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

by William Benzon

I forget just how I came to watch Steven Spielberg’s Jaws several years ago. Most likely I saw it on my Netflix homepage and, noting that I’d not seen it when it came out in 1975, I said to myself, “Why not?” I knew it had made Spielberg’s career and was generally regarded as the first summer blockbuster [1]. And John Williams’ two-note theme was by now as recognizable as the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

I watched it, was shocked at the appropriate times – for example, when the shark first comes up behind the Orca, prompting Sheriff Brody to utter the best-known line in the movie, “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.”

And that was that.

Until a couple of months ago.

I decided to revisit Jaws. I watched the film several times, making notes. I watched 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: first, Jaws 2 was more diffuse than Jaws, and second, there’s no character in the Jaws 2 comparable to Quint, the Ahab-like shark hunter. On 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 arrogant and abrasive, but that doesn’t warrant death. Something more is required.

That’s when the light went on: sacrifice. Quint, not the shark, but Quint, is being sacrificed for the good of the community. That in turn suggested the ideas of René Girard, the literary and cultural theorist who has come to see the myth-logic (my term) of sacrifice as being central to human community. I now had a way of thinking about Quint’s death.

Caveat: This runs a bit long. So pour some tea, a single-malt, whatever suits, and settle back.

The problematic of Jaws

When you are watching Jaws, it moves along seamlessly. But after you have watched it through and through and are thinking about it, you realize that it falls into two very different parts. The first part is in the thick of society: the town of Amity, its harbor, and its beach. It has many scenes jammed with people bustling all over the place. The second part takes place at sea and has only three people and the shark they are hunting. It moves rapidly in a line, though not necessarily straight, and is set apart from society.

What connects the two, the community in crisis and the sea adventure? The obvious connection is through the shark; it killed people in the first part and is being hunted in the second. But there is a second connection, one not so obvious.

In the Amity section the shark kills four people: a teenaged young woman, a young boy, and two adult men. They exist in the film only as victims. The shark kills one person in the hunt, Quint. Though Quint only appeared briefly, albeit abrasively, in the Amity part, he is an almost continuous presence in the hunt. By the time the shark kills him, we have come to know him.

There are several moments in the Amity section 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 closing the beaches would be imprudent. 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 [2].

What does the film do with that accumulating anger? How does it resolve it? The film seems to drop it. The mayor and Amity don’t play any explicit role in that part of the film.

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? I’m thinking of balance as a matter of aesthetics. Without it the film wouldn’t feel right, would be somehow diminished.

I am thinking that Quint’s obsession with the shark provides that balance. It is scary and off-putting and, when he destroys the radio and hence the possibility of calling for help, we realize that his obsession threatens the lives of all three hunters, Hooper, Brody, and Quint himself. That Quint’s self-destructive obsession gives his death an ‘aura’ of sacrifice.

Think about that death for a moment. Why do we have anyone at all die in the course of the hunt? Such a death is not a necessary feature of shark hunts. Sure, it enhances the thrill we the audience get from the chase, but that’s an aesthetic matter. And why is one of the hunters an Ahab-like obsessive? Yes, the hunters need to be skilled and determined, but that obsession is not a causal requirement. It is an aesthetic one.

That puts us in the land of myth-logic, where René Girard provides guidance.

Imitation, sacrifice, and René Girard

René Girard [3] is a theorist of imitation, desires, violence and sacrifice. His core concept is that of mimetic desire, a desire that one person acquires by imitating another.

Take Albert Hitchcock’s 1955 film, To Catch a Thief [4]. 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.[5]

That is the situation we have in Jaws, though it is disguised. The shark kills people, thus disturbing the community. Quint, the shark hunter, is the sacrificial victim. That he plays that role is not at all obvious. That’s disguised.

To unmask it we must follow the film with care. Though I provide a good deal of summary, you might want to consult the synopsis at the Internet Movie Database.[6]

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 a summer tourist business that depends on the beach. This conflict will grow in intensity and frame the first half 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 shark hunters seeking the reward and the glory. 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.[7]

In Girard’s terms, Amity Island is deep into a mimetic crisis. 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.

The beach remains open for July 4th and the island is jammed with tourists. 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:

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 while sheepishly noting that his kids were on the beach as well.

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 swarm of mimetic monads, a mental object in the minds of people, the fictional people in the film, and the real people in the audience (that is to say, us).

Tie me a sheepshank

When movie opened Amity’s social structure was intact. The shark arrived, killed four people, the town has dissolved in descension and has become overrun by shark-hunting off-islanders. The decision to hire Quint marks the end of Amity’s capacity to maintain order through ordinary means of governance. The film begins shifting from a community in Amity-mode to three men in sea-adventure mode.

Quint of course is one of those men. He 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, 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, an informal social contract, that will allow them to cooperate on the 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.”

The scene ends with Brody’s wife coming to the dock to see him off. As Brody boards the Orca his distraught wife runs off. The camera shifts to the boat pulling away from the dock. That shot is taken through one of those shark jaws Quint has hanging in his loft. It lasts about ten seconds (starting at c. 1:16), a dramatic way to mark the transition from Amity-mode to hunt-mode:

Seconds later the scene fades to reddish water and the camera pans up to reveal the Orca. The chief is tossing chum into the water. The hunt has begun.

You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat

The first day of the hunt is staged as a nautical adventure, with appropriate music on the soundtrack. Quint assigns Hooper to the helm while he has Brody doing scutwork, chumming the water. 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. Hooper manages to attach a tracking device and to get photographs. But the shark eludes them. In the evening they gather around a table cabin and share a meal. Hooper and Quint compare scars they had received while at sea, trying to top one another. 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’s tale the three of drunk men sing “show me the way to go home.” This display of male camaraderie – notice that Quint and Hooper had become physically intertwined when comparing scars – operates in a different register from the social contract they negotiated back in Quint’s loft.

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

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.

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

No sooner had Quint and Brody hoisted the remains of the cage back on deck when the shark charges. 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 kills the shark. Hooper surfaces, joins him, and they begin swimming for land. The action is over. As the end credits roll we see a wide shot of the deserted beach with the two men in the distance.

In smashing the radio Quint had abrogated the implicit contract he had worked out with Brody and Hooper and the more formal one he had worked out with the town. He is no longer acting as an agent of the town, if he ever was. He has declared himself to be a law unto himself. 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 became one being, Shark Town. Thus, in killing Quint the shark in effect acts as the agent of Amity/Shark Town. Quint has become a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat.

Just deliverin’ the bomb

Quint’s monologue is the longest single speech in the movie. Quint and Hooper have just been comparing scars when Brody asks Quint about a mark on his left biceps: “Oh, a tattoo. I got it 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 of 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 long ago and far away from Amity, the thick of World War II. Secondly, the monologue begins and ends with the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The overall effect is to lift us out of the confines of Amity 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.

Visualize the scene: Men and sharks swimming in the water for five days, an undifferentiated commingling of life and death, of the animal and the human. This is a hellish parallel to the chaos that earlier erupted in Amity.

Transmutation though the end

While the end of Jaws is satisfying, the underlying sacrificial logic implies a different ending. Consider this passage in Michael Walker’s essay, “Steven Spielberg and the Rhetoric of an Ending”:

The opening of Christopher Booker’s monumental book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, refers to the ending of Jaws: “There is a tremendous climactic fight, with much severing of limbs and threshing about under water, until at last the shark is slain. The community comes together in universal jubilation. The great threat has been lifted. Life in Amity can begin again” (2004, 1). Unfortunately, that is not what the film shows. [8]

Indeed, it is not. But the pull of the sacrificial template is so strong that it is easy to imagine the full template when it has in fact been truncated. The film ends with two men wading ashore.

Would it have made sense to end Jaws with celebration? 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? Would Brody have said how Quint died? Need he have said anything? Perhaps he wouldn’t have spoken publicly, but told his wife. Did Brody even tell the truth to Hooper?

Those things are best left unsaid. It is enough that we in the audience know them. The people of Amity need not know what happened.

Midway through the movie myth-logic transmuted a story about a community in crisis into one about men adventuring on a shark hunt. Yes, we know that the hunt was undertaken to serve Amity. But that’s only knowledge. The emotional force of the Amity bond began transforming when the Orca put out to sea and was cut when Quint destroyed the radio. All that was left was for Brody to kill the shark and survive. When Brody and Hooper finally step ashore as the credits conclude, it is though they face a new world.

And so we exit the theater, renewed through the slight-of-hand wizardry of celluloid and sound.


I have several posts about Jaws at my blog, New Savanna: excerpts from and discussion of three other accounts of the film, a brief look at the 1975 trailer, and an earlier version of this piece.

[1] Wikipedia, Jaws (film),

[2] 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.

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

[4] 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,

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

[6] You can find the IMDb synopsis here,

[7] 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.

[8] Michael Walker, “Steven Spielberg and the Rhetoric of an Ending,” in Nigel Morris, Ed. A Companion to Steven Spielberg, First Edition: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2017, pp. 137-158.