1813 Meets 1994
Had Jane Austen ever gotten the chance to meet Quentin Tarantino, I have no doubt he would have appeared in one of her stories. Not only because Ms. Austen was well-known for placing people she had met or had known in her life into the characters of her novels—wholly, partially, or otherwise— but also because I believe she would have found him a wholly engrossing, if a crude and at times both shocking and banal, popular personality.
Likewise, if Mr. Tarantino had ever the opportunity to encounter Ms. Austen in person, I am equally convinced that he would have cast her, either in person or by cinematic allusion, into a role that would have cemented her, immediately and eternally, into the annals of American popular legend.
These two figures will never meet, and that makes me quietly sad.
For as oppositional as they may appear to be, after engaging with their respective works, I am moved, and more than that, I am convinced that they—one currently, another soon to be in time—have, do, and will for years to come, occupy an important cultural office.
Such a statement may seem obvious. Why wouldn’t either artist merit some kind of significant real estate in the culture, one of total and shining reverence, a place that celebrates unbridled genius, and honors technical commitment to craft? Both Austen and Tarantino possess these qualities and others in spades.
Those talents, however, are only partially the reason for this paper, and that particular kind of office is not the one I view them as occupying.
I believe their occupation to be less grand, and more one of fun and humble work. It is that of the Author, a character as much as they are an individual, a totalizing force as much as they are an atomic subject, a master and servant to their own world and the one they share with us—ultimately, an artist of uniquely unparalleled range, scope, fallibility, separation, and humanity, true, fun, light-of-touch and yet affirmational humanity, that few artists ever truly achieve in their work, much less their life.
Are Austen and Tarantino the greatest artists to ever live?
No. They are not.
But their relationship and their type, as illustrated in their work, bears examination, as they do not approach it with the mind or heart of an artist, but of a person first, and a craftsman and craftswoman second.
In this essay, I will examine two scenes, one from Pride and Prejudice, the other from Pulp Fiction, and through a comparison of the scenes, the characters, the patterns, and the authors themselves—with help from a simple theoretical model I have thrown together—I will make to demonstrate not only how and why Jane Austen and Quentin Tarantino are similar figures, but why they and the work they engage in is important, or at least worthy, to take note of, not only in the interest of our collective culture, but also of ourselves.
Before either story is examined and compared, it will be necessary to detail the perceived technique both employ that makes them each so memorable and, in the case of one and perhaps one day in the case of the other, timeless.
Both Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction, like many other great works, tell their stories on multiple levels at the same time, though in different ways. Despite the difference in use, the technique is still the same.
A note before continuing: most stories, good and bad, are told on multiple levels, often at least two—text and subtext. This analysis is not a proclamation of discovery nor an attempt to assert Jane Austen or Quentin Tarantino as visionary heralds in a new era of storytelling. Rather, it is meant first to demonstrate an interesting, observed connection in craftsmanship between an older work and a younger work; and second, using such a demonstrated connection, sketch out a sort of rough and simplified cartographic key that may find use as an asset/tool for later audiences, critics, and artists alike. Again, none of this is really new, and most all of it is obvious—but the author has not yet seen a piece or writing anywhere that discusses this subject in such a way, and would like to add what he can to the conversation, as banal as it may reveal itself in time to be.
The technique found in the Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction emerges, when distilled into one form, as such:
The terms “Base,” and “Story,” and, “Authoreal” are general by nature, as they’re meant to encapsulate recurring storytelling phenomena the modern viewer/reader/listener may be well familiar with, even if they don’t immediately recognize them. Therefore, other than the specific/contextual elements that individuate stories, it bears no severe or at least detrimental analytical significance if the Base/Story/Authoreal framework is applied to the story, to the characters, to both, to some third piece, or to a combination of them and others. In the author’s opinion, this framework is a basic pattern that is repeated across—perhaps not all—but certainly many stories. And though others before have described similar patterns, he finds it necessary to detail one that is simple and easy to determine for the modern person.
Note: the presence or knowledge of this technique does not connote a good story, and awareness of it does not at all grant one an all-access at-ease pass and ability to tell a good story. Much in the same way knowing a recipe does not grant one knowledge or ability to cook a meal that will taste good.
It is instead and again an observed framework, and an unestablished one at that. It is not meant to be taken singularly, and any good reader/watcher/listener/artist/person should possess a multitude of other works, theories, and perhaps most importantly, personal experiences, with which they can compare and contrast this framework against.
Below is a condensed summary of each step in the framework:
- The archetypal mold, the grounding for the story or character or other.
- Ex: In Back to the Future, Marty McFly, before we see much of him, is immediately recognizable by his evident youth and how the camera—the story—follows him, as the prototypical teen and the archetypal protagonist. This much is obvious before we’ve seen less than a minute of him.
- The contextual shape of the story or character or other—namely, who or what they are and who or what we come to know them as an individual, as the story progresses.
- Ex: Marty McFly, as we come to know him, isn’t exactly “cool”. He’s fidgety, sort of an airhead, and is very much in many ways still a kid. We learn he likes rock ‘n roll, plays guitar, has a girlfriend, and rides a skateboard. Despite some of his cruder qualities, he’s a good kid at heart, and we sympathize with him because he seems honest and well-intentioned.
- The part/element of the author and their life—hence the portmanteau of author and real—that is both consciously and unconsciously put into the fictive body of the story. This can be the most difficult to identify, as it’s the most variable and at times indeterminate of the three, though one could make the argument it’s the most important. Because of this, it is also and unfortunately, and often all at once, the most ignored, and the most ill-used element of the framework.
- Throughout his childhood, Michael J. Fox was an avid skateboarder. Even though a double was used for more complex shots and stunts throughout the film, there are still plenty of scenes and moments where Michael J. Fox is actually skateboarding in Back to the Future. This may seem trivial, and to a degree, it is—but his ability to authentically add to the film, in even the most granular way, lends a personal touch and quality, a certain level of intimate detail, that helps bring out the character into definition just a little more. For just a moment in at least one shot of Back to the Future, Marty McFly becomes real.
These three steps constitute a basic framework for storytelling and an objectively observable pattern that makes itself, if not visible, at least known in one manner or another, across many, many stories, regardless of age, narrator, or even quality.
Again and finally, this is only an observation, and while observations can be critical and crucial points in any analytic process, they are in some way ultimately subjective and therefore flawed and limited.
The author wants the reader to know he is well aware of this, and he asks for forgiveness if the propositioned framework appears provincial and really nothing more than the formulation of an obsessive personal fervor.
The author will now analyze Pride and Prejudice.
-Elizabeth and the Field-
To demonstrate the application of this model further, and to also perform the first part of this essay’s comparative textual analysis, a scene from Pride and Prejudice will be examined and analyzed.
But first, a brief summary.
Pride and Prejudice is a novel written and published by Jane Austen in 1813. The book follows Elizabeth Bennett, the second-eldest sister of five others, all of whom live with their parents of above-average, though—relative to their class—modest means in a small English country estate. Most of the book focuses on Elizabeth’s relationship with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a young gentleman of great means and severe character, and the questions, problems, and insights the two of them and their clash of personalities arise and create throughout their knowing each other. Throughout the novel, themes of class, the social and personal relationships between men and women, and what it means to truly care for and love someone, are explored in Austen’s trademark subtle and illustrative prose. It should be noted that, at the time, it would have been viewed as indecent for a woman to pursue writing as a serious interest, much less publication. For this reason, Austen’s name did not appear on the first print of the novel, and her only sources of feedback and critique were the members of her family, to whom she read her writing every night after dinner.
The subject matter of Austen’s books is heavily and unsurprisingly inspired by the events and contents of her own life. Like Elizabeth, she was born to an upper class family of modest means; she was pursued by and did pursue herself a variety of young gentlemen from different stations in life; and she—in some way or another—most likely felt alienated and isolated at times by the restrictions and expectations placed upon her by the contemporary culture of the time.
All these factors make Austen a fantastic subject for this comparative analysis and, in this author’s opinion, a wonderful counterpart to Tarantino, and there is a particular scene early in Pride and Prejudice that serves to demonstrate as much.
In the following scene, one of Elizabeth’s sisters has fallen ill while visiting the estate of a man who has been calling on her. Elizabeth, hearing the news, is resolved to go at once to see to her sister’s care. Her mother insists she wait for the family carriage—the Regency era equivalent of a beat-up, passed-around family car—to be prepared for her, as the walk is nearly over three miles of grass and muddy fields.
Elizabeth refuses and sets out for her sister.
“… Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.” (Austen, pg. 33).
Now, beyond anything, the image alone of this small fragment is, in a way, wonderful: a young woman, most likely in full Regency dress, walking across miles of soggy green fields on a grey overcast day after a rain, all to see and be with her sick sister—beautiful. Beautifully written, beautifully imagined, and even if Austen herself never did something exactly like this, beautifully lived.
And it shows, in a small, crystallized form, both the ethos of Austen’s work, and perhaps Austen herself.
Here is where the model becomes useful.
Base: A young, wealthy—relatively—noblewoman confined by structures beyond her control, and who seeks something further beyond what she knows. The archetypal princess.
Story: Elizabeth Bennett is witty, sensitive, thoughtful, at times both naïve and cold, and extremely devoted and loving to and of her family.
Authoreal: Jane Austen grew up in a country estate, had to handle the strictures, achievements, and absurdities of Regency life, and was known to be both quiet at some times, and at others, witty and outspoken. Her life tracks much like Elizabeth’s, and though her work may not mirror her life in a full and autobiographical sense, without some inclusion of some of herself, her work would lose some of its depth, and perhaps even her life would have suffered as well.
So, why is this important at all? Yes, of course Austen, like many writers, artists, and people, puts herself into her work. Why does that matter? What difference does it make?
The scene of Elizabeth walking across the field is a moment in time preserved in an amber of ink. In one three line sentence, Elizabeth Bennet embodies and becomes a vessel for a singular and powerful feeling. Call it love, faith, courage, desire, passion—the essence remains the same. She becomes a real human being for just a breath, pursuing a blind fate with resolve, an elemental quality of life this author believes to be both universally resonant and true. In some way, a moment like this could be argued to demonstrate proof of a soul, or at least some eternal nature, living in the book.
And yet, at the same time, it is simply the description of a girl walking across a field.
This is Austen’s authoreal quality. That’s what she gives the story and her readers. Without taking what she’s known, experienced, been, and thought, and putting it, fashioning it, consciously and unconsciously, into some part of her story, Pride and Prejudice and all its moments simply would not be.
And it is the recognition, and the ability to discern this part, that elevates stories like Austen’s, and authors/artists/people like her who are able to accomplish this task, to something above the simply qualified and professional. It is her capacity for invention that distinguishes Austen and others like her from all the rest.
-From One to Another-
It may not seem like it initially, but Austen and her work share a number of similarities—if not aesthetic, then formal—with another author, well-known to many in the 21st Century: Quentin Tarantino.
Admittedly, and this must be said, the analysis between these two specific figures is only occurring in one part because of the author’s familiarity and enjoyment—both as a reader/viewer and a writer—of the two. In another part, however, there is a strong belief that these two people, despite apparent disparities, share quite a bit in terms of their approach to craft, and these shared qualities, which the author hopes to demonstrate on multiple levels across this comparison, are not simply confined to Ms. Austen and Mr. Tarantino, but instead and observably course throughout the work and lives of many others, both known, and not.
A scene from Pulp Fiction will now be analyzed.
-Vincent and the Restaurant-
For the sake of both clarity and an attempt of symmetry, there will be a brief description of both Pulp Fiction and Mr. Tarantino, followed by analysis.
Pulp Fiction is a 1994 crime film—this is the easiest label to use, though it does not at all do much justice in describing the movie in any real sense, much like calling Pride and Prejudice a romance novel does the book so little justice it need not be used for any reason other than utility—written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film follows several stories and the characters within them who weave in and out of each other’s lives, and the entire film itself is more a collection of short, loosely-related stories than a totally unified and chronologically consistent plot.
One of the stories, what could be argued to be the—relative—main focus of the plot, follows two black-suited gangsters—Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega, played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, respectively—as they run around Los Angeles performing various favors and errands for their boss, Marsellus Wallace, the mythic kingpin of the L.A. underworld. Throughout their vignettes, Jules and Vincent discuss and encounter many situations that are emblematic of the film’s major themes—love, fate, and faith, and how these all appear in and shape our lives, often from wildly unexpected places and in unforeseen ways.
Before the discussion continues, it is worth mentioning that Tarantino, much like Austen or any other author, approaches filmmaking with an incredibly specific and detailed point of view. His scenes, while many are vulgar and many more may seem sloppy—and a few of them most certainly are—are rarely unmotivated in their composition, whether in the writing of a scene, the framing of a single reaction shot, or the choice of casting a specific actor. With Tarantino, these decisions play towards and reflect a larger thematic goal or idea—they are not merely fun or entertaining window dressings on a movie, not that they can’t be, but are instead deliberate and intentional actions laid out and executed in what could only be called an authorial—an auteur, for others—style.
This is one of the reasons Tarantino and Pulp Fiction have been chosen for an analysis against Austen and Pride and Prejudice. His style, like hers, is noticeable, yet subtle, self-aware, yet immersive, and perhaps most importantly, has serious things to say, but still finds a means to present them in a light yet realistic way—simply put, his stories are fun.
Tarantino is a popular author with deeper sensibilities and sentiments than his detractors or his fans give him credit for, and also like Austen, Tarantino’s artistic impulses, whether he knows it or not, have led him to explore ancient and sacred territory in a few of his stories, and he even manages, once or twice, to bring back something that often feels forgotten or formerly lost, and frame it in his own way as something new, that puts him—again, alongside Austen—in a select pantheon of artists who achieved the very same.
There is a scene and sequence in Pulp Fiction that demonstrates this ability quite clearly—when Vincent Vega, John Travolta, takes Mia Wallace, Uma Thurman, the twenty-three year-old tired and adolescent wife of Marsellus Wallace, out to dinner.
Vincent is taking Mia out as a favor to the boss. She is younger than him, and it could be assumed from a quick and glancing perspective that all the young woman intends for her slouching underworld escort is nothing more than a night of jumping through various hoops for her amusement, all on the pain of her potentially making a bad report to her husband and Vince’s boss that the hitman did not, in fact, show Mia a good time.
She has Vincent bring them to a 50s novelty restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. He initially balks, and says he’d rather just go get a steak somewhere instead, but eventually gives in and follows Mia inside after some prodding.
Once inside, Mia and Vince head to the Maitre’D, a well-made-up Ed Sullivan impersonator, who takes Mia to their table.
Vince is rooted to his spot, though. He’s looking around, taking the restaurant, what little we can see, all in.
He begins to walk.
The restaurant is part patchwork themepark, part technicolor cinescopic heaven, part hustling bustling burger joint. The camera follows Vince, tagging along and behind with the distance of a quiet friend, as he walks past a 30-foot curving, swirling remote racecar track, groups of people—we can’t tell if they’re patrons who dressed up to come and eat, or waiters/waitresses who are so in-character and bear such a likeness to Mamie Van Doren or Buddy Holly they deserve their own byline in the credits—and multivariate sections neighborhooded with each other: outdoor tables with pastel umbrellas, booths that are full-body 1955 Oldsmobile Super 88s and other classic cars, a dark blue-lit bar occupied by customers being crooned to, or at, by a gaggle of Rat Pack-ers. On the walls, posters for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Machine Gun Kelly, Motorcycle Gang, Rock All Night. Vince walks past a Marilyn Monroe carrying a tray of milkshakes who gives him a look over with half-lidded dark eyes and a wink.
Mia eventually succeeds in getting Vincent’s attention, and still in a bit of a stupor, he sidles over to their booth—a 1959 Edsel—and takes a seat.
Mia asks him what he thinks.
“What do I think?” Vince looks around one more time. He turns back to her. “I think it’s like a wax museum, with a pulse.”
The rest of the scene is Vince and Mia talking, at first a little stiff, then slowly, but surely, bit by bit, more familiarly. At one point, even, Mia goes to “powder her nose.” Vincent watches her go, and his gaze after she disappears behind the bathroom door wanders to the Marilyn Monroe waitress, of whom we get a shot recreating her iconic pushing-the-white-dress-down-over-a-grate scene from The Seven Year Itch. Following film grammar and treating the perspective of the camera and what it’s showing us of Vince in this moment as a kind of narrator, it’s no stretch at all to assume that, perhaps, his feelings towards Mia are not as deferential, simple, or cold as they once were or have appeared to be.
There is more to the scene and sequence, but enough has been substantiated, in the author’s opinion, to support the subsequent analysis.
A quick point: it is apparent enough already, but one of the benefits of film is also one of its largest and heaviest detriments when it comes to analysis. Unlike a novel, as was seen with Austen, films—because of their unique production process—must pack whole chapters worth of plot, character, emotional, and thematic development into as compact and yet still artistically functional and palatable a space as possible. Whereas Elizabeth Bennett’s character has more time and more scenes to develop, allowing for more gradual, frequent, succinct steps, Vincent and Mia do not possess such luxuries. Their time and presence is present and fleeting, and has much left unsaid because of it, which lends to and almost requires a longer—though do not mistake length with a value-assertion of importance—analysis.
The previous model becomes useful again here, though it will be applied slightly differently because of the change in medium, and therefore, some context is required.
Vincent Vega will be the subject of analysis—so who is Vincent Vega?
Well, he’s a character, like any other in fiction, no different really from Elizabeth Bennett or any others in that sense. But unlike Elizabeth Bennett and like many film characters, Vincent is a creation of two people—the writer and the actor. Because of this, Vincent’s model will be broken down at the authoreal level into two distinct sub-categories.
Base Character: A hitman, a mobster, the archetypal criminal.
Story Character: Vincent Vega is a slouching, almost adolescent, but also tender hitman working for a Los Angeles crime boss. He likes heroin and loves his car. He kills as purposefully as he does accidentally.
Authoreal Character: This manifests in two parts.
- Vincent, like Tarantino at the time of the film’s release, is just returning from Amsterdam, is assumed to possess—even for a man of his time—a categoric knowledge of past pop-culture, enjoys quasi-Socratic conversations about nothing, and has a predisposition and niche, to be light, inferable attraction to feet.
- Like Travolta, Vince is somewhat past his prime, something of an eternal teenager and, now older, belongs to, or feels like he does, an era that’s gone by. And he’s a pretty good dancer too.
Much like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, had these elements of Vincent’s character not been included, both the film and the character would have been stripped of something vital, the metaphorical pulse in the wax museum.
This is also why the location—and Travolta playing the character who is the focus of its scene—is so important. Keep in mind, at the time of release, Travolta was the biggest name in the film; he’s even the first to appear in the title credits.
However, the man was in a near-fifteen year career slump. After starring in late-70s popular period hits like Saturday Night Fever and Grease, John Travolta effectively fell off the map for most audiences. At the very least, it is easy to say and to see that he never again attained the critical or public high ground and attention he had held with those two films in that era.
Except when he starred in Pulp Fiction.
This is important for two reasons:
- It is another early example, Reservoir Dogs being the most popular first, of Tarantino’s marked inclination to cast actors and actresses with a sort of high-concept and sympathetic deliberation. As Austen used the members of her family and parts of their lives and personal histories in her own work, Tarantino too incorporates both the professional and personal stories and personae/characters of the actors he casts on some thematic level into the movies themselves. Put another way, Tarantino’s actors don’t simply play his characters—instead, he seems to cast them because in some way, they already are his characters.
- This may be why, in some way, watching Travolta—the fallen star of period hits like Saturday Night Fever and Grease—wander around a novelty fifties theme restaurant as a man fifteen years out of time, resonates on some level with an incredibly personal melancholy and tenderness. In the scene, we’re not just watching Vincent stumble through a place of by-gone memory and time that he was once a part of—we’re watching Travolta stumble through it too.
Much of this is no doubt obvious, certainly to the critic, student, and enthusiast, and perhaps even to the casual observer.
But the point of this analysis was not necessarily to prove anything new, but rather to sketch out what was already there, to show in some way how and why it works and why this piece and others like it are the things they are.
A Republic of Authors
In the classical treatise on political philosophy and the human soul The Republic, Socrates says that poetry—narrative writing of any kind, and by extension, art—can be divided into two categories: imitation and narration. Narration being the most common form, when a writer or artist is simply telling the story through the conventions of their craft; and imitation being when a writer or artist attempts to mimic something they’ve seen, done, heard about, felt, or been, in their art.
Socrates details later a belief that such imitation is dishonest, even dangerous, if the artist is not of a virtuous nature. The primary concern appears to be that, without rational guidance, the sentiments encouraged by art can overpower more practical faculties and arrest the possibility of a measured and logical process of thought, or even expel reason altogether in favor of feeling alone. This critique no doubt stems from Socrates’ view on poets such as Homer, who’s stories he appeared to view more as nothing more than fanciful and pretty words on paper. These stories, however, as time passed, quickly became the direct or indirect basis for much of Greek thought in regards to the customs and traditions of religion—and so Socrates seemed to believe that, without proper guidance, discipline, and at times, outright dissuasion, the arts could accidently infect and even corrupt the spiritual center of a people without anyone being the wiser.
His point is well-taken, and many would do well to observe the accuracy to which it has been rendered across history by the willing and unwilling alike. Art that is wielded carelessly, either from naiveté or ignorance, or both, is capable of annihilation on a scale that far exceeds the destructive capacity of any conventional weapon that has been or will be produced. To confuse art with reality, or vice versa, is a dangerous conflation of two entirely separate spheres of experience. Neither can fulfill the other’s purpose; if that was possible, there would only be one.
But there are moments where the two intersect—and it is in those moments where a kind of beauty exists, separate from either, and one that I believe is worthy of recognition.
Jane Austen and Quentin Tarantino are doing nothing new. Their use of personal histories and qualities in their work, extrapolated and expanded into a fictional paradigm, is arguably at the core of what many, many artists have done and are doing across time. In a sense, such a method is the only way that art of any kind gets made.
Rather, they have been selected because of their salience and influence in contemporary culture and the ease with which one can identify the basic artistic elements within their respective works.
Perhaps one of the most important and as of yet unmentioned qualities of both Austen and Tarantino is that their work is flawed. Sometimes, Austen’s prose runs too long; there are lines of dialogue that come off as stiff and unnatural in Tarantino films, and this is just the beginning. These accidental flashes of imperfection make their work human. It grants a sympathetic patina of childish enthusiasm with certain angles, and points in some way to an absorption, not with making art, but with living. And is these final fragments that complete the work and make it a whole experience, not just of itself, but of the person who made it, and in some way, the people who may come to experience it.
Phrased a bit more succinctly, there is something to be learned from that piece of a person and their singular experience, preserved in an amber of their own design, that bears and affords at least some study, if not for the sake of art, then for the sake of ourselves.
And this doesn’t necessarily just apply to art. Any kind of personal endeavor—cooking, brick-laying, auto-body repair and mechanics, listening to music, plumbing, sports, gaming, scientific study, politics, or simply the ability and desire to build a home—that one finds oneself drawn to, is a practice that, much like an artist’s own process and their work, can be examined, studied, refined, and ultimately lived alongside. We become our own Authors.
Through these pursuits, in finding the parts of ourselves in the things we enjoy and practice, often for reasons of which we have no real rational or idea, simply a feeling, we can begin to understand, on multiple and many—one hesitates, but could in, some way, say universal—levels not only each other and ourselves, but what we’re being told in our own stories, and, if there is such a way to grasp, for each of us, what they might just begin to mean.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books, 2014.
Tarantino, Quentin, and Lawrence Bender. Pulp Fiction. 1994.
Plato. The Republic. Black & White Classics, 2019.