In Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, we bear witness to an ensemble cast of unsavory characters who inhabit the underbelly of a fictional Los Angeles, including a pair of hitmen, a gangster and his wife, two lowly robbers, and a boxer who is on the lam. The title of the film is derived from the genre of dime-store crime novels that are the type of story Tarantino is paying homage to – tales of crime, sex and money, all uniquely stylized in their own way. Tarantino created his own sense of language in this film to help portray the low-income, criminal nature of many of these characters, mostly through the usage of profanity and racial epithets. Many of the characters, particularly Jules and Vincent (the hitman characters), wax poetic on the nature of God, the foreign names of cheeseburgers, and so on, displaying their own unique sense of logic within the film.
In this paper, we will examine how profanity and racial slurs are used throughout the film and how they help indicate the mindset of the character and the context of the situation. What’s more, there will be discussion of the dialectical discussions that take place between many different sets of characters, and how the unique style of dialogue in the film sets the audience more tightly within this fictional world.
There are few films that carry as many fucks-per-minute as Pulp Fiction; nearly every line said by the characters (particularly Jules) contains some sort of offensive word. What’s more, the words are very rarely used for emphasis; while they are still uttered normally as an expression of anger or frustration, often they are peppered within everyday, calm conversation. This helps to heighten these characters to a different level as the audience, casually throwing out words that many would find offensive even uttered once.
At the same time, the rampant usage of profanity is a way to showcase the lack of moral fiber and ethics that these characters possess. The characters who swear the least are the most virtuous characters, such as Fabienne, Butch’s girlfriend, and Esmerelda, the kind taxi driver who ferries Butch back after his decisive boxing mach. The use of profanity is never looked down upon or reprimanded by any character within the movie; everyone swears about as much as everyone else.
Another thing Jules and his compatriots do is spout off racial epithets on a consistent basis. The word “nigger” is used frequently to refer to anybody (even white people on occasion). For the black characters (such as Jules and Marcellus Wallace), ‘nigger’ is used as an equivalent expression to refer to a person in general, while the white characters (Jimmie, Maynard) use it as a derogatory term. This can be argued to be another instance of African-Americans reappropriating the word and using it to rob it of its derogatory meaning; in the context of the film, it is simply another way to speak.
When Jimmie discusses the fact that his house does not have a sign marked “Dead Nigger Storage” on it (and thus should not be a safehouse to dispose of a black person Vincent accidentally kills), Jules, a black character, does not bring up or take issue to the fact that a white person used a hurtful racial epithet in his presence. This is because the profanity and racial slurs are an accepted fact of this universe. His ease with the language helps put us at ease, although in a strange “white guilt” sort of way (‘because the black character is not offended, it is okay to say it’).
Other racial slurs are used often throughout the movie too. Asians and foreigners in general are referred to as “gooks” – first by Pumpkin in the opening scene when discussing how difficult it is to rob convenience stores because of the language barrier, and then by Col. Koons (the Christopher Walken character) when describing the Viet Cong during his war story to young Butch. Pumpkin, in the same context, also refers to “wetbacks” (Mexicans), and Fabienne responds to Butch’s use of a retarded voice as a “Mongoloid” voice, attributing being retarded to being Asian. Again, these words are thrown out without a hint of apology or shame – they either do not see the words as racist, or are comfortable with their racism. The audience, though they are shocked at hearing these words out of context, soon become comfortable with it, as it is accepted as a given in the world of the film.
There are more interesting things going on in the film besides just the profanity as well; Tarantino’s use of dialogue mixes these filthy words with a strange, poetic set of characters, who often wax philosophical about a great many things. They make interesting, prescient insights about the nature of life and the things that it consists of in a way that their crass vocabulary belies. We see this first after the credits, during the famous first scene between Vincent and Jules, where they discuss the Royale with Cheese, defining a television pilot, and the potential infidelity implied with a foot massage all in the same trip. Marcellus talks to Butch about the hubris that many boxers go through as they attempt to advance their careers while aged, and talks him through the guilt he may feel at throwing his big fight for money.
Later in the film, Vincent takes Marcellus’ wife, Mia, to Jack Rabbit Slim’s for dinner, where they also discuss the aforementioned television pilot, as well as the nature of uncomfortable silences in relationships and conversation. After the big fight, Butch and Esmerelda discuss what it is like to kill someone. The most important conversations occur during Jules’ starring segment of the film, where an event he describes as “divine intervention” saves his life, and he vows from then on to change his ways and retire from the hitman business.
During his talk with Vincent at the diner following their harrowing experience, Jules vows to walk the Earth, discusses the filthy nature of pigs and dogs as compared to their personality, and discusses how God sometimes makes the impossible possible. Jules even talks down the two robbers from the beginning of the film by reevaluating a passage that he often tells people before he kills them, Ezekiel 25:17. Before, he just used it as a frightening speech to intimidate his victims, but upon reexamining it, it shows him that he needs to try harder to be a good person. This logic changes Jules immensely, and he demonstrates a tremendous amount of growth, gaining an enlightenment that is not noticed among his fellow cast of lowlifes.
In Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino uses profanity and racial epithets to get the audience used to a profane world where terrible things happen all the time, and the characters are simply used to it. However, beneath the surface of this scummy world of crime, there is a surprising amount of intelligence and prescience, as many of these unsavory criminals discover astonishing things about life and philosophy that would seem to be beyond people who swear that much. In this way, unconventional language is utilized to set the audience’s expectations one way, only to shatter them the next moment.
Tarantino, Quentin. (Director, Writer.) Pulp Fiction. Perf. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson.
Miramax Films, 1994. Film.