Edward O'Neil

Are You Gonna Bark All Day, Little Doggy, Or Are You Gonna Bite?

In 1992, director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender created a film that would launch their careers into Hollywood history. "Reservoir Dogs" is the story of a jewelry heist that goes south and how a crew of classy crooks must find a rat in their midst before the police finish them off. The movie is filled with blood, but behind the façade of its violence lies a classic tale - the story of a tragic hero.

The protagonist of "Reservoir Dogs" is Mr. White. Mr. White is a codename given to Lawrence Dimmick, a veteran crook who has lived a life of crime. Mr. White’s persona is symbolically connected to his color. In the East, White is a color for death. This relates to Mr. White, who kills the most people on-screen. White is also often associated with hospitals, especially doctors, nurses, and dentists. This relates to the caretaker role he plays for Mr. Orange. Angels are also typically depicted as wearing white. For Mr. Orange, Mr. White in many ways becomes a guardian angel.

Perhaps his criminal perspective twists his persona and nulls his heroism, yet Mr. White meets the archetype of a tragic hero because according to the moral code by which he abides, his intent is righteous. The proof that Mr. White is a tragic hero is most obvious when compared to the classical definition of what a tragic hero is.

Mr. White shows elements of nobility and hubris. To sympathize with the reasons for Mr. White’s actions, one has to realize that there is a rift between his perception of the world and that of the average person. His perspective comes from a life of crime. He regards the police as little better than vermin. This is shown in Mr. White and Mr. Pink’s bathroom conversation. Mr. Pink asks if Mr. White killed anybody, and Mr. White responds just cops. Before the heist, Mr. White was a veteran robber and at least a little respected in the criminal underworld. His nobility is apparent in the way Mr. White and Joe Cabot act around each other before the heist. During Mr. Orange’s origin story, Mr. Orange describes Mr. White and Joe Cabot as being close “friends.” He also says that unlike the others, Mr. White isn’t one of Joe’s soldiers, he’s definitely from out-of-town. Among the crooks, Mr. White is definitely in a higher class than the others.

In the very first scene, Mr. White shows traits of hubris. In the diner scene, Mr. White takes Joe’s book away and scolds Joe like a child. Joe is Mr. White’s boss, yet Mr. White treats him like a kid. When jokingly threatened by Mr. Blonde (“Hey Joe, you want me to shoot this guy?”) Mr. White laughs him off, “If you shoot me in a dream, you’d better wake up and apologize.” These both show certain amounts of Mr. White’s arrogance. However, this kind of hubris is only a hint to the full extent of hubris that Mr. White later shows.

Mr. White displays more hubris in his defense of Mr. Orange. When Mr. Pink first suggests that Mr. Orange is the rat, Mr. White immediately dismisses it saying, “That kid is dying from a fucking bullet I saw him take, so don’t you be calling him a rat.” Mr. White considers his instinct to be better than Mr. Pink’s reason.

Mr. White displays the element of a tragic mistake (or hammartia).

Hammartia is the mistake that begins the tragic hero’s transformation from a hero to a tragic hero. It is where the hero’s fall begins. Mr. White’s tragic mistake is his zealous protection of Mr. Orange. He protects Mr. Orange because in his pile of blood and with his whimpering voice, Mr. Orange appears to be a victim. In the end he sacrifices everything for Mr. Orange, who is really the rat who betrays all the crooks.

The most tragic mistake of Mr. White is when Mr. White makes a grave error in judgment  in the final confrontation with Joe Cabot and Nice Guy Eddie. At the beginning of the story, Mr. White and Joe were good friends and Mr. White probably would never consider killing him. However, under a false ideal, he shoots Joe and his son. This is where Mr. White’s greatest mistake lies. He makes a call, which costs him his friends’ lives in exchange for the life of a person who betrays him and turns him into the cops. Mr. White’s intentions were righteous. He was trying to protect a person he thought was innocent from people who would kill him. However, Mr. White ended up killing the two people who were on his side.

Mr. White displays the crucial element of catharsis. Catharsis is probably the most important separation between the tragic hero and the tragic character. Catharsis is a two-part element. It is for the audience a sense of emotional release. It is at this point in the story when we feel the most sympathy for the protagonist. It is also, for the tragic hero, the moment when he realizes that he must somehow atone for his sins.  In "Reservoir Dogs," the moment of catharsis is after the death of Nice Guy Eddie and his father, when Mr. White discovers the truth behind Mr. Orange. Upon this realization, Mr. White decides that there must be atonement for his vices. So, in a final act of retribution, he sacrifices his life and kills Mr. Orange. He shows defiance to the law one last time, and in this way he is heroic.

Mr. White is a tragic hero not only because of his righteous intent but also because he shows a sense of duty at the end. Mr. White is a character that proves that even though one may strive to be righteous, one will fall if guided by passion and not logic.


Copyright 2002-2006 Student Publishing Program (SPP). Poetry and prose 2002-2006 by individual authors. Reprinted with permission. SPP developed and designed by Strong Bat Productions.