I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“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 ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“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 cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his 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.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

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. And 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 tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.