In Quentin Tarantino's classic film Pulp Fiction many of the characters seem to be stock "types" with which one might be familiar from other movies or forms of fiction. Therefore, the appearance of one of them needs no introduction in the movie, but they are also expected to be somewhat one-dimensional characters that experience very little growth or development during the progression of the film. When Vincent and Jules appear at the beginning of the movie, they are clearly identified as thugs, so that one expects them to break laws, intimidate people, and be involved in illegal dealings. That they are so involved does not require any explanation in the movie. However, while the characters may be types, there is also a deeper meaning running through Pulp Fiction. The characters, though involved in the sometimes superficial, sometimes deadly, business of daily life, are experiencing the existential problems that are common to mankind. This essay will focus on Vincent Vega. As portrayed by John Travolta, Vincent seems to be a not-very-bright drug-addicted thug who develops a crush on his boss' wife, accidentally kills a man, and dies while on the toilet. However, the superficial view of Vincent ignores the existential journey that Vega takes throughout the movie.
When the audience first meets Vincent, he is talking extensively about a visit to Amsterdam. In many ways, this trip to Amsterdam is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Vincent's existential journey, since he seems to have experienced zero personal growth on this trip. However, that opinion would impose values and norms on Vincent that are not his own. He is a killer, a drug addict, and a criminal; his values would be different than the values of most people in the audience. As a drug addict, his trip to Amsterdam, where he can pursue his addiction without fear of persecution, was his way of looking for the true self and meaning in life. Escaping from reality through drug usage may seem as a way of avoiding finding true knowledge of the self, but Vincent was certainly not the first character in literature or in life to use drugs to attempt to try to find his true self. Moreover, the real reason for Vincent's journey is never understood. It is heavily implied that Vincent had to go to Amsterdam in order to escape some type of negative consequence in the United States. However, once there, he may have begun to find himself and come to terms with the person who he authentically is happens to be a murdering criminal with a drug addiction. He certainly appears to have a veneer of cool certainty, one which is not challenged even through two events that would seem to trigger the dark night of the soul.
In existentialist theory, the dark night of the soul refers to a time in which a person has an existential crisis. This crisis can be internal or external, but it is an event that causes the person to question the very foundations of his belief and possibly even his existence. The first time that the audience sees Vincent in a situation where an existential crises seems appropriate is when he and Jules survive a hail of bullets. For Jules, this event has meaning and prompts him to begin questioning his role in life, what he has become, and whether he is on the right path. However, the event does not prompt Vincent to begin questioning his role in life; instead, he just seems to be frustrated by Jules' questioning. Likewise, when he accidentally shoots Marvin when they are driving in the car, one might anticipate that his being the accidental cause of the death of another person would cause him to question his own role in life. However, Vincent retains his unflappable calm during this time, and seems more upset about the mess and the way that the Wolf talks to him than he is about the fact that he has killed someone. However, when Mia accidentally overdoses on the heroin she finds in Vincent's pocket, and he is dealing with the potential consequences of Mia's death, Vincent is no longer unflappable. Instead, he acts in an authentic manner. It may not lead him to a substantial change in his personality, but it does force him to be authentic.
In fact, the authentic vs. inauthentic is another existential theme. Vincent is very inauthentic during much of the movie. He puts on a cool persona and this persona is more important to him than being authentic. His mannerisms, his way of talking, his greaser-hood appearance, and his slowness all indicate a person without a care in the world. Moreover, his discussions about his views of ethics and morality suggest someone whose moral compass is skewed, at best. He seems to find it somewhat appropriate that Marcellus would throw a man off of a roof because the man gave Mia a foot massage, displaying an appalling lack of concern about human life. This is reinforced in his casual response to Marvin's death. In fact, his whole date with Mia, where the two of them are posturing and trying to get one another to reveal something real about themselves, is evidence of his inauthenticity. Then, Mia overdoses and almost dies, and suddenly Vincent gets very, very real. He places a frantic phone call to Lance, wrecking his car as he pulls up to the house, despite an earlier conversation with Lance about how important the car is to him. He is frantic to save Mia. Part of his motivation seems to be fear that Marcellus will hurt him, but it is clear that he is also genuinely concerned that Mia will die. This is the authentic Vincent. Even though he knows that there is no possibility of romance with Mia, he has felt something for her, and he does not want something to happen to her.
While Mia's overdoes may have been the dark night of Vincent's soul, it is also the moment that introduces the concept of absurdness to Vincent' tale. The absurdity begins when Vincent is in the bathroom, talking to himself in the mirror about going home and masturbating, while Mia is in the living room overdosing. The contrast between the sexy and desirable woman he left when he walked into the bathroom, and the vomit and spittle covered woman passed out when he comes out of the bathroom makes his masturbation soliloquy all that much more absurd. Even more than that, the scene at Lance's house is absurd. Mia is dying, and Lance and Vincent are drawing targets on her chest and fighting over who is going to have to administer the shot. Contributing to the absurdity is the absolute fascination on Jody's face as Vincent jams the needle into Mia's chest, and Mia sitting upright with the needle sticking out of her chest.
Vincent's interactions with Mia reveal another existential dilemma, which is the conflict between free will and responsibility. There is clearly some type of attraction between Mia and Vincent. Whether Mia would be willing to act on that attraction is not ever fully explored in the movie; she seems to be loyal to her husband, but she is also clearly enjoying flirting with Vincent. However, Vincent has taken on a responsibility to Marcellus. He has told Marcellus that he will take Mia out and show her a good time. He understands that his feelings for Mia are inconsequential; he is performing a job for his boss. Even more interesting are the discussions about the date that Vincent has with Jules prior to the date itself. Vincent is not looking forward to taking Mia out; he fears that Marcellus is not rational about his wife and worries that he is somehow going to inadvertently offend either Mia or Marcellus. However, he still takes Mia on a date, and one gets the feeling that it is not because he is forced to do so, but because he feels a duty to do so.
Interestingly enough, this loyalty to Marcellus might suggest that Vincent resolved the conflict between the individual and the herd by going with the herd. He falls into step with Marcellus easily, putting his own life at risk in order to pursue Butch for Marcellus. However, his loyalty is not transitive; instead, it appears very specific to Marcellus. Vincent is actually very stubbornly determined to go his own way throughout the entire film. For example, when Jules is questioning his own existence after they survived the hail of bullets, even his sincerity is not enough to get Vincent to question his own existence. When they are in tremendous jeopardy after Vincent has killed Marvin, Vincent bristles at the authority shown by the Wolf. He fails to fall in line with the expectations of broader society, as a whole, or even the expectations of the smaller criminal subculture in which he lives. Therefore, it is clear that Vincent acts as an individual.