In “Pulp Fiction,” Why Are Bathrooms a Notable Motif?


One of the most memorable aspects of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is the way it frames extreme situations with mundane behaviors. For instance, before Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) enter an apartment with the full intent of committing multiple acts of murder, they have trivial conversations about Amsterdam, television pilots, and foot massages. The mundane is not only conveyed through the characters’ extensive dialogue, but also in the choice of setting explosive action in unremarkable locations like living rooms, cars, and bathrooms. Some of the film’s major events occur when a character - usually Vincent - uses and then exits a bathroom. (While these occurrences may appear out of order during the actual structure of Pulp Fiction, they are actually in the film’s chronological timeline.)

The first example occurs when a gunman barges out of the bathroom and takes six shots at Jules and Vincent after they execute Brett (Frank Whaley).

After the “Bonnie Situation,” Vincent and Jules have breakfast at the very diner that Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plumber) decide to rob. While Vincent is in the bathroom, Jules begins his heart-to-heart with the armed assailants. Later that same evening, Vincent and Mia (Uma Thurman) return home from dinner, and Vincent once again uses the bathroom while Mia helps herself to the heroin Vincent bought earlier that afternoon. Thinking that it is cocaine, Mia overdoses, and Vincent returns from the bathroom to find her sprawled out on the living room floor.

Two days later, while staking out Butch’s (Bruce Willis) apartment, Vincent is caught off guard when his target returns home. Ironically, as the hitman exits the bathroom, his own target kills him. While the centrality of the bathroom to Vincent’s traumas implies a certain lack of glamour to the criminal life and infuses the film with undertones of randomness or meaningless, there may be another logic to associating Vincent with the powder room: perhaps Vincent’s frequent visits to the bathroom are due to his heroin addiction, which is known to cause constipation. Keeping this in mind, you could argue that, in essence, his addiction indirectly causes his death.

Not only do many of the film’s major events occur while someone is using the bathroom, but they are also affected by characters being absent to use the bathroom. In these moments, if the character in question had returned sooner, the story would have most likely played out differently. Perhaps Jules wouldn’t have had his life-changing epiphany; perhaps Mia wouldn’t have overdosed; perhaps a gunfight would have ensued in the dinner; and perhaps Butch would be dead, as Marcellus Wallace had intended.

While using the bathroom in the diner and at Butch’s apartment, Vincent reads “Modesty Blaise” (1965), a spy novel by Peter O’Donnell. Like Fox Force 5, the fictional television pilot that Mia appears in within the film, “Modesty Blaise” features a female spy with many different talents. (Peter O’Donnell also created a comic strip that followed the titular character, which ran from 1963 to 2002.) The fiction magazines which published comic strips similar to “Modesty Blaise” were often called “pulps” - so the use of the comic book on the toilet evokes the name of Tarantino’s film and subtly links it to Victor’s bowel movement. Similar to newspapers, pulps were often associated with bathroom reading. But Tarantino’s tongue-in-cheek choice to associate the film title with bathroom reading encourages us to equate his film with the kind of juicy, low-culture entertainment that is best enjoyed on the can and undercuts the high-art feel created by other aspects of the film (such as its complex structure). Moreover, linking the overall film with the toilet emphasizes the feeling that life revolves around mundane, seemingly unimportant moments like going to the toilet, as much as it does around eventful, action-filled peaks.

Bathrooms are only one of many motifs used in this pop-culture classic to remind us that life can be maddeningly random, and its major twists and turns are largely out of our control.