Shepherding the Weak: The Ethics of Redemption in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction

Article excerpt

Although a number of critics in the popular pressl laud Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) for its non-linear narrative, quirky performances, and oddly resonant dialogue regarding such issues as hamburgers, television pilot episodes, and foot massages, critics in other circles such as Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) and Tom Whalen (Literature/Film Quarterly) deride Tarantino's creation for its extreme violence and lack of moral clarity. In "Degrees of Cool," Lane maligns the film for the director's over-arching reliance upon popcultural minutiae and its "blank morality and wicked accoutrements" (97), while in "Film Noir: Killer Style," Whalen argues that Pulp Fiction functions upon a cinematic tableau devoid of meaning and further suggests that the characters who populate Tarantino's oeuvre live in a world that operates beyond the strictures of morality. Whalen writes, "Greed and drugs, chance and what wits these characters have left after their ears have been deafened by the gun blasts are what they live by" (2). Such critical assessments of the film, however, neglect to account for the remarkably palpable elements of metamorphosis involved in the redemption of the character who functions largely as Pulp Fiction's moral axis, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). His dramatic struggle with the notion of divine intervention in the film's final reel-in addition to the ethical crises that confront Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) as he maneuvers through Pulp Fiction's labyrinthine middle-third-belies any rudimentary evaluation of the film as a morally vacuous vehicle that emphasizes Tarantino's lust for the flashy entrails of pop culture over the sublime qualities of artistic substance.

By using the interpretive strategies established by the ongoing project of ethical criticism, promulgated by such figures as Wayne Booth, Martha C. Nussbaum, and J. Hillis Miller, we will reveal the manner in which Tarantino utilizes the otherwise mundane moments of conversation and reflection in the lives of gangsters-perennially employed as mere plot devices in the annals of American cinema, but rarely depicted as fully realized characters engaging in workaday human experience-as a means for exploring ethical and philosophical questions regarding faith, morality, commitment, and the human community. In his prodigious volume, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Booth advocates a form of criticism that examines a work of art in order to discover and make explicit the moral sensibility informing that work. If we are to accept the proposition that narratives reflect human experience while at the same time they affect human experience, that narratives are both a product of the social order and help establish and maintain that social order, it becomes clear that-in its desire to examine the moral and ethical nature of a work of art-ethical criticism establishes an important bond between the life of the narrative and the life of the reader. Patricia Meyer Spacks contends that while fictional narratives offer opportunities for ethical reflection, they are not imperatives for behavior; rather, according to Spacks, "paradigms of fiction provide an opportunity for moral playfulness: cost-free experimentation" (203). While the conditions of the visual experience inherent in film underscore the remarkable power of narratives to impinge upon human experience, or what Spacks calls the "experience of agency or its illusion" (203), those experiences acquired through cinematic representation-although powerful and affecting-may be understood as activities that afford experimentation, the trying on of new possibilities without the finality or consequences of life beyond the comforting walls of the cineplex.

Although Pulp Fiction's detractors might balk at the very notion of "cost-free experimentation" within the nefarious context of the gangster milieu, as Michael Wilmington remarks, Pulp Fiction "doesn't feel like the usual high-tech, nasty blood-and-guts thriller, those mercenary super-trash studio hits pumped out by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, or Steven Seagal" (C). …