Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

Jaws was attacked by reviewers as a very clumsily written novel. These attacks were as much against the editorial staff at Doubleday as they were against Benchley. Together they constructed a book which was eagerly devoured by the public. Benchley combined two formulas commonly used in best sellers: He had...

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Jaws was attacked by reviewers as a very clumsily written novel. These attacks were as much against the editorial staff at Doubleday as they were against Benchley. Together they constructed a book which was eagerly devoured by the public. Benchley combined two formulas commonly used in best sellers: He had chosen a subject about which most people knew something but were eager to learn more. He had suggested an external menace, a life-threatening force preying on a community. The great white shark answers the purposes of both formulas. Ted Morgan, the journalist, pointed this out in an article written after Jaws became a big success. Benchley had instinctively found a surefire way to sell books. He would use variations of these formulas throughout his career.

All of Benchley's books provide a wealth of information on the sea, its creatures, ocean archaeology, and the histories of the settings of his books, Bermuda and the Bahamas. The marine explorer, Jacques Cousteau, complained that too many people were using Jaws as a handbook on sharks and forgetting that the book was a work of fiction. That Benchley slightly demonized his sea monster is undeniable, but making due allowance for the fictive elements in his novels, a reader can learn a great deal. The menace presented by the shark captured the imagination of readers so profoundly that shark sightings were reported everywhere, even in Nebraska.

Social Concerns

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Benchley was quite young when he first became fascinated with the ocean. His family was accustomed to spending summer vacations on Nantucket, and he became a skilled skin-diver, observing marine life directly. The relationship of humans to the sea is his main preoccupation as an author. It is surprising that he became an English major at Harvard rather than a marine biologist. His love for the ocean's creatures is not sentimental. He realizes that mankind's future is dependent on keeping the seas unpolluted and on maintaining the natural order of their inhabitants. Man himself is the worst predator on earth. The fossil record seems to indicate that he was a killer early in the course of his development. Quint is as terrible a hunter as the great white shark, and his instincts are not much more refined.

Despite the means man has developed to control and manipulate nature, his mastery is not complete. On land most of the great predators have become endangered species, but the sea still has creations that terrify those who encounter them. Benchley's formula involves pitting humans at their most vulnerable against the sea's pitiless monsters. In Jaws he makes summer tourists the victims.

The officials of the town of Amity are concerned primarily with promoting a good summer for the tourists. The town's economy is heavily dependent on tourism. Consequently, they are reluctant to close the beaches, and they underplay the menace of the shark lurking off their shores. Economic concerns versus the value of human lives is a significant theme in this book.

Literary Precedents

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Benchley's book can be read as a parody of Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), a great American epic. A great white shark fills the role of Melville's albino whale. Like Moby Dick, the great fish is seen by hunters not simply as an unusually dangerous force, but as something possessing a malignant will. It seems to be hunting them. "He was waiting for us," yells Brody on the final day of the hunt. As in Melville, the hunt continues for several days. On the final day. Quint's boat suffers the fate of the Pequod, and Chief Brody, like Ishmaei (Melville's hero), is the only survivor. While a far less complex character than Melville's Captain Ahab, Quint, like the captain, perishes with his boat, caught in the line of a harpoon.

Adaptations

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As a movie, Jaws was the first big hit of a young director, Stephen Spielberg. Starring Roy Scheider as Brody, Robert Shaw as Quint, Richard Dreyfus as Hooper and Lorraine Gary as Mrs. Brody, it made money faster than any The officials of the town of Amity are concerned primarily with promotmotion picture in history up to that time, grossing $124,322,872 between June 22 and September 5, 1975. Many critics such as Pauline Kael praised Spielberg's accomplishment, considering it to be much superior to the book. The marine biologist, Hooper, is allowed to escape the wreckage of Quint's boat; his affair with Chief Brody's wife is omitted in the movie. The Deep (1977) was sold to Columbia Pictures for $350,000 before publication. As a motion picture, its chief distinction lies in its magnificent underwater photography. Directed by Peter Yates, it starred Robert Shaw, Jacqueline Bisset, and Nick Nolte. The Island (1980) was also filmed, and despite the presence of Michael Caine in a starring role, it was not regarded too highly. It was directed by Michael Ritchie. The Beast was produced as a 1996 miniseries for NBC television, which dragged the story out over several nights of overwrought melodrama.

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