Throughout history, the figure of the epic hero has persisted and although he may take different forms, he generally embodies several key characteristics. For example, an epic hero often is a paragon of some virtue or value that is important in his society. He is often on a quest of some kind and pursues this quest with the utmost diligence and commitment. In addition, an epic hero is generally associated with the supernatural world, either by nature of his birth or his life circumstances (consider, for example, the epic hero of Greek literature Achilles) and comes from a lineage that somehow makes him destined for a particular fate or purpose.
Throughout the large canon of ancient to modern literature representing epic heroes, the classical epic hero is a man who will often face an exciting but challenging journey during his quest and encounter temptations (mostly in the form of women) and when his journey is finally over, the epic hero will eventually return as a leader or as a hero among his own. While this is by no means an exhaustive list and while not all epic heroes fit every description, it is worth considering how this very ancient notion of the epic hero translates into modern popular culture. One film in particular offers viewers the chance to witness the “journey” of a man on a quest but whether or not he is an epic hero remains a tough question. Generally speaking, in the film Pulp Fiction, Vincent, played by actor John Travolta, embodies a few key characteristics of an epic hero but when it comes down to it, he is by no means an epic hero, even when considered in the light of a postmodern attempt to create one.
Before offering an examination of the ways in which Vincent in Pulp Fiction is not an epic hero, it is useful to look at the ways he does appear to embody some similar characteristics of an epic hero. First of all, like epic heroes in other works of art of literature, Vincent’s quest (although whether or not there is one can be easily contested—see below) involves a great deal of temptation, both in terms of how he deals with people (whether or not he kills them or is patient) and of course, in the temptation offered by Uma Thurman’s character. Furthermore, Vincent Vega in the film Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarrantino also fits the characteristics of an epic hero in that he is quite loyal to his friends and goes through many ordeals to keep his friend, Jules, from getting killed or maimed. In addition, this loyalty and commitment to a noble purpose is evident in his refusal to allow himself to succumb to the temptation of Uma Thurman’s character, although it can be argued that he is not necessarily resisting temptation but is rather keeping his mortality in mind since his employer would almost certainly kill him if he messed with his wife. In short, although there are moments in the film when it seems as though Vincent may be displaying noble qualities, these times should be questioned and the ulterior motivations of his actions should be examined.
While it is true that in line with other characteristics of an epic hero throughout art and literature have been self-serving and have possessed enormous character flaws (i.e. Milton’s Satan in “Paradise Lost”and Achilles from The Iliad) they have all been on a journey and have fate on their side. Unlike Vincent, they eventually triumph in some way. Even the few instances where it seems as though fate is functioning, such as when he encounters his future murderer (Bruce Willis) or when he is grazed, but ultimately missed by a bullet, the setup of the film and the haphazard nature of his life and lack of a quest make this seem like chance or coincidence rather than fate or divine influence and intervention. While Vincent Vega does have a few redeeming qualities, these are not enough to classify him as a epic hero as his life seems lived without purpose. Even his trip to Amsterdam, which he discusses in the beginning, seems void of meaning as a quest since all he can talk about is ordering from McDonald’s. In sum, Vincent Vega in the film Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarrantino is surrounded by opportunities to find a quest or embody something more noble but at nearly every juncture, he declines this chance.
One of the more problematic issues that arises when attempting to call Vincent Vega a new sort of epic hero is that there is no real overarching quest. Like the spotty plot of the film, Vincent moves from task or job to other, switching what he is doing only because of circumstances. He is not from high birth that the viewer knows of and in fact, seems like a common thug. Although there are coincidences, fate and the supernatural do not really smile upon him. Flawed character but other flawed characters such as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Achilles in The Iliad. The fact remains that he does not return to the place of his birth to rule or resurrect, he dies. More importantly, he is murdered—almost as though that is his divine punishment for a life that was never directed or even necessarily useful in any meaningful way.
The most important point is that unlike a classic mythical or epic hero, Vincent Vega does not represent any large or overarching value or moral that his society values. In fact, many would consider him a parasite to society. Despite the fact that he is loyal to his friends and is able to resist temptation, these are self-serving decisions he makes for the most part. Jules watches out for him so he watches out in return and if he succumbs to temptation, chances are he will wind up dead. In the end, the “tragic” end of Vincent is that he is shot completely by accident—a fitting end for a character who did not have any discernable purpose or journey to begin with, no matter how much the viewer may have like and/or sympathized with him. If anything, his partner, Jules, can be better classified as an epic hero because at least at the end of his journey (which ends up being a spiritual one at the end) he returns to his metaphorical home and abandons a useless or selfish life in favor of one that is more righteous, if only in his mind.