It’s beach season here in Maine, and killer sharks are in the news again. Maine occupies the northernmost range of the great white shark, but thanks to climate change, these apex predators are now stalking our rapidly warming coastal waters with greater frequency. Seals are their preferred diet but, in 2020, a great white attacked and killed a woman swimming off Bailey Island in Harpswell, a town popular with summer vacationers and second homeowners. Authorities have twice closed Popham Beach this year after two shark sightings within the span of a few days, and just this week, the state announced that it has hired a shark scientist to study the issue in greater depth. If this all sounds eerily familiar, or causes suspenseful violin music to saw through your subconscious, it might be because this is basically the plot set-up of Jaws, the 1974 novel by Peter Benchley and film of the same name.
Like most people, I’ve seen the Jaws movies (some more than once) but never felt compelled to read the book. That was until last week, when rainy weather during my fishing vacation kept me holed up in the lodge with a limited selection of books on hand. Having planned poorly for so much indoor downtime, I took the bait. Did Jaws hook me? Heck, yes…with all the pain, shock, confusion, and panic a fish must feel when the bug it thought was a meal bites back.
Fishing is a blood sport. Most novels on the topic try to romanticize that away. In Jaws, it’s the central theme. It’s pure pulp fiction: full of sexual violence, gratuitous blood and guts, and dubious morality, but it’s also an unflinching treatment of American class conflict that lays bare the anxieties of a declining middle class at a time when the country was bleeding out from the human and economic toll of the Vietnam War, the Oil Embargo, rising inflation and unemployment. Critics that panned the book for its unrealistic, shallow characters and stiff dialog didn’t know how polarized and lacking in nuance the political landscape would be today, where those same characters aren’t just realistic, they might be your neighbor. Jaws, the novel, is all the more terrifying today because of this.
The opening scene of the book puts us alone in the water with the shark on a calm, moonless night. We swim along with the fish as it tracks, attacks, and partially consumes a young woman, while her inebriated boyfriend, drowsy from their lovemaking, falls asleep on the beach. In the horror genre, this kind of opening scene is textbook stuff: the monster is introduced, innocent blood is shed, and the fabric of the moral universe is torn asunder. What makes Jaws a uniquely frightening monster is the cold, mechanical way it goes about its business. Jaws is a motiveless killer. It eats people, but only because they’re there. It doesn’t crave them. It doesn’t savor them. It doesn’t even finish them. It’s not logical. It’s not sick. It just does what it does.
Police Chief Martin Brody is the person who will ultimately have to contend with the beast. Brody is already knee-deep in the sharky waters of his home town of Amity, a seaside tourist destination where low wage workers, business owners, wealthy people from away, and corrupt politicians are locked in capitalist co-dependence. To make matters worse, the mayor of the town is compromised by a real estate deal he’s made with the mafia–a plot device that was apparently needed in 1974 to make an elected official who sides with developers and business groups, even when it puts lives at stake, more realistic. Today, we call that good governance.
Brody is a working-class guy with working-class problems, including three kids to feed on a cop’s salary, and a wife, Ellen, who was once a summer person before she married beneath her class and now wants more than Brody can provide. She describes her married life as being “like living in another country” compared to the one she came from. Maybe there weren’t as many American flags flying in small towns back them, but I doubt it. America always has contained two countries: one for the haves and one for the have-nots.
When the town calls in a scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to advise them on the behavior of sharks (they might have saved themselves the trouble by looking in the mirror) things only get worse for Brody. The preppy-dressing scientist, David Hooper, happens to know Brody’s wife from when she ran in Ivy League circles, and while Brody sees Hooper for the self-obsessed academic he is, Ellen Brody wants to sleep with him.
Crime is everywhere in Amity, but the cops entertain themselves in the usual fashion, by roughing up drunks and local kids, while begrudgingly issuing warnings to the indispensable summer people when their house parties get a little too rowdy. The incompetence of the department is perhaps best conveyed by the mishandling of a case involving a serial rapist on the loose in Amity for the last two years. The suspect is a Black gardener, but because none of the victims (all of them white wealthy summer people, presumably with gardens) will come forward to testify, nothing can be done about it. Brody suppress information about the case in the press in order to prevent a panic, which could cause capital flight and a total collapse of the town’s economy. In so doing, he chums the waters for an even bigger monster to surface.
The rapes are alluded to again, in an excruciatingly uncomfortable foreplay scene, when Hooper and Ellen Brody meet for a clandestine lunch outside of town, and Hooper presses Ellen to tell him about her sexual fantasies. She admits to having rape fantasies, the details of which could have been lifted straight from her husband’s case files. Contemporary readers will have difficulty with this scene, which should probably carry trigger warnings for… well…. just about every kind of trauma under the sun. Nowhere in the book are racism and misogyny more brutally conveyed than through Ellen’s point of view. When she and Hooper finally consummate their tryst, it makes a shark attack seem more enjoyable.
Any fish tale written after 1851 must contend with Melville’s Moby Dick, which is arguably the great American novel. The shark hunter, Quint, a fishing charter boat operator who is hired to kill the shark, evokes all of the obsession and insanity of Captain Ahab without becoming a parody. Quint has more understanding of shark behavior from years on the water than Hooper has in the tip of his pinky finger. Quint is also darkly superstitious. (Most fishermen are.) He believes the shark requires special bait, something rare and sublime to attract it to the boat. When he produces an illegally obtained, unborn fetus of a protected bottlenose dolphin, Hooper nearly strokes out. Quint gives exactly zero fucks about Hooper’s arguments around conservation. Science is government oppression to him, and he has a business to run. Jaws author Peter Benchley could not have predicted Trump, the fall of Roe (a decision the Supreme Court issued in 1973), or the COVID pandemic, but all of the same political tensions between civil libertarians, MAGA reactionaries, cops, and “science is real” lawn sign liberals play out right there on the deck of Quint’s boat. When Hooper finally sees how big the shark is, he sheds his ethical standards and begs Quint to use the dolphin fetus so he can get close enough to the shark to photograph it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
From the moment it was published in 1974, Jaws grabbed the American consciousness and wouldn’t let go. The book topped the New York Times best seller list for 44 weeks, selling more than five-and-a-half million copies by the time the film debuted in theaters the following year. The first Jaws movie launched legendary director Stephen Spielberg’s career and is considered to be the first “blockbuster,” defined as the first film to break a million dollars at the box office. In fact, the film raked in a worldwide total of $407 million, and spawned a franchise that today includes three film sequels, an amusement park, and chum buckets upon chum buckets of merch.
In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, Quint slits the belly of a blue shark then puts it back in the water, where it continues to feed on its own entrails. End stage capitalism has been described by many as a snake eating its own tail. After reading Jaws, I think it’s a shark.