Static and Dynamic Characters in Pulp Fiction
The 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction features several characters who, to borrow a phrase from Jules Winnfield, undergo “transitional periods.” Interestingly, the two characters who exhibit the most internal change, Butch Coolidge and Jules Winnfield, are also two of the few characters in the film who escape their respective situations with their lives. Vincent Vega, a static character, makes the wrong choices and is killed as a result, albeit indirectly. Writer and director Quentin Tarantino rewards his dynamic characters and condemns his static characters, ironically making the extremely violent film Pulp Fiction a plea for morality.
Butch Coolidge’s change of heart occurs when he decides to stay in the pawn shop and save Marcellus Wallace, who was previously his enemy. The camera focuses on Butch for several seconds while he makes this decision, emphasizing its importance. Because Butch commits an act of morality and rescues Marcellus Wallace, he achieves reconciliation with the mob boss and is subsequently forgiven for not throwing the boxing match. He is able to ride off with his girlfriend and start a new life outside of Hollywood. In short, he gets what he wants.
This change of heart is not as dramatic (and, indeed, not as highly emphasized) as Jules Winnfield’s religious conversion following his and Vincent’s near-death experience. His change is evident and constant throughout the final vignette, “The Bonnie Situation.” The Wolf’s act of hosing down the two gangsters is a figurative baptism for the now-religious Jules. When Jules is pointing a gun and reciting Ezekiel 25:17 to Pumpkin in the diner, he uses the much more down-to-earth “and you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you” rather than “and you will know that my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” This might seem like nitpicking, but this subtle change in diction shows that Jules is no longer interested in being a crime “Lord” and is no longer interested in exerting his power and authority over his victims. The biggest indication that Jules is serious about his existential turnaround lies in his final realization that he is the evil man. He states that he is trying very hard to change this. In a sense, Tarantino is only interested in people’s efforts to be good more so than any tangible end results. We do not know what happens to Jules after quitting gangster life, in the same way that we do not know what will happen to Butch after he leaves Hollywood. But, we do know that Vincent Vega, the main static character in Pulp Fiction, gets shot and dies a mere day after refusing to support Jules in his big decision. We can assume, therefore, that Butch and Jules do not die following their good choices. Had Tarantino meant to condemn Butch and Jules, we certainly would have seen them die.
How is Vincent Vega a static character? Unlike Jules, he refuses to believe in what is referred to as a “divine intervention.” Pulp Fiction is a nonlinear movie, and the events that are seen before the final scene take place later chronologically. He continues to take hard drugs, continues to follow Marcellus Wallace’s orders to kill people, and is mainly concerned with himself. It is important that Vincent is alive at the ending scene of Pulp Fiction even though, as seen in the vignette “The Gold Watch,” he is later shot and killed. This is clearly purposeful on Tarantino’s part, and it is the key to understanding Tarantino’s condemnation of the static Vincent. The viewer knows by the time of the ending that Vincent will die. Therefore, it is ironic that Vincent would call Jules foolish for giving up a life of crime. Jules really wins out and is spared the grisly fate that Vincent meets. We get the sense that if only things had been different, and if Vincent had gotten out of the business one day sooner, he would also have been spared.
It is strange that a film as violent as Pulp Fiction is also laden with religious and ethical themes. Characters are sometimes motivated by their love for others (Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, Jimmie and Bonnie, etc.) and characters occasionally see the errors of their ways and make a conscious effort to change their lives for the better. The criminal underworld of Hollywood serves as a backdrop for some difficult moral choices that are ultimately rewarded. In a way, it is a hopeful film. Tarantino is attempting to show that, in spite of violent impulses and opportunistic instincts, people can choose to stop looking out for themselves and to help other people. Helping Marcellus Wallace or choosing not to kill Pumpkin, in turn, leads to a good outcome for multiple characters. As Jules says over breakfast, “Personality goes a long way.”
Tarantino, Quentin. Pulp Fiction. Miramax, 1994. Film.
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