Study Guide

Pulp Fiction Themes

  • Violence

    "Violence." Probably the first word you think of when someone says "Tarantino." But it's really the quality of violence that counts…let us explain that so we don't sound like a deranged serial killer. The violence in Pulp Fiction is very strange. At times it's unsettling, sometimes gut-wrenching; it can be exciting like an action flick, but it can also leave you on the floor laughing. Watch the movie with other people (yes, you don't have to see movies alone) and notice the dead silence during the scenes of Marsellus' rape and the startled chuckles when Marvin gets his head blown off. Violence is a means to many ends in Pulp Fiction (especially the character's ends) and it's not just for us to gawk at. It's for us to think about; so let's get started.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Not all violence is graphic. What are some examples of non-physical violence displayed by the film?
    2. Is violence ever warranted? What about the most extreme violence that results in the death of others?
    3. Can violence help us determine "good" characters from "bad" characters? What types of people are violent in the film?

    Chew on This

    Jules and Vincent are unaffected by the violence they create unless it inconveniences or threatens them personally.

    The only thing that could get Jules to renounce violence was a religious revelation.

  • Loyalty

    You know when you're at a party in a heated debate over the value of the Marvel movie franchise and your buddy who you thought was on your side suddenly stabs you in the back just because he sorta liked the eighteenth installment of Iron Man (or whatever they're on)? Well, that's not a very loyal friend but the worst that's gonna happen is getting kicked out of the party for dumping your glass of punch all over him.

    Loyalty means a whole lot more in the world of Pulp Fiction where your friend is carrying a gun…or is the only person you know with an adrenaline shot. Loyalty is a valuable tool, more powerful than violence. Marsellus knows it, Vincent knows it, and Tony Rocky Horror shoulda known it. Every gangster knows it. The big problem with loyalty is that it's a lot harder to gain than it is to throw away, and you never know just how loyal anyone really is in the crime biz. Hint: not much; they're all sociopaths.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Who do you think is the most loyal character in the film? Why are they loyal and who are they loyal to? 
    2. Is loyalty advantageous for both parties? Do the loyal characters benefit from their loyalty?
    3. Can Vincent's loyalty ethic be considered a moral code?

    Chew on This

    Loyalty never pays off. Vincent stays loyal through Mia's date and everything else that Marsellus has him do and still ends up dead.

    There's no loyalty based on camaraderie in Pulp Fiction. All loyalty is a product of greed and fear.

  • Language and Communication

    Most people remember Pulp Fiction for its more violent or shocking scenes. But real fans know it's the dialogue that really makes the movie what it is. Critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said, "The best thing about Pulp Fiction, as with Tarantino's debut film, Reservoir Dogs, are its words. They flow in hip torrents that are both idiosyncratic and familiar from lowlife characters who love to talk and can erupt in entertaining riffs on any subject on no notice at all." (Source)

    The characters are always talking, talking, talking. Jules and Vincent, Vincent and Mia, Butch and Fabienne—they talk about everything from pie to bank robberies to theology and French fast food. There's also a lot of talking about talking. Mia's concerned with all the mindless chit-chat in the world and thinks that being able to have comfortable silences is the sign of a good relationship. Ringo's impressed by the use of a telephone to rob a federal bank. Language is powerful, communication is important, and Tarantino really likes the F-word.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. When Jules and Vincent talk about Europe and hamburgers, is this the kind of dull, void conversation that Mia hates, or is there some purpose to it? 
    2. What are some examples where language is able to accomplish something that physical violence could not?
    3. There's usually a lot of talking before someone gets killed. How does this affect the violence when it does happen?

    Chew on This

    The characters' dialogue is meant to mirror the meaningless conversations in our daily lives.

    Tarantino wants us to notice every single word his characters say because they all have meaning.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Let's get hypothetical for a moment. You're in a restaurant when two crazy people start to rob it at gunpoint, taking everybody's wallet. They come to you and you, being exactly the fearsome dude that matches your wallet's description, disarm the robber and turn the tables. What do you do? Pop a cap in his rear end? Call the police? Make him put back the cash register money and give everyone their wallet back? Let him walk out with all the cash and wallets and give him $1500 out of your own pocket? That last one doesn't sound like the best option, but it's exactly what Jules does for Ringo and Yolanda.

    The characters in Pulp Fiction have their own code of behavior, but whether you can call it justice is questionable. People like Marsellus call the shots about what's supposed to be done, and Vincent and Jules just carry out his orders. The justice of gang life is so warped that a man being thrown out of a four story window for a foot massage seems plausible to Jules and Vincent. Do people in the film get what's coming to them? When victim and enforcers are all criminals, does justice mean anything?

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. What kind of differences do you see in Jules and Vincent's judgment? Do they have different moral standards? 
    2. What are some examples of characters dishing out their own version of justice? is their "justice" always just?
    3.  How does the faux-biblical sense of justice and judgment in Jules's speech reveal itself through the actions of the characters?

    Chew on This

    Vincent, being a hitman responsible for the purposeful and accidental deaths of multiple young men, suffers a just end when he's killed by Butch.

    The whole point of this movie is that justice and morality are totally relative and therefore meaningless.