in the ordinary sense of the word — is the master key to the movie, and the monkey wrench. Everything bad that happens to Vincent is signaled by what’s happening in the bathroom. The “fourth man” with the hand cannon is hiding in the bathroom when Vincent and Jules make the hit in the apartment, but Jules takes the hint and Vincent doesn’t get it. Vincent is in the bathroom when Honey Bunny and Pumpkin pull their guns at the coffee shop to create the Mexican stand-off. Vincent is in the bathroom when Mia Wallace mistakes his heroin for cocaine (saving them both from an impending and very disloyal tryst). And Vincent is in the bathroom when Butch returns for his beloved watch, which is the end of Vincent.
We do see Jules in the bathroom once, and we do see Butch there once: each is washing off the stain of a former life he intends to leave behind. And Tarantino makes it very, very clear that Vincent does not wash his hands, showing him emerging from the bathroom at Butch’s apartment immediately after he flushes the toilet, still fastening his belt.
You may think I’m making too much of this. If so, why do Jules and Vincent have an argument about washing their hands in Jimmie’s bathroom?
Jules: What the fuck did you just do to his towel?
Vincent: I was just dryin’ my hands.
Jules: You’re supposed to wash ’em first.
Vincent: You watched me wash ’em.
Jules: I watched you get ’em wet.
Vincent: I washed ’em. Blood’s real hard to get off. Maybe if he had some Lava, I coulda done a better job.
Jules: I used the same soap you did and when I dried my hands, the towel didn’t look like a god damn maxipad.
Nothing happens by accident in a Tarantino movie. As Aristotle puts it, “That which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.” Tarantino doesn’t waste your time with “that which makes no perceptible difference.” If Vincent had the sense to wash his hands — thoroughly — he might still be with us. Butch would have had time to escape and some noise to cover his exit. But no. Vincent is lazy and careless and incontinent. Tarantino tells us what we need to know. It comes when Vincent has taken Mia Wallace home after their “date” at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Mia has her own issues with incontinence (as Marsellus well knows, from the infamous “foot massage” episode — he is testing Vincent’s loyalty). Having excused himself to go to the bathroom after an “uncomfortable silence” with Mia, Vincent has the following conversation with himself in the mirror:
One drink and leave. Don’t be rude, but drink your drink quickly, say goodbye, walk out the door, get in your car, and go down the road… It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful. So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say “Goodnight, I’ve had a very lovely evening,” go home, and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.
That’s the password to Tarantino’s tree house: “loyalty.” What does Vincent truly want that he cannot get? He has the drugs and the cars and the money and women if he wants them (he turns down a free tryst with Trudi, so we know this isn’t his weakness). He tells us what he doesn’t have that he wants: self-control and true loyalty.
We may not be able to understand a world filled with people none of whom is morally similar to us, except that Tarantino shows us that they do have loyalties. Jules will deliver that briefcase to Marsellus even after he has decided to leave the “business,” and will risk his life to do so — loyalty. Butch is loyal to the memory of his father, yes, but why does he turn around and save Marsellus Wallace when he could just as easily leave him to die at the hands of Zed, Maynard, and The Gimp? If they kill Marsellus, all of Butch’s problems are over. But Butch is a man of honor, a man’s man, and he knows Marsellus is another man of honor, and, to put it in his own words, Marsellus at that moment is “pretty fucking far from okay.” A loyal man just can’t let another loyal man meet such an end. Marsellus recognizes the deed for what it is when Butch saves him and also leaves him the privilege of taking care of Zed in “medieval” fashion.
The scene in the back of the pawn shop is a rerun of the rape of Ned Beatty from Deliverance. Butch’s search for the right weapon is the key to the scene. He picks up a hammer, then a chainsaw, then a baseball bat, discarding each after a moment’s thought, trying to decide what kind of movie he’s in. Is it Friday the 13th? No. Is it The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? No. Is he in Walking Tall? Is this about justice? No. This is about honor. It’s the katana.
We never quite learn whether Vincent is capable of genuine loyalty or not. We know he wants to be loyal, and we know he values loyalty. We also know that he is weak-willed, careless, and incontinent; he knows that, too, and doesn’t like it. But in the end, there is something different about Vincent that curbs our sympathy. He doesn’t wash his hands when he goes to the bathroom. So there are three morals to the story, but they all amount to one: Be loyal. Don’t be weak-willed. It will lead you to a bad end.
And wash your hands when you go to the bathroom. It says more about your character than you may realize.