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Symbolism, Meaning & Nihilism in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction

Mark Conard reveals the metaphysical truths lurking under the rug in Tarantino’s cult classic.

Nihilism is a term which describes the loss of value and meaning in people’s lives. When Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead,” he meant that Judeo-Christianity has been lost as a guiding force in our lives, and there is nothing to replace it. Once we ceased really to believe in the myth at the heart of Judeo-Christian religion, which happened after the scientific revolution, Judeo-Christian morality lost its character as a binding code by which to live one’s life. Given the centrality of religion in our lives for thousands of years, once this moral code is lost and not replaced, we are faced with the abyss of nihilism: darkness closes in on us, and nothing is of any real value any more; there is no real meaning in our lives, and to conduct oneself and one’s life in one way is just as good as another, for there is no over-arching criterion by which to make such judgments.

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:

PART I : 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.

PART II : 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 in his rectum 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’ 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 a hillbilly and wounding another with a Samurai sword.

PART III : 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 retumed 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, tv pilots, etc. 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/or another 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 the 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 Thurmon) visit Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where the host is Ed Sullivan, the singer is Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly is the waiter, and amongst 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’ life and so the passage becomes meaningless to him. Late in the film he teils 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. lf Jules and Vincent did have 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 briefease 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 didn’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.

I’ve been contrasting nihilism with religion as an objective framework or foundation of values and meaning, because that’s the comparison that Tarantino himself makes in the film. There are other objective systems of ethics, however. We might compare nihilism to Aristotelian ethics, for example. Aristotle says that things have natures or essences and that what is best for a thing is to ‘achieve’ or realize its essence. And in fact whatever helps a thing fulfill its nature in this way is by definition good. Ducks are aquatic birds. Having webbed feet helps the duck to achieve its essence as a swimmer. Therefore, it’s good for the duck to have webbed feet. Human beings likewise have a nature which consists in a set of capacities, our abilities to do things. There are many things that we can do: play the piano, build things, walk and talk, etc. But the essentially human ability is our capacity for reason, since it is reason which separates us from all other living things. The highest good, or best life, for a human being, then, consists in realizing one’s capacities, most particularly the capacity for reason. This notion of the highest good, along with Aristotle’s conception of the virtues, which are states of character which enable a person to achieve his essence, add up to an objective ethical framework according to which one can weigh and assess the value and meaning of things, as well as weigh and assess the means one might use to procure those things. To repeat, this sort of a framework, whether based on religion or reason, is completely absent from Jules’ and Vincent’s lives. In its absence, pop culture is the source of the symbols and reference points by which the two communicate and understand one another; and without reason or a religious moral code to determine the value and meaning that things have in their lives, Marsellus Wallace dictates the value of things. This lack of any kind of higher authority is depicted in the film by the conspicuous absence of any police presence whatever. This is a gangster film, in which people are shot dead, others deal and take drugs, drive recklessly, etc., there are car accidents, and yet there is not a single policeman to be found. Again, this symbolizes Marsellus’ absolute power and control in the absence of any higher, objective authority. There is one small exception to this, which I will note in a moment.

Pulp Fiction is in part about Jules’ 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 (he tells Vincent, recall, that he wants to wander the earth like Caine in Kung Fu). 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’ 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’, 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 c1early 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 a 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 areal policeman, 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.

Just as Jules’ transformation had a defining moment, namely, when he is fired upon and missed, so too Butch’s transformation has a defining moment. This is when he is about to escape, having overpowered the Gimp, but returns to save Marsellus. As I said, initially the violence is gratuitous and without meaning. However, when Butch returns to the cellar to aid Marsellus, the violence for the first time has a justification: as an act of honour and friendship, he is saving Marsellus, once his enemy, from men worse than they are. Note that Butch gets out of his jam not by becoming like his enemy, i.e., ruthless, but in fact by saving his enemy.

Butch’s transformation is represented by his choice of weapons in the store: a hammer, a baseball bat, a chainsaw, and a Samurai sword. He overlooks the first three items and chooses the fourth. Why? The sword c1early stands out in the list. First, it’s meant to be a weapon, while the others are not, and I’ll discuss that in a moment. But it also stands out because the first three items (two of them particularly) are symbols of Americana. They represent the nihilism that Butch is leaving behind, whereas the Samurai sword represents a particular culture in which there is (or was) in place a very rigid moral framework, the kind of objective foundation that I’ve been saying is missing from these characters’ lives. The sword represents for Butch what the Biblical passage does for Jules: a glimpse beyond transient pop culture, a glimpse beyond the yawning abyss of nihilism to a way of life, a manner of thinking, in which there are objective moral criteria, there is meaning and value, and in which language does transcend itself.

In contrast to the (foreign) Samurai sword, the gold watch is a kind of heirloom that’s passed down in (American) families. It represents a kind of tradition of honour and manhood. But let’s think about how the watch gets passed down in this case. Butch’s great grandfather buys it in Knoxville before he goes off to fight in World War I. Having survived the war, he passes it on to his son. Butch’s grandfather then leaves it to his own son before he goes into battle during World War II and is killed. Butch’s father, interned in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, hides the watch in his rectum, and before he dies – significantly – from dysentery, he gives it to his army comrade (Christopher Walken) who then hides it in his own rectum. After returning from the war, the comrade finds Butch as a boy and presents him with the watch. The way in which Butch receives the watch is of course highly significant. His father hides it in his rectum. The watch is a piece of shit; or, in other words, it is an empty symbol. Why empty? For the same reason that the Biblical passage was meaningless: it is a symbol with no referent. That to which it would refer is missing.

The sword is also significant because it, unlike the gold watch (an heirloom sent to Butch by a long-absent father, whom he little remembers), connects Butch to the masculine line in his family. The men in his family were warriors, soldiers in the various wars. Choosing the sword transforms Butch from a pugilist, someone disconnected who steps into the ring alone, into a soldier, a warrior, one who is connected to a history and a tradition, and whose actions are guided by a strict code of conduct in which honour and courage are the most important of valuess.

Finally, note how Butch is always returning. He seems doomed to return, perhaps to repeat things, until he gets it right. He must return to his apartment to get his watch. This return is associated with his decision to become his enemy. There’s his return to the cellar to save Marsellus, when he transcends his situation and begins to grasp something beyond the abyss. There’s also his return to Knoxville. Recall that the watch was originally purchased by his great-grandfather in Knoxville, and it is to Knoxville that Butch has planned to escape after he doesn’t throw the fight. After he chooses the sword and saves Marsellus, Butch can rightfully return to Knoxville, now connected to his paternal line, now rightfully a member of the warrior class.

© Mark T. Conard 1997

Mark Conard received his PhD in Philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia and now teaches at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

• I wish to thank Lou Ascione and Aeon Skoble, who helped me clarify and refine my ideas about the film in discussions we’ve had. Thanks also go to the members of the West Chester University Philosophy Club for their feedback and input when I presented my ideas to them in a lecture format.

• All the quotations in the article are directly from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

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