One of the most interesting and influential elements of Quentin Tarantino’s work has been his nonlinear plot structure. And one of the most often cited examples of his nonlinear narrative is Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994). But, beyond just being cool, what significance does Pulp Fiction’s unique plot structure have for the meaning of the film? I think a good way to approach this problem is to ask, How many narratives are there in Pulp Fiction? The title page of the published script says the film is “Three stories about one story”. But whether you emphasize the “three” part or the “one” part, changes the overall meaning of the movie.
If there is only one narrative, that narrative looks jumbled up and meaningless. It looks incoherent and not like a single set of events aimed at a single conclusion. This is the typical reading of those film critics who see postmodernism as nihilistic. On this reading, the point would be that the world is meaningless “pulp” – “a soft, moist, shapeless mass or matter”, as the film’s opening title defines it – and any apparent narrative structure you see in your life is merely “fiction” imposed on the chaos. So by editing and arranging the story this way Tarantino can ironically give the illusion of meaning while simultaneously deconstructing that artificial meaning through its disjointed structure and making sure we keep in mind that the un-interpreted events are meaningless.
But the nonlinear reading is not the only way to read the structure of the film. Pulp Fiction can just as easily be read as three perfectly linear short stories. It is only if you take the whole movie as “one story” that you feel disjointed. But the film opens with two definitions of “pulp.” If you emphasize the second definition (“A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.”), you can recognize that the film is three short stories, an homage to the pulp anthology magazines popular in the early 20th Century.
From this point of view there is nothing unusual about these narrative structures except that there are three of them in a row. Indeed, the film clearly marks off the three stories with separate titles, and frames them all with the diner scene. On this anthology reading the film’s structure seems like an attempt to point out the fact that each of us is really the hero of our own life narrative. In other words, it is an attempt to reflect the necessity that we each find ourselves living in a story. The point of the movie, then, would be that despite seeming like meaningless pulp, the world is actually meaningful and ordered, though the larger narrative context that connects the small narratives of our individual lives can be hard to discern. Thus, by editing the movie the way he does, Tarantino is not making up an artificial narrative structure; he’s helping us see what was there all along.
Take for example the story of Butch Coolidge, Bruce Willis’s character who is the hero of the story titled “The Gold Watch”. The story begins with the formative event of Butch’s receiving an heirloom gold watch that his father Major Coolidge had smuggled through a concentration camp. The watch seems to drop out of the story, and the focus turns to Butch and Marcellus Wallace being tortured in the pawn shop basement. But the watch is essential for understanding the meaning of the story.
The watch represents a family history of pride and honor for Butch. It is a symbol of manhood for Butch and the toughness that allowed Major Coolidge to pass on this “birthright” to his son. A watch is something that keeps time and orients us to the past and future, thus a symbol of heritage. Dreaming of the watch inspired Butch to win the fight. His masculine sense of honor wouldn’t let him intentionally throw the fight. And, obviously the reason Butch gets caught by Marcellus is that he goes back to his apartment to recover the forgotten watch. More importantly, when Butch unexpectedly risks his life to save Marcellus at the end of the story, his actions are unintelligible unless seen within the narrative of the gold watch. Again, Butch’s sense of honor and manhood won’t let him leave Marcellus behind. In his life story, he sees himself playing the role of hero.
So, returning to the anthology reading of the film as a whole, we see that Tarantino isn’t mixing up the plot to impose artificial meanings on an otherwise meaningless series of events. Rather, Butch’s life really was organized around his relationship with his father (symbolized by the gold watch), but, apart from the narrative of “The Gold Watch”, we might not have noticed that.
So the film’s structure, like the real world, turns out to be ambiguous. Pulp Fiction can be interpreted in two very different ways, depending on how one thinks about its narrative structure, but this is true for any set of events in our lives. So Pulp Fiction actually serves to draw our attention to an inescapable feature of our world. In fact, the ambiguity of the world is actually the subject of the debate between Vincent and Jules in the Diner at the end of the movie.
JULES: I just been sittin’ here thinkin‘.
VINCENT: About what?
JULES: The miracle we witnessed.
VINCENT: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.
Jules takes the theistic viewpoint that there is a meaning and order to the things that happen, while the atheistic Vincent thinks the world is just random events. The two characters locate the same event in different cosmic narrative contexts. The film doesn’t resolve this ambiguity for us. We all have to choose how we will interpret the narrative. Has the film been a miraculous revelation of joy that even the most inane gangster movie clichés can bring? Or has the film been a cynical exercise in nihilism?