skip to Main Content

“Pretty . . . Far from Okay”: Violence and Revelation in Quentin Tarantino and Flannery O’Connor

“Pretty . . . Far From Okay”: Violence And Revelation In Quentin Tarantino And Flannery O’Connor

One of the most upsetting scenes in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994) is what one would probably have to call the “rape scene.”  It is the scene where Bruce Willis’s character (Butch Coolidge) returns to save Ving Rhames’s character (Marsellus Wallace), from an already-in-progress rape and, presumably from a subsequent certain death.  All of this takes place in the basement of a disturbingly creepy pawnshop run by a couple of hillbilly rapists.  This scene, in and of itself, is not funny.  It is hard to imagine how or why it might become funny, but it does. This is intriguing: how does it come to pass that we laugh not so much at suffering, but rather at violence, even if it is fictional.  And what is the aim and implication of making us laugh even as we cringe?  This is one of the most distinctive elements in Tarantino’s work but, of course, he is only the most recent in a tradition that stretches back in the modern era at least to Kafka but, most significantly and resonantly, to Flannery O’Connor.

In their depictions of violence, Tarantino and O’Connor confront us with these questions, but in an oblique way: by linking the experience of violence to the possibility of revelation and, even more problematically, to humor, their scenes of violence put the audience in the position of having to resolve an apparent contradiction.  How do we account for finding violence funny?   What does violence mean in this context?  They are up to something—and they are setting the audience up for something—and, because they leave us with so few recognizable or familiar cues to interpret the meaning of what we’ve just witnessed, this interpretive disorientation can be either a scene of recognition and productivity, or one of confusion and irritation.  As Michael Kowalewski observes of our simultaneous fascination and repulsion toward some notable depictions of violence in American culture (including O’Connor’s), some scenes “cannot be thought of as merely functional because their very length and energy outstrip whatever dramatic function they might be said to have initially served” (5).  I want to think about not only how violence is represented in these works, but also to consider how the discordant, squeamish laughter generates a particular kind of catharsis.

The works I will be examining here—“Pulp Fiction” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953) present us with complex depictions of scenes of violence that not only mix humor with carnage, but that also contain unexpected eruptions of mystery and grace that render their denouements simultaneously serene and unsettling.  Even if it is hard to say just what is being communicated in these works, they leave the reader with a sense of mystery and wonder (“There is nothing to recognized,” as Joyce Carol Oates once said of O’Connor’s work, “There is only an experience to be suffered” [246]).  Their work deploys violence to get us to see and feel something that might otherwise pass us right by—to return us to reality which, as O’Connor notes, always comes “at considerable cost” (MM 112).  What is particularly interesting is that, even if the characters in these stories don’t always necessarily understand the nature of this return and reawakening, the audience has the advantage of getting to read the story as simultaneously realistic and figurative, and is left to reflect upon the ways violence can focus our attention on this strange relationship and exchange between the physical and metaphysical.

Grace, from both Augustine and Doyle’s perspectives, provides an intimation of some other mysterious force operating in the universe, of the presence of an alternative system or order that, like strange coincidences or the radically unexpected, disrupts conventional hermeneutics.  Channeling Augustine, Bryan Doyle has this to say about the notion:

“You can be good, bad, or indifferent, and you are equally liable to have grace hit you in the eye. Non enim gratia Dei erit ullo modo nisi gratuita fuerit omni modo, “it will not be the grace of God in any way unless it has been gratuitous in every way,” says old Augustine, the grace-obsessed Bishop of Hippo, Augustine who considered the whole revolution of his life to be the direct result of a shock of grace. Grace is uncontrollable, arbitrary to our senses, apparently unmerited. It’s utterly free, ferociously strong, and about as mysterious a thing as you could imagine.

If the presence of mystery isn’t exclusively the domain of the religious, it can nevertheless open up avenues of thought that undermine our default responses to the evidence the world casts at our feet.

Augustine linked free will to the notion of grace.  We are so damaged and iniquitous (or “concupiscient,” as Augustine would say) in our basic “human nature,” that the only way for us to behave properly is to allow for grace to guide us toward what is good.  We can’t do it on our own; we lack both the spiritual compass and we don’t know the terrain.  Our free will does not inherently bend towards the good.  Grace, an unmerited gift of mercy, forgiveness, and love, is the thing that allows us to become better, to transcend our imperfection and achieve some form of salvation or redemption.  It is, crucially, not earned; it just happens; it is totally gratuitous—a gift bestowed for unknown reasons.  These are all Judeo-Christian ideas of course, but I think they have secular applications as well, and that these applications are particularly important to think about in the contemporary context.

The world that we have inherited from the Enlightenment is one with little room for the miraculous, the mysterious, or the transcendent.  “The program of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world; the dissolution of myths and the substitution of knowledge for fancy,” as Horkheimer and Adorno have famously asserted (3).  With this increase in power and knowledge comes a countervailing alienation from ourselves, our desires, the world, and each other.  Whatever one’s assessment of the contradictory legacy of Enlightenment thinking, there is little question that our consciousness is so distracted by technology, by work, by an obsession with progress and expansion, and by the ubiquitous twitter of modern media, that we occasionally need to be shocked, convulsed out of our traditional ways of consuming and watching and communicating in order to be returned to the essential mystery and inscrutability that lies at the heart of our experience and our relation to the world.  It is there that new discovery may lie, at least if we’re open to it.

* * *

The problem is how to communicate moral problems to a profoundly hostile audience—how, in short, to make us see?

– Flannery O’Connor


O’Connor’s “A Good Man” is at first blush a story about a recognizably normal, dysfunctional family comprising a grandmother, her son, his wife, and their three children.  As in an Edward Hopper painting, the family exists together in the same world but in separate and mostly mutually incomprehensible spheres, generated by various narcissisms and private longings, and rarely pierced by anything resembling real feeling.  Complacency and convention have deadened the sensibilities of each of the characters.  It is all there in the first paragraph:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.  She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing every chance to change Bailey’s mind.  Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy.  He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal.  “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “See here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head.  “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to those people.  Just you read it.  I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it.  I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” (373).

Bailey ignores her, as does his wife.  The children, however, pay attention, and trade insults about their irritating grandmother, whom nobody seems to want to have around.  This is the stuff of everyday life.

Things go south, of course, and take weird turns as they must in an O’Connor story.  There is an accident, the family begins to emerge from the trauma only to find a big hearse-like car driving over the hill.  Three men get out.  The driver, who is of course The Misfit—a serial killer on the loose—has a “steady expressionless gaze” and wears spectacles that give him a “scholarly look” (382).  The children notice he is carrying a gun and he asks the family to sit down together, and behind them “the line of woods gape[s] like a dark open mouth” (382).  It is only when the Grandmother notes that she recognizes him that things take a turn for the worse.

“You’re the Misfit!” she said.  “I recognized you at once!”

“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.” (382)

Bailey says something to the grandmother that “shocked even the children” and that makes her cry.  The Misfit, oddly polite, comforts her, saying “Lady, don’t you get upset.  Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean” (383).  The Misfit’s sons then calmly and methodically take each member of the family into the nearby woods for execution.  The adults, of course, know what they are facing, but the children don’t, in part because it is all done with a high degree of decorum and politeness.  Pistol shots ring out in the woods, and by the time the mother goes, she is in such a state of shock that when they come get her to “join her husband,” she actually replies, “Yes, thank you” (386), and The Misfit directs his son to take the little girl’s hand.  The scene grows increasingly chilling.  As readers, we can’t not think about how impossible that moment must be.

The grandmother has not given up, however, and she and The Misfit engage in an oddly theological discussion.  The Misfit’s theology hinges on the idea that “Jesus thrown everything off balance” and the fact that he wasn’t there to witness Christ’s miracles: “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now” (388).  Unlike the Grandmother, The Misfit refuses to pray because he doesn’t want help.  He sees the world more clearly than anyone else in the story, and he even acknowledges that Jesus offers one possible solution: “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house” (387).  The Grandmother begins to lose her senses but in the final moments, her head clears for an instant as she experiences something like grace.  She gazes into The Misfit’s eyes at close range and looks as though she is about to cry.  Realizing in her last moments on earth that even this psychopath is a brother, a human sibling, and that she has some kind of responsibility towards even as grotesque a killer as he, her last words are, “Why, you’re one of my babies.  You’re one of my own children!” (388)  She then reaches out to touch him on the shoulder and he immediately recoils and shoots her with his shotgun three times through the chest.  One of his companions notes,“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” and the Misfit responds: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (388)—a comically damning assessment that the reader cannot help but wonder how it might apply to his/her own life.  The elements of humor that animate most of the story dissipate in the penultimate moments and we realize the brutality of what is going on, only to return with The Misfit’s final lines, all of which generates a rather discombobulating affect.

The audience undergoes a subtle shift from enjoying the fictional and figurative elements of a work (the social comedy of manners), to confronting an uncomfortably realistic scene of violence, where the figurative suddenly undergoes a shift to the hyper-realistic.  All of this is made even more mysterious and troubling because the tone is so difficult to pin down—what is the narrator’s attitude towards the events depicted?  We are left to piece the meaning of this sequence of events together on our own, and in doing so, we are implicated in understanding whatever it is the Grandmother understands, or doesn’t understand, in her last moments.  As Michael Kowalewski notes of O’Connor’s technique: “We are [not] permitted to know the necessary degree of our implication . . . in what we have imaginatively witnessed” (216).  We are all implicated in what we observe, of course, and witnessing fictional depictions of violence against characters who just moments ago seemed comic and silly, only complicates things further.

O’Connor’s own thoughts on these matters are helpful here.  Her own insights into the motivations for the strategy and technique she employs in her fiction not only help us see how we as readers are in the same position as the grandmother, in a sense, trying to figure out how the events occurring in physical reality index other, more mysterious and metaphysical realities:

“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do this work.  This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”(MM 112)

Apparently, violence is one of the only things that will do it.  When we are presented with carnage in a way that doesn’t quite make sense, we are forced to parse our responses in ways that require a kind of raw confrontation with the very things that are so repugnant and potentially humanizing.

 * * *

I feel like a conductor and the audience’s feelings are my instruments. I will be like, “Laugh, laugh, now be horrified.” When someone does that to me I’ve had a good time at the movies.

– Quentin Tarantino, in the Telegraph, London


Violence in American cinema is certainly nothing new; neither is the notion of regeneration and redemption through violence.  What is unique is the way Tarantino deploys violence, particularly in “Pulp Fiction.”  A signature of Tarantino’s work’s affect is that we find ourselves laughing at moments of extreme cruelty and horror.  There is, oddly, a kind of surplus pleasure that erupts from time to time in his films, even at their most violent—we laugh and the sheer fictiveness of it, but then we squirm at the heightened realism—the blood, the pain, the brain splatter, the viscera.  This is particularly true of several scenes in “Pulp Fiction.” As Kent L. Brintnall notes of the morality of the violence in Tarantino’s work: “To make an ethical demand, violence cannot be fantastic; theatrical, cartoonish violence is too easily deflected and dismissed.  Realistic violence may also be a source of disgust and discomfort, but it draws us into the drama of the events represented more fully and completely” (72).  The violence in “Pulp Fiction” is anything but cartoonish, and comes as much out of the cinematic tradition stretching back from Scorcese to Peckinpah as it does from the literary tradition stretching from Jim Thompson to Dashiell Hammett.

At the beginning of the scene I want to single out for analysis—the scene referred to at the outset—Butch is free and clear of all that manacles him to L.A.  He has cheated gangsters out of a lot of money by refusing to throw a fight. On his way out of town, though, he realizes that his girlfriend has forgotten to retrieve an important and luminous object back at his abandoned apartment: His father’s watch.[i] In abbreviated plot summary, he goes to retrieve it, kills a gangster who was waiting there to kill him, and then finds himself free again.  He drives happily down a decrepit L.A. street singing along to the Statler Brothers.  Feeling little in the way of guilt or remorse, things seem to have gone as well as they possibly could have gone.

Events abruptly bend toward calamity, however, when he sees the very gangster—Marsellus Wallace—he cheated crossing the street in front of him.  They exchange a glance in which each looks at the other as if from across an abyss of incomprehension, astounded by the unlikeliness of their sudden meeting.  Butch slams on the gas and Marsellus slams into the windshield.  A limping chase ensues through a couple of side streets until Butch finds his way into a lurid pawn shop.  Each wants nothing more than to kill the other.

Marsellus enters, but Butch has the drop on him.  Butch delivers several blows to Marsellus’s face, and just before he issues a coup de grace, he is knocked unconscious.  In the next shot, we see both men in the cellar, bound and ball-gagged, still unconscious.  When they regain consciousness, Butch and Marsellus are left alone for a few moments before the two rapists return, and they exchange a long embarrassed and bemused stare. These two sworn enemies are now bound side by side, thrown together to experience whatever ordeal is about to unfold.

Their hillbilly captors debate who will be the first to go: it turns out to be Marsellus.  They leave Butch behind with a creature known as the Gimp—a man clad in leather from head to toe and who apparently lives in a coffin-like box in the cellar and expresses an evil glee at Butch’s horrible impending fate.  Butch manages to unbind himself and expertly knocks out the gimp.  He then immediately escapes up the stairs into the sunlight, which somehow seems so far away from the darkness at the bottom of the pawn shop’s stairs.  He unlocks the door and actually opens it but then pauses as he hears Marsellus’s agonies.

This is all so unlikely and unexpected that it is funny.  Again, the understanding that we are watching a fictional film that has been carefully crafted licenses our aesthetic sense to overwhelm our ethical sense.  We laugh rather than cringe up to this point.  Things, however, are about to take a rather decisive turn into Flannery O’Connor’s territory.  This is the decisive moment when everything changes.

Butch reaches the door, the daylight pours in and over him, and he realizes he has made it out.  He is free to go.  But, of course, he can’t just go. He isn’t free.  He has to go back.  Butch turns back slowly, and we can see that he is cogitating.  What is he thinking about?  On the one hand, he is clearly thinking about a plan: he needs a weapon (the hillbillies in the basement have a shotgun), so he browses through the collection of cast off pawn shop things.  What had been a merely disturbing sequence of brutalities suddenly shifts into new territory.  The first real vibrations of humor can be felt.  Like a dark and disturbing inversion of the Goldilocks story, Butch picks up a series of weapons, (a hammer, a baseball bat, a chainsaw) finding each to be unsatisfactory.  The hammer is merely the first thing he finds, and it seems an absurd and undignified weapon somehow.  The baseball bat, we see, might not be lethal enough—too blunt and unpredictable.  The chainsaw might be a little too lethal, and disgustingly messy as well.  Then his eyes alight a “katana” or samurai sword and it is as if providence has stepped in—a sense of familiarity seems to pass between him and the object.  Beneath all of the morbid humor there is a profound ethical vibration: as Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack contend regarding this moment: “He simply cannot abandon his community,” however thin and precarious it might seem at that moment (63).

This scene reverberates in many directions, and it also resonates with many well-known archetypes:  The All-American white guy (he’s wearing jeans and a blood-bespattered white t­-shirt, which seems somehow significant) going to save the beleaguered black guy; the good guy about to slaughter the bad guys; two enemies becoming friends through the crucible of mutual suffering and humiliation.  All of these things are there.  But what is more interesting is the depiction of the moment of a conscience stumbling over itself.  The moment when the self confronts itself in a moment of extremity and finds that it can’t go on without doing something altruistic, which, in this case, is also at the same time, an act of egotism.  Butch returns to the basement not because he wants to, but because he has to.  Butch is made to confront his own humanity and his responsibility towards others—even his enemies.

Butch tears away the curtain that acts as a door between the above and below ground worlds,[ii] and walks slowly down the stairs, holding the katana sword in front of him like a sacred fetish and we also see that he is wearing his father’s watch.[iii] What happens next is relatively predictable.  Butch kills one of the rapists and just before he dispatches the other, Marsellus shoots the lone survivor in the groin with a shotgun.  Everything is imbued with a strange kind of numinousness; something both incredibly violent but also redemptive has just taken place.  The two men have been transformed—Butch is redeemed, Marsellus traumatized.  After a long pause, the following conversation takes place:

BUTCH:  You okay?

MARSELLUS: No, man.  I’m pretty fucking far from okay.

A deadpan answer to a ridiculous question.  Although there can, of course, be no real answer to a question about whether one is “okay” after experiencing that sort of dehumanizing trauma, Marsellus nevertheless responds, drawing out the wild incongruity of their rather calm conversation after what has no doubt been the most disturbing event in both of their lives.  Indeed, after watching this scene, we should all be pretty far from okay.  Marsellus considers Butch’s debt repaid as long as he leaves town immediately and never speaks to anyone about any of this.

Butch flees once again up the stairs and out the door and takes one of the dead rapist’s motorcycle.  Airbrushed on the gas tank of Zed’s motorcycle is the word “Grace.”

* * *

The more predictable a given item in a message, the less information it carries; the totally predictable word conveys . . . absolutely nothing.

– Attridge, 194


Stendhal famously thought of the novel as a “mirror being carried along a road” (Stendhal).  His point is, as I take it, that literature offers the possibility of mirroring social and cultural (and economic, racial, philosophical, etc.) realities to us in a way that we can see and understand and reflect upon.  Perhaps better is David Foster Wallace’s cast-off comment, that “fiction is about what it means to be a fucking human being” (McCaffery).  Or maybe better to try and hold both thoughts together at the same moment.

What is required to fully experience (and, I daresay, enjoy) these types of violent/comic scenes is a degree of negative capability.  This ability, as John Keats frames it, refers to our ability to embrace “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (83).  In these moments of mystery and uncertainty as given to us by Tarantino and O’Connor, we are given a choice between allowing for a conventional response of revulsion and horror, or of resisting institutionalized and normative forms of signal and response and allowing a complex form of humor and disgust to erupt, and above all to momentarily suspend judgment.  The dialectics that stabilize our worldview, whatever perspective we may adopt, turn all muzzy and we are forced to reassess the ways these categories relate to the experience we just witnessed: good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust, and so forth, no longer seem tenable.  We are forced to apply some other or new form of judgment.

What is important in this context about O’Connor and Tarantino is that their narratives do not hinge upon innocence.  If there is regeneration to be found through violence, as Richard Slotkin and, in a slightly different manner, Rene Girard contend—if, that is, there is to be found purification through violent purgation—then that character and tenor of that regeneration hinges upon how violence is depicted.  If, through the unconscious and stylized carnage of a blockbuster Hollywood film, well, then, there might be problems.  What is at issue here, however, are the strange and peculiar depictions of violence that don’t follow cliché or type; these are depictions that require something of the audience.  Something that is not easily resolved: a realism cross-cut with an ethical imperative to understand a profound discordance between atrocity and beauty.

Speaking of the role of mystery in her own work, O’Connor contends that:

” . . . if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery.” ( “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)

When our experience of the world resists our explanatory powers and we are faced with the sudden eruption of mystery into everyday life—these are the moments that attract Tarantino and O’Connor.  Strangeness shoulders itself or erupts into everyday life and we cannot but respond with a species of laughter or confusion or both.  Revelation in both Tarantino and O’Connor comes not through reflection or some gradual process but rather through abrupt, painful, and often lethal encounters with grace—the unbidden gift of getting knocked out of the prison of one’s own ego and all its vanities.

For Kierkegaard this collision of thought and actuality, or of language and experience, is profoundly undialectical; it cannot be resolved or synthesized but necessarily remains dissonant, which allows for the individual consciousness to be freed into a recognition of the “reality” that lies beyond our systematizations of it, even if this recognition remains essentially mysterious and ultimately non-conceptual.  “The systematic Idea,” Kierkegaard claims, “is the identity of subject and object, the unity of thought and being. Existence, on the other hand, is their separation . . . . It has brought about, and brings about, a separation between subject and object, thought and being . . .” (Postscript, 112). Kierkegaard’s principle antagonism toward Hegel’s notion of Aufhebung or synthesis is precisely what is at stake here—for Kierkegaard, actuality and ideality or, put another way, existence and our ability to understand it, cannot be brought into a stable relation.  This non-dialecticality generates the thrum and thrill of Tarantino and O’Connor’s depictions of violence.

Like Kierkegaard, O’Connor and Tarantino adopt indirect techniques to avoid reproducing pre-existing, ready-made ways of thinking and understanding.  Writing largely in response to Hegel’s idea that dialectical thought can lead to absolute knowledge, Kierkegaard sought to tear down this edifice and to reveal the vanity of all human understanding—to show the limitations of logic and reason and to open up avenues of inquiry that open up onto the transcendent, the mysterious, the object that cannot be known but can only be believed in.

Mystery, indirection, and the unexpected.  These are precisely the dimensions that structure “Pulp Fiction” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  Disenchanted and possibly disenfranchised, mystery and the unexpected provide some sort of punch to our time-clocked days of work and woe.  Here’s O’Connor again, speaking of the kind of fiction that would grab us by the lapels and shake us out of our torpor and into awareness:

“It’s not necessary to point out that the look of this fiction is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic, because of the discrepancies that it seeks to combine.”

And, she continues:

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it. . . . You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” (MM 33–34)

The worlds O’Connor and Tarantino present us with are, in a sense, profoundly amoral—we cannot rely on anything or anyone to make it through, and a good man is always hard to find.  But it’s not impossible.  There is no adequate moral system or metaphysical structure that can reliably guide our behavior and actions.  In these moments of fictional violence, we are thrown out of our normal ways of making sense of the world—everydayness slips from its well-worn grooves, if only for a moment, and if we are attentive, we see things anew.  Something is awakened.  What sense we make of this awakening—how we understand it and what we do with it—are not clearly outlined.  They might lead to The Misfit’s nihilism or to Butch’s emergent sense that he must change his life.  Tarantino and O’Connor don’t tell us.

Pamela Demory has also noted some of the ways in which O’Connor’s work can be fruitfully applied to understanding Tarantino, observing that if O’Connor’s purpose is to reveal the real presence of “evil in the world and of our great need for grace,”  Tarantino’s project, particularly in “Pulp Fiction,” is to “demonstrate that in spite of everything we have seen in his film—all the violence, degradation, death, crime, amoral behavior—grace is still possible; there might still be a God who doesn’t judge us on merit” (194).

Rene Girard offers some assistance here.  In his essay, “Perilous Balance: A Comic Hypothesis,” Girard’s thesis implicitly ponders Mel Brooks’ laconic comment: “Tragedy Is When I Stub My Toe; Comedy Is When You Fall Down a Manhole and Die.” The point is that Brooks cuts to the quick of something significant about how comedy and tragedy coalesce.  Much depends on how the spectator is positioned.  Girard is interested in how tragedy and comedy mix and combust in unpredictable ways.  For Girard, comedy reveals something important about how we are all implicated in skeins that bind us both to community and to the universe itself.  In a comic situation, the apparent autonomy of the individual is put to the lie by forces that are much greater and beyond his control:  “The structural patterns of [comedy] deny the sovereignty of the individual more radically than either god or destiny.  As they begin to emerge, audience’s interest in the hero must necessarily weaken as it shifts to the pattern itself” (816).  When “impersonal forces” take over at the moment an individual attempts to assert himself upon his environment, “pretention is suddenly and spectacularly shattered” and we laugh in response to his predicament (817).  When shared, this laughter, which in O’Connor and Tarantino is complicated by the presence of violence, creates an implicit social bond, affirms a common sense of the world but, in these cases, one that is more complex and sophisticated because it mixes such disparate emotions of horror and humor.  The loss of pretention, the recognition that our sense of autonomy is easily overwhelmed by incomprehensible and capricious forces, and the shared sense of uneasy comedy—when all of these are helixed together as they are in O’Connor and Tarantino’s work, they create a context in which the possibility of grace can emerge, an understanding that we are all bound together by a common fate, and that we can all become better than we are.



Attridge, Derek.  Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce.  New York: Routledge, 2004.

Augustine.  “On Marriage and Concupiscience.”  Book I, Chapter 5.

Brintnall, Kent L. “Tarantino’s Incarnational Theology: Reservoir Dogs, Crucifixions, and Spectacular Violence.”  Cross Currents.  Spring 2004, 66–75.

Davis, Todd F. and Kenneth Womack.  “Shepherding the Weak:  The Ethics of Redemption in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction.’” Literature Film Quarterly.  January 1998, 60–66.

Demory, Pamela H.  “Violence and Transcendence in Pulp Fiction and Flannery O’Connor.”  The Image of Violence in Literature, the Media, and Society: Selected Papers [from the] 1995 Conference of the Society for Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery.  Eds., and intro. Will Wright and Steven Kaplan.  Pueblo, CO:  Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, 1995: 187–194.

Doyle, Bryan.  “Grace Notes.”  The Fine Delight: Catholicism in Literature. Accessed August 31, 2011. Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment.  1944. New York: Continuum, 1988.

Girard, Rene.  “Perilous Balance: A Comic Hypothesis.  MLN 87.7 (1972) 811–826.

Keats, John.  The Letters of John Keats.  Ed., Hyder E. Rollins.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Kierkegaard, Soren.  Philosophical Fragments.  Eds., Howard V. and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Kowalewski, Michael.  Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

McCaffery, Larry.  “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.”  Feb 23, 2005.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Visionary Art of Flannery O’Connor,” Southern Humanities Review 7. 3 (Summer 1973) 240–253.

O’Connor, Flannery.  “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  The Seagull Reader: Stories. Ed., Joseph Kelly.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 372–388.

——Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  Eds., Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.

——“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1960).

Stendhal.  Chapter 19,

Tarantino, Quentin, dir.,  Pulp Fiction.  Miramax, 1994.

“Quentin Tarantino: Violence Is the Best Way to Control an Audience.” 12 January 2010.



[i] The social history of the watch is, of course, another one of these great stories that yokes suffering and humor together in intriguing ways.  It is of less interest here, however, because the watch story doesn’t have the same complexity of emotion and affect.  Christopher Walken is, at the very least, very funny here.

[ii] This moment reminds one of the etymology of apocalypse, from the Greek, apo (away) and kalyptein (to cover or veil).  And indeed, after this scene, there is a removing of veils as both Butch and Marsellus see the world slightly differently.

[iii] This, of course, is crucial.  The son wears the father’s watch like a totem.  Just as the watch became a symbol of surviving in a cruel and difficult world, as well as of the significance of lineage and human connection, it now assumes another dimension as the son is about to perform an act of violent redemption that his father could never accomplish.


This was originally published in Anamnesis on December 17, 2013.

Thomas JacobsThomas Jacobs

Thomas Jacobs

Tom Jacobs is Assistant Professor of English at New York Institute of Technology’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Back To Top