Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Peter Benchley has left his mark on the worlds of literature, cinema, and ocean activism, but few of his works have withstood the test of time in the way Jaws has. The novel takes place on a seaside resort on the south shore of Long Island, where a giant killer shark begins to make minced meat of the swimmers. Despite political and personal conflicts swirling around them, three men decide to undertake the perilous journey to send the shark back to the depths it came from.
Table of contents
Peter Benchley Sets the Predator Loose
We like to see ourselves overcoming challenges, and thus our heroes are always those who have faced great trials and perils, coming out on top despite overwhelming odds. Though we have become quite creative in finding adversity for ourselves to overcome, the classic struggle of Man versus Nature has never lost its primal appeal, and in few novels was it better put to use than in Peter Benchley‘s Jaws.
Now, I’m certain you’ve already seen the silver screen adaptation, and while for the most part the stories do follow the same beats, there are enough differences between the two to leave some room for unexpected twists. Additionally, I think there is always something to be said for experiencing a story in written format, with the freedom to imagine it as you please.
To give you a little recap of the plot, it takes place in Amity, a fictional seaside resort town on Long Island where, one night, a great white shark attacks and kills a young tourist. Considering the circumstances, Amity’s police chief Martin Brody orders the beaches closed, but is overruled by the Mayor, favouring the thriving tourism industry over public safety.
A few days later the shark continues its killing spree, paradoxically drawing more and more people to the beach, all of them hoping to catch a glimpse of the shark at work. After a young boy narrowly escapes yet another attack, Brody has seen enough and orders the beaches closed as he assembles a crew to take the shark down.
This crew consists of Quint, a professional shark hunter, and Matt Hooper, an ichthyologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for his expertise on the matter. Despite their mutual dislike for each other and tensions running high, they set out on their perilous odyssey to bring down the apex predator of the seas, even at the potential cost of their lives.
There’s nothing in the sea this fish would fear. Other fish run from bigger things. That’s their instinct. But this fish doesn’t run from anything. He doesn’t fear.― Peter Benchley, Jaws
The Primal Hunt in Jaws
At its very core, if we strip away all the secondary and tertiary elements, Jaws is a novel about three men facing off against a great white shark. The rest of the story does have its place, colouring the main plot, giving it a human face and adding some extra elements to keep track of, but ultimately it is a simple tale, likely as old as humanity’s ability to tell tales; it’s about Man facing off against nature.
It’s quite easy to imagine ancient cavemen telling each other stories about great hunts after gargantuan and terrifying creatures, and I believe what has drawn us to these types of stories is the fact that, for millions of years, we lived in fear of predators. Even though we ourselves have emerged as the apex predators through our ingenuity, the raw fear of facing off against something which, through its sheer mind and body, can pose a real threat to us.
In this regard, Peter Benchley did an exceptional job at taking a great white shark and making it look like humanity’s number one nemesis. He turns it into an unfeeling killing machine, with a mind geared towards that singular purpose, often showing greater adaptability and strategic reasoning than it was given credit for.
Of course, the answer on how to avoid this creature is simple: don’t go in the water. This also makes the journey undertaken by Quint, Brody and Hooper much more daring and captivating. Though the three men could simply turn away from the problem, they decide to venture out into the beast’s preying grounds, going on a hunt which tests them to their very limits.
Personally, the most fun I’ve had with this book were the scenes where our three protagonists would strategize on new ways of dealing with the shark, then putting their theories to the test, failing time and time again until the dramatic conclusion. These moments draw us, the readers, into the story, making us think about how we’d handle the situation with the same resources, making us participants in the primal hunt, rather than observers.
Sharks are like ax-murderers, Martin. People react to them with their guts. There’s something crazy and evil and uncontrollable about them.― Peter Benchley, Jaws
A Tale of Human Corruption
As much as the shark is portrayed as the enemy of people in this story, he is also contrasted on numerous occasions against the corrupt human elements at play in the town of Amity. Though the shark might be actively eating people, it is only following its instincts and does not understand the English language, often begging the question as to who the real villains are in this story.
I’ve mentioned previously that with all secondary and tertiary elements removed, Jaws becomes a rather simple and straightforward story about three men hunting a shark. However, thanks to all the different components Peter Benchley used in assembling his story, it becomes a deeper human drama on multiple fronts.
To begin with, there is the mayor of Amity, whose association with the mafia has put him under the thumb of those who want to see the beach remain open at all costs. There is little ambiguity in his depiction, standing tall as a monolith to the greed and corruption which drive many to annihilation for the sake of the immoral few.
There is also some rather interesting commentary about people in a more general sense, or at least, that was how I perceived the author’s depiction of the masses’ reaction to the shark killings. Rather than doing what’s sensible, they all flock to the beach out of despicable morbid curiosity, hoping to catch a glimpse of a vile act they’ve childishly glamorized in their minds, without an inch of understanding as to what it entails. Once again, the question arises as to whether the shark can be considered an actual villain in this story.
Finally, the cherry on top for me was Peter Benchley‘s characterization of Quint, Hooper and Brody. He doesn’t delve too deeply in either of the three men, giving them just enough depth and background information to give them distinct personalities, clearly-defined ambitions, and room for human drama. If nothing else, it drives home the point that no matter what (earthly) creatures come after us, we will always remain the greatest threat to ourselves.
|320||Random House||May 31 2005||978-1400064564|
The Final Verdict
Jaws by Peter Benchley is for a very good reason one of the bestselling classics of the 1970s, an unforgettable suspense thriller combining the classic tale of Man versus Beast with modern ruminations on human greed and corruption.
Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, I highly recommend you read this book, no matter what your literary proclivities might be. It’s the kind of story which, I believe, has a good chance of entrancing anyone who lays eyes on it.
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.― Peter Benchley, Jaws
(May 8, 1940 – February 11, 2006)
Peter Benchley was an American author, screenwriter, and renowned ocean activist. He is best-known for writing the bestselling novel Jaws, as well as co-writing its timeless film adaptation. A few of his other works were also adapted to television, including The Deep, The Island and Beast. As a cherry on top, in 2015 a newly discovered species of lanternshark was named after him, the Etmopterus benchleyi.