Pulp Fiction Ending Explained: Pride Comes Before The Fall

When Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" debuted in 1994, critics and audiences alike were stunned by the unique non-linear structure. Nearly 30 years later, viewers are still shocked and surprised by this twisting, turning pulp drama. Tarantino co-wrote the script with Roger Avary and it took home the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but their twisty tale leaves some big questions unanswered in service of creating a complex fable. Tarantino is well known for paying homage to the movies that inspired him, but many of those films take their inspiration from classic literature, including Greek tragedies and the Bible. Because of that, "Pulp Fiction" is a slick-looking movie with loads of old school cool while also being a lesson on the danger of pride.

"Pulp Fiction" follows a handful of characters in the criminal underworld of Los Angeles as they go about their violent, drug-filled lives. Each of the characters revolves around the orbit of crime lord Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and he delivers the film's most important line in a monologue to boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis): "Pride only hurts. It never helps."

Throughout the film, each of the characters is faced with moments where their egos could potentially land them in serious trouble. Some, like Butch, take Marcellus' words to heart, while others, like hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta) clearly needed the lesson. 

Marcellus Wallace: The Devil Himself

In this criminal underworld, one man is king: Marcellus Wallace, whose gravelly voice warns Butch to not let pride ruin his shot at happiness. He pays Butch to fake a loss in his last boxing match, and notes that his pride will sting but that ignoring that sting will be worth it in the end. He also instructs hitman Vincent Vega and his partner Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) to retrieve his briefcase from a cadre of young criminals, and asks Vincent to watch over his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) while he's out of town. Without Marcellus, the rest of the stories never happen. He acts as the devil in this allegory, a man who tempts his underlings with promises of wealth and power. 

In order to maintain his power, Marcellus has to appear impervious to all danger. He has to seem like an unstoppable force that cannot be challenged, which is likely why he threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window. (This is never shown but discussed at length, and like Mia says, in the end, the whole thing is between Tony and Marcellus.) After Butch fails to throw the fight, kills his opponent, and goes on the run, Marcellus plans to kill him. Instead, the two end up captured by a pair of pawn-shop owning redneck rapists. Butch manages to escape, and instead of fleeing, he goes back to save Marcellus. 

Marcellus has been brought low in almost every way imaginable, but if both he and Butch swallow their pride and go their separate ways, they can still make something good out of a terrible situation. The only witnesses to Marcellus' horrific experience are going to be dead, save Butch, and it would be wrong to kill the man who saved you when he could have run instead. Marcellus lets Butch live as long as he never returns to California, and in return, Marcellus gets to remain an untouched, impervious king of his domain.

What's in the Briefcase?

So what exactly is in the briefcase that Jules and Vincent get sent to retrieve? Jules calls it his boss' "dirty laundry," but it glows gold when the briefcase is opened and makes both Vincent and Ringo (Tim Roth) stare in awe. The briefcase's lock combination is 666, which is the number of the devil, leading many to believe that Marcellus' soul is inside the briefcase. The prevailing theory is that he sold his soul to the actual devil in exchange for his gangster empire and that his soul was taken out of the back of his neck, hence the bandage that he wears there throughout the movie. That doesn't explain how Brett (Frank Whaley) and Marvin (Phil LaMarr) got a hold of the briefcase, though the dialogue at least explains that there was some kind of business deal gone wrong. 

The briefcase is a MacGuffin, which is an object that helps move the plot forward but has no real significance otherwise. The term was coined by screenwriter Angus MacPhail and famously adopted by his collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock. 

In the script, the briefcase was filled with diamonds, and while shooting someone came up with the idea of putting a lightbulb in there for a glowing effect. Tarantino has said that whatever's in the briefcase is up to the viewer

The Dance Contest and Mia's Overdose

The person closest to Marcellus is his wife, Mia Wallace, and she's the second-most mysterious figure in the film. Vincent takes her on a date to Jack Rabbit Slims, a vintage-themed restaurant that Vincent describes as "a wax museum with a pulse." They compete in a twist dancing contest and eventually take home the trophy, though it's entirely possible that they didn't win and Vincent stole it. These are criminals, after all, and Vincent was told to make sure Mia has a good time no matter what. When they return to the Wallace's home, there's clear sexual tension between Vincent and Mia, who is wearing Vincent's jacket. While he goes into the bathroom to freshen up and talk himself out of hooking up with the boss' wife, she finds the high-test heroin that Vincent left in his jacket pocket. Thinking it's cocaine, Mia snorts a big line of the stuff and immediately overdoses.

Her overconfidence (read: her pride) led her to try drugs she found in another person's pockets. Vincent's self-absorption and his own pride kept him talking to himself in the bathroom for far too long. Remember that, because Vincent has a problem with bathrooms and thinking the world stops while he's in them, it comes back to bite him much harder later. Thankfully, he is able to get Mia to his drug dealer's house, and they are able to revive her with an adrenaline shot to the chest, but the whole ordeal is terrifying. At the end of the night, both of them decide to keep the night a secret from Marcellus, because they would both be in tremendous trouble. 

Butch, Vincent, and One Dead Zed

After Vincent and Mia's date, but before Marcellus and Butch reunite, Marcellus sends Vincent to kill Butch for the boxing match mix-up. Butch had already cleared out his apartment and run, but his wife Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) forgot to grab his father's watch off of the nightstand. Butch's father died in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam, and one of his compatriots (Christopher Walken) managed to get the watch back to young Butch through rather unpleasant means involving his rear-end. The watch means everything to Butch, and he's willing to face death to grab it. 

Luckily for Butch, the man sent to kill him is on the porcelain throne, and he's left his silenced shotgun on the kitchen counter. Butch blows Vincent away while the latter sits on the toilet, then Butch gets the heck out of there. Sure, he encounters Marcellus on the way back to Fabienne and they have to go through that whole nightmare with the pawn shop owners and their pet gimp, but at least he didn't die over a tushy-kept timepiece. 

'You Read the Bible?'

By the time we reach the third vignette in "Pulp Fiction," Vincent has fallen to his pride, Mia nearly fell to hers, and Marcellus and Butch both learned some things about theirs. So where does that leave Jules, the prophetic self-titled "bada** motherf***er" (it's on his wallet!) who is somehow caught up with all of these other characters? 

The final segment takes place before Butch's middle story, so Vincent is still alive. He and Jules are still trying to retrieve the boss's briefcase, and things are going fine until an unknown friend of Brett's comes flying out of the bathroom with a massive handgun and opens fire. Somehow, miraculously, he manages to miss both of his targets, and they quickly blow him away. Jules looks at the bullet holes behind him and starts freaking out, realizing that he could have been dead in that moment and isn't. This leads him to some serious introspection about leaving the criminal life. This is cemented when Vincent accidentally kills Marvin in the back of Jules' car and the two are forced to clean up the resulting mess without getting caught by the police or their friend's wife, due home from work any minute. 

Jules and Vincent end up in a diner to grab some breakfast. While Vincent is in the bathroom (again), two robbers attempt to hold up the restaurant. Fed up with the events of the day, Jules grabs one of the robbers and holds him at gunpoint while explaining his new outlook on life. He plans on leaving the life and walking the Earth, "like Caine in 'Kung Fu.'" He has chosen to give up pride entirely, as he's realized that ego will only lead to death.

Ezekiel 25:17

Jules came to his realization because of the Bible verse he loves to quote, Ezekiel 25:17. If you go looking that quote up, and it varies depending on which Bible you use, you'll find that the movie version is much, much longer. That's because it's actually from the 1976 English dub of the 1973 Japanese martial arts movie "Chiba the Bodyguard," starring martial arts master Sonny Chiba. Tarantino would later honor Chiba further by casting him in "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," as the sword-master Hattori Hanzo.

The full quote is about the path of a righteous man, and how difficult that path is to walk. Jules realizes that he has been working with evil men for too long, and that it is time for him to instead "shepherd the weak through the valley of darkness." He will give up his nice suits and cars and criminal lifestyle to live simply and learn from others, abandoning his pride in service of doing something meaningful with his existence.

In the end, each of the characters must come to face their own pride, and only some of them are able to humble themselves enough to survive.