Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Crisis in Shark City: A Girardian reading of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws

Though I am hardly a Girardian, I recently found myself exploring Girardian themes, mimetic crisis and sacrifice, in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws [1]. It made Spielberg’s career as well as that of John Williams, who composed the score. Generally regarded as the first summer blockbuster, Jaws has received extensive analytical commentary. It was entered into the United States National Film Registry in 2001 by the Library of Congress.

I hadn’t seen the film when it first came out, though I certainly heard about it and I’d heard John Williams’ two-note “Jaws” motif I don’t know how many times. I forget just how I came to watch the film on Netflix several years ago. Most likely I saw it on my homepage and said to myself, “Why not?” I watched it, was shocked at the appropriate times – for example, when the shark first comes up behind the Orca, Quint’s boat, prompting Sheriff Brody to utter the best-known line in the movie, “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat” – and then went on to look through the movie’s Wikipedia entry. I may or may not have also watched Jaws 2 back then.

I decided to revisit Jaws a couple of months ago and watched the film several times, making notes. I went through Jaws 2 as well. It isn’t as good as the original.

“Why,” I asked myself, “is the original so much better than the sequels?” Two things struck me rather quickly: 1) Jaws 2 was more diffuse than Jaws, and 2) there’s no character in the Jaws 2 comparable to Quint. As an example of the first, consider the way the last two fifths of Jaws is devoted to the hunt while Jaws 2 wanders from plot strand to plot strand the entire film. As for Quint, I asked myself: Why did he (have) to die? Sure, he’s unpleasant and likely a misogynist, but that is not sufficient in itself. Something more is required.

That’s when the light went on: Girard. Quint, not the shark, but Quint, is being sacrificed for the good of the community. That in itself didn’t answer my question, why must Quint die? But it revealed the nature of that death. In so doing it gave me a way of thinking through the question.

Caveat: This runs a bit long, 4.7 K words. So pour yourself a single-malt and settle back.

Imitation, sacrifice, and René Girard

As you may know, René Girard [3] is a theorist of imitation, desires, violence and sacrifice. His core concept is that of mimetic desire, a desire which one person acquires by imitating the actions of another. Take Albert Hitchcock’s 1955 film, To Catch a Thief [3]. Cary Grant plays John Robie, a cat burglar who is retired to the French Riviera along with the rest of his gang, all of whom have been paroled in recognition of their work for the French Resistance. A recent string of burglaries leads the authorities to suspect Robie because the burglaries follow his old modus operandi.

In the (somewhat involved) process of trying to clear himself Robie arranges to go swimming with a young heiress, Frances Stevens (played by Grace Kelly). Robie arrives at the beach where he is met by Danielle Foussard (played by Brigitte Auber), who is the young daughter of one of his old comrades in the Resistance. They swim out to a raft where Danielle proceeds to flirt with Robie. Frances swims out to them, sees Danielle flirting with Robie, and decides that she will pursue Robie. She is imitating Danielle’s desire. In Girard’s terms, her desire is thus mediated, it is mimetic desire. Danielle and Frances thus become rivals and rivalry can lead to violence. Though we don’t know it at this point in the movie, Danielle is the cat burglar. She too is imitating Robie.

Mimetic desire can also operate at the level of a whole community. Girard explains in an interview with Robert Pogue Harrison:

There are signs that communities—archaic communities, but even modern communities, all communities—are subject to disturbances that tend to spread to the entire community contagiously, through a form of mimetic desire. If you have two people who desire the same thing, you will soon have three, when you have three, they contaminate the rest of the community faster and faster. The differences that separate them collapse. And therefore you go toward what I call a mimetic crisis, the moment when everybody at the same time is fighting over something. Even if that object disappears, they will go on fighting, because they will become obsessed with each other. And as that conflict grows, it threatens to destroy the whole community.

What happens to end that sort of crisis? My answer to this is that one particular victim seems to more and more people to be responsible for the whole trouble. In other words, the mimetic contagion moves from desire to a specific victim.

When this happens, everybody becomes hostile to that victim. Ultimately, that victim is going to be … the only technical term that exists in English is “lynching.”

The lynching of a victim, of a single victim, causes the community to be reconciled against that victim. Therefore that victim is hated as being responsible for the trouble. But immediately after, if the trouble ends there, that victim will be worshipped as the one who resolved that conflict. [4]

That is the situation we have in Jaws, though it is somewhat disguised, as these things tend to be. The shark provides the disturbance. Quint, the shark hunter, is the sacrificial victim. That he plays that role is not at all obvious, for he is killed by the very shark that disturbs the community and brings it to the point of dissolution.

To see this we must follow the film with some care. Though I provide a good deal of summary, you might want to consult the synopsis at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).[5]

The mayor of Shark City

Jaws opens in the evening. A young woman goes skinny dipping and is attacked; we don’t see the shark, but we do see her struggle (first victim). The mangled remains of the young woman’s body are discovered on the beach the next morning. Sheriff Brody (played by Roy Scheider) decides to close the beaches, but he is countermanded by the mayor and his (businessman) associates. The town’s economy depends on the summer tourist business and that requires an open beach. That conflict will grow in intensity and frame the first half or so of the film.

The beach remains open until young Alex Kintner is killed during the daytime (second victim). The beaches are closed and town meeting is called. When Brody announces that the beaches will be closed the outcry is strong enough that the mayor responds, “Only 24 hours!” At the same time the mother of the dead boy offers a $3K reward for the shark. Someone at the meeting asks, cash or check? At the close of that meeting Quint (Robert Shaw) speaks, doubting that those seeking the reward will succeed and offering to kill the shark for $10,000.

The waterfront becomes jammed with boats owned by or rented by shark hunters seeking the reward and the glory. Locals and out-of-towners crowd the streets and the boats. Boats and people collide. Here’s how the situation is described in the script by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley:

The Amity Pier area is a minor madhouse: out-of-state cars elbow local vehicles for parking space at the foot of the dock, and a parade of bounty-hunting townspeople, islanders, off-islanders, tourist, and others shout and push their way onto the crowded pier, each carrying some bizarre or appropriate tool for the real or imagined capture of an unarmed shark of indeterminate size.

Rods and reels, drop lines, crossbows, slingshots, harpoons, shotguns, rifles, nets and tridents; every fishing supply store and sporting goods house within a hundred miles has been cannibalized to equip this weird array. [6]

In Girard’s terms, Amity Island is deep into a mimetic crisis. It seems that everyone is reduced to shark-mania and colliding with one another as they compete for the kill.

There is a brief reprieve. A large tiger shark is killed; people smile and chatter happily. The editor of the local paper fully expects the news to carried nationally. People jockey for position alongside the shark in the photograph, a scene that brings out the mimetic and competitive nature of the shark hunt. Not everyone fits, only those directly involved in the kill along with the town dignitaries.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Brody had contacted the Oceanographic Institute and asked them to send a shark expert. When the expert, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus), sees the shark, he doubts that it is the killer. It is not large enough. That night Hooper and Brody cut the shark open and search its stomach for human remains. There are none. They take Hooper’s boat out to see if they can find the shark. Instead they find the body of a local fisherman, Earl Gardner, in his demolished boat (third victim). The mayor and his allies continue to believe the shark has been killed.

Consequently the beach is open for July 4th and the island is jammed with tourists. People are initially reluctant to enter the water, which is being patrolled by police boats, but the mayor coaxes friends to enter the water. Others quickly follow. There is a moment of panic when some kids played a prank with a cardboard shark’s fin. Just as people calm down the shark reappears and kills a man (fourth victim).

Sheriff Brody insists that the mayor hire Quint and give him his asking price of $10,000 (plus, it turns out, a $200 per diem):

This summer’s had it. Next summer’s had it. You’re the mayor of Shark City. You wanted to keep the beaches open. What happens when the town finds out about that?

The mayor agrees, pleading that he was acting in the town’s best interest, noting that his kids, too, were on that beach.

At the beginning of the film the shark is just a shark, big, nasty, and evil, but just a shark. It kills first one, and then another person. Still just a shark. But then the town goes into a frenzy hunting the shark, feeling good that the shark’s been killed, posing for pictures, and making the national news. This activity has the effect of dissolving the shark and the town into one undifferentiated hybrid creature. Through the myth-logic of mimetic crisis Amity and the shark have coalesced into Shark City. Shark City exists, not as a physical object in the world, but as a mental object in the minds of people, the imaginary people in the film, and the real people in the audience (that is to say, us).

Tie me a sheepshank

That is to say, as the movie opens, Amity’s social structure is intact. The shark arrives and in effect puts pressure on that structure, forcing it to break apart. Four people have been killed. The sheriff and the mayor are at odds, and the business community is at odds with the friends and relatives of those who have been killed. The town has become overrun by shark-hunting out-of-towners. The decision to hire Quint marks the end of Amity’s capacity to maintain order through ordinary means of governance.

The film now shifts focus from the town of Amity to three men on a boat out shark hunting. Quint of course is one of those men; his boat is named the Orca, after the only marine animal that preys on sharks. Quint has lived in Amity a long time. Everyone knows him. He is a grizzled old salt who doesn’t seem to like anyone nor does anyone seem to like him. Temperamentally and spiritually he is an Ahab-like loner.

The two other men on the hunt, Sheriff Brody and Matt Hooper, are not locals. Hooper is from out of town and comes from a wealthy family. His well-equipped research vessel is funded by family money. The sheriff has only lived in Amity for about a year. The locals still think of him and his family as outsiders.

These three have to work out a modus vivendi, a social contract if you will, that will allow them to cooperate on a shark hunt. Quint is skeptical about Hooper’s ability to handle himself at sea and challenges him to tie a sheepshank knot, which he does. Hooper thinks that Quint is a blowhard: “I don't need to hear any of this working-class hero crap.” Still, it takes Brody’s insistence to get Quint to agree: “It’s my party; it’s my charter.” Quint can’t argue with that, but insists: “It’s my vessel. You’re on board my vessel, Mate, Master, Pilot, and I’m Cap’n. Take him for ballast, Chief.”

You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat

The first day of the hunt is one of nautical adventure, with appropriate music on the soundtrack. Quint assigns Hooper to the helm while he has Brody chum the water to attract the shark, scutwork. Though it is Brody who made the contract, he is now at the bottom of the pecking order. Once hooked the shark pulls the boat and Hooper manages to attach a tracking device and to get photographs when it comes close.

But the shark eludes them. In the evening they gather around a table in the ship’s cabin and share a meal. Hooper and Quint compare scars they had received while at sea, trying to top one another. Then Quint tells the story of barely surviving in shark-infested waters after the U. S. S. Indianapolis was sunk. Yes, it tells us how Quint became fixated on sharks, but there’s more going on, something I want to examine in more detail later. After Quint has told his tale the three of them drunkenly sing “show me the way to go home.” This display of male camaraderie – notice that Quint and Hooper become physically intertwined when comparing scars – operates in a different register from the social contract they negotiated at the start of the voyage.

The shark rams the boat that night and the hunters spend the rest of the night making repairs. The next day Sheriff Brody goes to radio for help and Quint destroys the radio, making it clear he didn’t want help (at about 1:10 in the following clip).

Brody is enraged: “That’s great! That’s just great! Now where the Hell are we, huh? You’re certifiable, Quint, you know that? You're certifiable!” Hooper interrupts to tell them that the shark has returned. They get to work. Quint steers toward land while Hooper tends the engine, which fails.

In desperation Quint turns to Hooper, who had brought a shark-proof cage on board. He puts on his scuba gear and he gets in with a poison-tipped spear gun and they lower him into the water. He intends to inject the shark with poison when it gets close. The shark appears, wrecks the cage, and Hooper swims away. Did the shark get him?

No sooner had Quint and Brody hoisted the remains of the cage back onto the deck when the shark charges the Orca’s stern. Quint slides into its mouth; Brody is unable to help. Quint is consumed in this, the longest and bloodiest shark attack of the film.

Things look precarious for Brody, but he does kill the shark. Hooper surfaces and joins him and they begin swimming for land.

The action is over. As the end credits roll the camera focuses on a wide shot of the deserted beach; we can see the two men in the distance.

In smashing the radio Quint had abrogated the implicit contract he’d worked out with Brody and Hooper and the more formal one he’s worked out with the town. He has declared himself to be a law unto himself. He is no longer acting as an agent of the town.

Myth-logic has transmuted the conflict between Amity and the shark into a conflict primarily between one person, Quint, and the shark. Moreover, in the realm of myth-logic Amity and the shark have become one being, Shark Town. In killing Quint, the shark is in effect acting as the agent of AmityShark Town. Quint is thus a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat. His death is a quasi-ritual event.

Just deliverin’ the bomb

Let us return to the Orca’s cabin and examine Quint’s monologue. It is the longest single speech in the movie and explains why and how Quint became fixated on sharks.

Quint and Hooper have just been comparing scars when Brody asks Quint about a mark on his left biceps: “Oh, a tattoo. I got at’ removed.” He tells Hooper that it is the U. S. S. Indianapolis. Hooper: “You were on the Indianapolis?” Brody: “What happened?”

The following clip starts with the Quint-Hooper scar comparison. The monologue starts at about 2:46.

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was commin’ back from the island Tinian to Leyte, just deliverin’ the bomb, the Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. The vessel went down in twelve minutes.

Didn't see the first shark for about half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail.

What we didn't know was, our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They did’t even list us overdue for a week.

Very first light, Chief, sharks come crusin'. So formed ourselves in tight groups – kinda’ like old squares in a battle like you see in a calendar like the battle o’ Waterloo – and the idea was, shark comes the nearest man then beneath that poundin’ and hollerin’ n’ screamin’ sometimes the shark go away, sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into your eye.

You don’t see a shark, you see a lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at you, doesn’t seem to be livin’, until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white an’ then, aye, you hear that terrible high pitched screamin’, the ocean turns red, in spite of all poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in n’ they rip ya to pieces.

Nobody in on that first launched. Lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I don’t know how many men; they averaged six an hour.

Thursday morning, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson, Cleveland, baseball player, bosun’s mate. I thought he was asleep. Reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water like a cat’s top, upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.

Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, she swung in low an’ he saw us. A young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway he saw us and three hours later a big fat PBY* comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened; waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a life jacket again.

So, eleven hundred men went into the water. Three hundred and sixteen came out the sharks took the rest. June the twenty-ninth nineteen forty-five. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

*Note: A PBY is a kind of amphibious plane. One rescued survivors of the Indianapolis.

Notice first of all that Quint’s first-person story takes us (not so) long ago and far away from Amity. We’re in the thick of World War II. Secondly, the monologue begins and ends with the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Little Boy), perhaps the most terrible single weapon ever deployed in war. The overall effect is to lift us out of the confines of Amityville and into, into what? Let us simply call it the realm of myth, which, of course, is where we’ve been since the beginning of the film. Such are the workings of myth logic.

Visualize the scene Quint evokes: Men and sharks swimming in the water for five days, an undifferentiated stew of life and death in which the animal and the human are commingled. This is a hellish parallel to the chaos the erupted in Amity once Mrs. Kinter had offered the $3,000 reward for the death of the shark.

Speculative interlude – Questions

I want to take a quick look over the whole film, attempt to grasp and apprehend it, before concluding.

Jaws can be divided into two parts. The first part is set in Amity and has many scenes with small, medium, and large groups of people. The second part takes place at sea and has only three people (Quint, Brody, and Hooper) and the shark.

The shark kills four people in the first part of the film: a teenaged young woman, a young boy, and two adult men. Those four exist in the film only as victims. The shark kills one person in the second part of the film, Quint, the shark hunter. Though Quint only appeared briefly in the first part, when he offered to kill the shark for $10,000, he is an almost continuous presence in the second part. By the time the shark kills him, we have come to know him. His death has an aura of sacrifice.

There are at least three moments in the first part of the film where the mayor refuses to close the beaches because doing so would hurt tourism. He argues that we don’t actually know that there is a shark in the ocean and so it would be imprudent to close the beaches. Each time he did that I found myself getting angry at him. I doubt that my reaction is unique. I watched half a dozen “reaction” videos about Jaws on YouTube. In each case the reactor expressed anger at the mayor [7].

What does the film do with that accumulating anger? How does it resolve it? The film seems to drop it in the second part. The mayor and Amity don’t play any explicit role in that part of the film; they are not an onscreen presence. Of course we know that the shark is being hunted because it presents a danger to Amity.

Is there anything in the second part that is somehow parallel to our anger with the mayor in the first part? What balances that out? Perhaps it is Quint’s obsession with the shark, which is scary and off-putting. Do we want to go so far as to say that the film redeems the mayor’s apparent indifference to human life by sacrificing Quint? Yes, perhaps that’s too far.

The end and beyond

The film ends with Hooper and Brody paddling toward shore. Then, when the end credits begin to roll, our view shifts to a deserted beach. In the distance we can see the two men paddling toward the shore. We have no idea how they or their victory over the shark is received. Is there a celebration? Are they greeted by photographers and television crews? Who knows? For that matter do we know what was happening in Amity during the hunt. Did the beach remain closed? None of that matters. The shark is dead and the film is over, ending in quiet desolation.

As an exercise, however, let us imagine how things might have gone if the film a run five more minutes so we could see the town’s reaction. Would Brody and Hooper have been treated as heroes? Surely so. What about Quint? What, if anything, would Brody have said about Quint destroying the radio? Need he have said anything? Perhaps he wouldn’t have spoken publicly, but told his wife.

Would Brody have said how Quint died? Though Quint had his heroic moments, there was nothing heroic about his death. The death was humiliating. Did he tell the truth to Hooper?

No, continuing the story, however briefly, beyond the point where Brody and Hooper meet in the water would have been tricky at best. The story of Quint’s destruction of the radio and his humiliating death is best left unsaid. It is enough that we in the audience know it. The people of Amity – for with Quint’s death and the shark’s death, Shark Town had returned to being Amity – need not know exactly what happened. Such are the workings of myth-logic.

Fredrick Jameson wrote about Jaws in 1979 and he made some remarks that I find useful. He quickly runs through a dozen interpretations of the shark that various critics had proposed. He suggests, instead, that “the shark must be understood in terms of its essentially polysemous function rather than any particular content attributable to it by this or that spectator.” He then points out:

Interpretive emphasis on the shark, indeed, tends to drive all these quite varied readings in the direction of myth criticism, where the shark is naturally enough taken to be the most recent embodiment of Leviathan, so that the struggle with it effortlessly folds back into one of the fundamental paradigms or archetypes of Professor Frye's storehouse of myth. To rewrite the film in these terms is thus to emphasize what I will shortly call its Utopian dimension, that is, its ritual celebration of the renewal of the social order and its salvation, not merely from divine wrath, but also from unworthy leadership.

But to put it this way is to begin to shift our attention from the shark itself to the emergence of the hero-or heroes–whose mythic task it is to rid the civilized world of the archetypal monster. [8, p. 142]

While I am certainly urging a reading in the direction of myth, it is not the myth criticism of Northrup Frye.

As we have seen, Jaws does not end with a “ritual celebration of the renewal of the social” and the valorization of mythic heroes. The film parodied that in the first part, when the tiger shark was killed and people competed for space in the triumphal photograph. That triumph proved short-lived.

Instead Jaws gives us the grisly death of Quint, with its sacrificial overtones, coupled with the subsequent death of the shark at the hands of Chief Brody. Brody is glad to be alive and pleased to see that Hooper is as well. They are mere mortals, glad to be alive.

Is it too much to read Jaws as a rejection of mythic heroes? I’m not sure. “Rejection” is too strong. Rather, mythic valorization doesn’t seem necessary. Through the transmuting magic of myth-logic, Amity’s conflict with the shark has become a hunt. Once the hunt concluded, there is nothing more.


[1] Wikipedia, Jaws (film),

[2] René Girard (1923-2015), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[3] Wikipedia, To Catch a Thief,

I have made some brief remarks on the film in a blog post on the film, Cary Grant Kisses Grace Kelly – Eww! [To Catch a Thief, Media Notes 48], New Savanna, October 8, 2020,

[4] Quoted in Cynthia Haven, What Oedipus can teach us about the COVID crisis, 3 Quarks Daily, May 18, 2020,

[5] You can find the IMDb synopsis here,

[6] The script went through many versions, see the Wikipedia entry in [1] above. I found a free version attributed to Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley at The Daily Script, As at least some of the dialog in that script does not match what happens on screen, I have transcribed from the film where I quote dialog.

[7] Here’s a reaction video entitled “Mr. Mayor, You Can Choke! JAWS Movie Reaction, First Time Watching.” Listen to the commentary starting at about 16:15.

[8] Fredric Jameson, Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, Social Text, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp, 130-148,

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