Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century “on the mere pittance” of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But then, in the twenty-first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of “the total eclipse of all values” (in The Will To Power). This would be a frantic period of “revaluation,” in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.”
—Tom Wolfe, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” Hooking Up (2000, p. 99)
ulp Fiction is mesmerizing, violent, and wildly entertaining. But—with its bizarre cast of characters, nonlinear sequencing of events, and seemingly endless references to pop culture—what’s the film really about? It’s about American nihilism, the loss of all meaning and value in our lives following what Nietzsche called “the death of God.” More specifically, it’s about the transformation of two characters: Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Butch (Bruce Willis).
In the beginning of the film, Vincent (John Travolta) has returned from a stay in Amsterdam, and 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, and such topics. At first viewing, these kinds of references seem to be a kind of comic relief set against the violence we’re witnessing on the screen. But it isn’t merely comic relief. These transient, pop-cultural symbols and icons are the way these characters make sense of their lives.
In another time or place, people would be connected by something they saw as larger than themselves, most often religion, which would provide sense and meaning for their lives and which would help to determine the value of things. Such a larger context or framework is completely absent from Jules’s and Vincent’s lives—because it is likewise missing from late twentieth-century (and now twenty-first-century) America. This is why the film is so saturated with these pop icons. Empty and ephemeral as they are, these are the reference points by which we now understand ourselves and each other.
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 the waitresses include Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield.
In the film, the pop cultural symbols are set into stark relief against a passage said to be from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 25:17 (but mostly 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 always 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 has no connection with Jules’s life and the passage is actually meaningless to him, as he realizes later.
In addition to the pop iconography in the film, its discourse on language is concerned with naming things. What’s a Big Mac called? What’s a Quarter Pounder called? What’s a Whopper called? (Vincent doesn’t know—he didn’t go to Burger King.) When Ringo (Tim Roth) calls the waitress “garçon,” she tells him: “‘garçon’ means ‘boy’.” 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 or objective framework of value and meaning, our language no longer points to anything beyond itself. To call something good or evil makes it so, since there’s no higher authority or criteria by which one might judge such things. Jules quotes the “Bible” before his executions, but he might as well be quoting the Fonz or Buddy Holly.
This absence of any kind of foundation for making value judgments, this lack of a larger meaning to their lives, creates a kind of vacuum in their existence that is soon filled by power. Lacking any other ordering principle for their lives, Vincent and Jules fall into a hierarchy of power, with the crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) at the top and themselves as henchmen below.
Marsellus provides more than a job. He gives them a system of value: Now, anything has value for them only if Marsellus decides it does. What he wants done, they do. His wishes become the guide for their actions at any given moment, until the task is completed by whatever means necessary.
This is perfectly epitomized by the mysterious briefcase that Jules and Vincent are charged to return to Marsellus. It’s 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? But this is a trick question. The answer is that it just doesn’t matter. It makes no difference what’s in the briefcase. All that matters is that Marsellus wants it back, and his desire endows the thing with worth.
If Jules and Vincent had an outside or objective framework of value and meaning in their lives, they would be able to determine a more accurate worth for the contents of the briefcase, and they would thus be able to determine the actions justified in retrieving it. In the absence of any such framework, the briefcase becomes of ultimate value in itself, precisely because Marsellus says so, and any and all actions required to procure it become justified (including, obviously, murder).
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 all things have natures or essences and that what’s best for a thing is to “achieve” or realize its essence. Whatever helps a thing fulfill its nature is, by definition, good.
Ducks are aquatic birds. Having webbed feet helps the duck achieve its essence as a swimmer. Therefore, it’s good for the duck to have webbed feet. Human beings likewise have a nature that consists of a set of capacities, our abilities to do things. We can do many things: play the piano, build things, walk and talk, and so on. Aristotle considered that the essentially human ability is our capacity for reason, since it is reason that separates us from all other living things. So the highest good, or best life, for a human being (what Aristotle called “eudaimonia”) 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 that enable a person to achieve his or her 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.
Again, this sort of a framework, whether based on religion or reason, is completely foreign to Jules and Vincent. In its absence, they mine pop culture for symbols and reference points by which to communicate and understand one another. 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. Pulp Fiction is a gangster film in which people are shot dead, others deal and take drugs, drive recklessly, commit assault and battery, and have car accidents, and yet there is not a single policeman to be found. This symbolizes Marsellus’s absolute power and control in the absence of any higher, objective authority. (There is one important exception to this, which I’ll 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 whether it really was divine intervention but that the incident spurs Jules on to reflect on what’s missing from his life. It compels him to consider the “biblical” passage he’s been thoughtlessly quoting for years. Jules begins to understand—confusedly at first—that the passage he quotes refers to an objective framework of value and meaning that he does not have.
We see the dawning of this understanding when he reports to Vincent that he’s quitting the mob. It becomes clearer when he repeats the passage to Ringo in the coffee shop and interprets it for him. 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 ordered by Marsellus) is justified, and so he’s the Righteous Man with his pistol protecting him. Whatever stands in his way is bad or evil by definition.
The second interpretation is interesting and seems to go along with Jules’s 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 on 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 and such) from this evil.
But that’s not the truth, he realizes. The truth is that he himself is the evil that he’s been unwittingly preaching about 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, so that the struggle to be the Shepherd is Jules’s 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 Jules won’t have to kill him.
No such transformation has taken place for Vincent, who exclaims: “Jules, you give that fucking nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, and I’m gonna shoot him on general principles.” His general principles are, of course, that whatever means are necessary to achieve his end are justified—the end (again) most often being determined by Marsellus Wallace. This attitude of Vincent’s is clearly depicted in his reaction to Mia’s overdose. He tries desperately to save her, not because she’s a fellow human being, but because she is Marsellus’s wife and Vincent will be in deep trouble if she dies. Mia has value because Marsellus has made it so, not because of any intrinsic or objective worth, features, or characteristics she may possess.
The other transformation in the film is that of Butch. Note the conspicuous progression in the meaning and relevance of violence in the film.
In the beginning, we see killings that are completely gratuitous: Brett 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, except Marsellus (presuming that he actually had a reason). This is further evidence that it is Marsellus himself who provides the meaning and justification for things, and his reasons—like God’s—are hidden from us. (It may well be that the bandage on his head represents the fact that Marsellus’s 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 the cab driver, Esmarelda Villalobos (Angela Jones), informs him of this, Butch’s reaction is one of complete indifference. He shrugs it off. Further, when Butch gets into a jam for double-crossing Marsellus, he initially thinks that the way out is to become like his enemy—that is, to become ruthless. Consequently, he shoots and kills Vincent and then tries to kill Marsellus by running him over with a car.
The situation becomes more interesting when Butch and Marsellus, each initially willing to kill the 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 captive, bound, and gagged. Zed shows up dressed in a security guard’s uniform, giving him the appearance of an authority figure. But he is only a security guard, not a real cop, and this is another clue to the arbitrariness of authority in the nihilistic world these characters inhabit. In the absence of an objective framework of value to determine right, justice, and goodness, the powerful Marsellus Wallace is the legislator of values, the ultimate authority. But his authority has been usurped by someone with more immediate power. Zed holds the shotgun now, and he exercises his new authority to the extreme by raping Marsellus.
Just as Jules’s transformation had a defining moment, so too does Butch’s. In his case, it is when, having overpowered the Gimp, he is about to escape but returns to save Marsellus. While the film’s violence was initially gratuitous and meaningless, when Butch returns to the cellar to aid Marsellus, violence for the first time acquires justification as an act of honor and friendship. He saves Marsellus, once his enemy, from men who are somehow worse than they are.
In the end, Butch escapes his troubles not by becoming like his enemy, but by saving his enemy. His 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 clearly stands out in the list. First, it’s meant to be a weapon, while the others aren’t, and I’ll discuss that in a moment. But the sword also stands out because the first three items (two of them particularly) are symbols of Americana. They represent the nihilism Butch is leaving behind, But 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 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.
Consider, in contrast to the (foreign) Samurai sword, the gold watch Butch is trying to retrieve before he leaves town. It is a kind of heirloom that’s passed down in (American) families. It represents a kind of tradition of honor and manhood. But think about how this particular watch was passed down to Butch.
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 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 POW camp, hides the watch in his rectum. Before he dies—significantly—from dysentery, he gives it to his army comrade Koons (Christopher Walken), who hides it in his own rectum. Returning from the war, Koons finds the boy Butch and gives him 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. It’s an empty symbol. Why empty? For the same reason that the “biblical” passage was meaningless: it’s a symbol with no referent, an “heirloom” sent to Butch by a long-absent father, whom he little remembers. That to which it would refer is missing.
The sword is thus additionally significant because, unlike the gold watch, it connects Butch to his family’s masculine line. The men in his family were warriors, soldiers in the various wars. Choosing the sword transforms Butch from a boxer—a disconnected fighter who steps alone into the ring—into a soldier, a warrior, a person who is connected to a history and a tradition, whose actions are guided by a code of conduct in which honor and courage are defining values.
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’s 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, and perhaps now having invested the heirloom watch with meaning once more.
While the film is about the transformation of these two characters, it’s not clear what the extent of the transformation is or could be. Both Jules and Butch become aware of the nihilism in their respective lives, but is this awareness the most that they—and we—can hope for? (This is in large part Camus’s answer: the best we can hope for is to become aware of the absurd and vainly to oppose and resist it.) Or is it actually possible to achieve a truly meaningful existence?
This is the problem that Nietzsche himself presciently struggled with his entire life, after declaring the death of God. He was vehemently opposed to any kind of return to religious belief, which seems to be Jules’s path. If there is to be meaning and value in our lives, Nietzsche tells us, it can’t be something eternal, perfect and unchanging, contrary to Plato and Christianity, since he has determined that such a thing just doesn’t exist.
So, the question becomes, can our secular, transient, all-too-human relationships and projects provide real and lasting meaning in our lives and in the world? Butch’s actions hint at an affirmative answer from Tarantino. With his newly constituted bonds of family, friendship, and love (he really does seem to care about Fabienne), Butch may achieve at least some semblance of a meaningful existence. Interestingly, these kinds of relationships, coupled with development of the virtues (and, of course, reason), constitute something like Aristotle’s picture of eudaimonia, or human flourishing.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Philosophy Now (No. 19, Winter 1997/98). 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.