The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: The Demon Shark Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As a child, Winton becomes accustomed to the luxury of wide-open space that comes along with living in Australia. The ocean and its vastness is an endless offering to him, and he always wants more of it—it feels like home. But when he’s taken to see Oliver! at the cinema, the trailer for a documentary called Savage Shadows about a vicious shark attack rattles him profoundly. The reenactment of the attack featured in the trailer seems absolutely real to Tim. It’s a precursor to the widespread horror that Spielberg’s Jaws will bring to audiences a few years later, causing an intense, collective fear of sharks in the ocean.
Winton’s experience seeing the trailer for Savage Shadows, and its subsequent effect on his life, mirrors his experience seeing Kubrick’s 2001 as he details in “A Space Odyssey at Eight.” Both viewings shock Winton; while 2001 has the effect of making the actual moon landing feel somewhat dull and inevitable, this trailer rattles Tim and subconsciously subtly alters his experience as a swimmer and surfer. This pattern of media experience seems to suggest that, at least for Winton, the imagination doesn’t only illuminate the real world. It can darken it, too.
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The film trailer instills in Winton an awareness of sharks and the horror they signify—suddenly, he’s much more aware of the danger in the ocean, and when he’s out surfing, the idea of sharks lurks in the back of his mind. In these days, beachside aquariums are popular and rustic, the smaller fish and other creatures essentially acting as background to the sharks who are the main event. The image of the shark is everywhere—teenagers wear shark teeth on necklaces, and Winton draws an outline of a shark when he’s doodling in class.
Though Winton is markedly more afraid of sharks after seeing the trailer, he also thinks about them constantly and seems to desire proximity to them, much like other young people around him. It’s another instance, like his gun wielding and cave diving, which demonstrates his urge to seek out danger and be near to it, while still holding fear and reverence for that dangerous thing.
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Quotes
Winton becomes obsessed with sharks, reading everything he can about them and poring over images and stories of sightings and hunts. Australia seems to be equally obsessed, especially with the great white, or the “white death.” Winton misses the cinematic release of the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death, which features the first extended underwater footage of great white sharks, so he’s pleased by the republication of Blue Meridian, Peter Matthiessen’s account of the making of the documentary. The filming project was led by American millionaire Peter Gimbel and involved seven Americans and two Australians, with Matthiessen along for the ride.
Winton’s obsession is understandable given he’s a child, and reflects his childlike yearning for discovery. But the fact that Australia as a whole is overcome with anxiety about sharks, despite having always been surrounded by them, is a little comical. It demonstrates the power of emotion and fear over common sense. Meanwhile, Winton’s desire to learn more about the great white is clear by the fact that he goes down a rabbit hole to discover more about this specific documentary.
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Matthiessen, a novice diver, chronicles the filming process, which becomes tense and fraught with conflict as Gimbel begins diving and filming more recklessly. One day, he and another filmmaker leave the underwater cage, allowing a small shark into the cage with the remaining diver. His actions cause rifts between crew members, especially between the Australians and the Americans. Matthiessen is fascinated by the Australian divers, Ron and Valerie Taylor, even suggesting that Ron is a shark-like figure.
It's either Winton’s description of Matthiessen’s writing, or Matthiessen’s writing itself, that creates quite a stereotypical conflict between the Australian and American members of the crew: the reckless Americans and the conservative Australians. These qualities may have some truth to them, but the contrast feels a little comical, especially when paired with the description of Ron as similar to a shark himself.
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The divers’ ship steams between South Africa and Sri Lanka, and they’re still without a sighting of a great white. Matthiessen focuses more on the interpersonal drama than the shark sightings, attempting to work out the tension between the Americans and Australians. Gimbel’s increasingly reckless behavior puzzles Matthiessen and the Australians—he even swims amid feeding sharks and scrambles into the wound of a whale to get a better angle.
The excessively long and repetitive journey of the diving ship suggests that this documentary mission, when complete, will be truly groundbreaking. Gimbel’s attraction to danger reflects Winton’s own, which is perhaps why the story of the documentary fascinates him so much.
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When the expedition relocates to the south coast of Australia, another diver, Rodney Fox, joins the crew. Fox is a survivor of a great white attack, after which his obsession with sharks grew even bigger. Finally, the divers spot a great white and descend in their cages to meet it. Matthiessen, despite his best efforts to remain an objective witness, can’t resist the temptation to touch the great white as it swims by. Gimbel, having reached the very end of the mystery, is slightly saddened that there is no more to reveal—though it seems that Matthiessen doesn’t quite share that sadness.
The great white’s mythological status and its remarkable physical appearance has an effect on everyone in the crew, even Matthiessen, the weakest diver whose role is arguably more focused on the humans than the sharks. It’s a scene that helps the reader to understand why exactly great whites have caused such a flurry among the Australian public, for whom sharks are a common feature of life: the great whites are simply impressive creatures.
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Winton’s children ask him, “Why did God make sharks?” He’s tempted to reply, “To sell newspapers.” There’s an irrational fear and hatred across Australia toward sharks, and Winton felt it as a child too, despite never seeing one in the wild. He remembers seeing dead sharks—trophies from anglers—hanging by meat hooks from jetties “like public executions,” and at 13, watching the sharks that swarmed the flensing deck of Australia’s last whaling station being shot, and not feeling at all shocked. The widespread hatred for sharks motivated humans to destroy them. 
Much like the success of the Ningaloo campaign, the power of the media in this scenario comes from the fact that their stories call on people’s emotions rather than their intellect. Fear, as demonstrated here, or love and nostalgia, as shown in the Ningaloo campaign, are much stronger than any statistical analysis or expert advice. So, this is a situation which displays the tragic effect that emotionally-led decisions can have.
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Quotes
Though public feelings about animal cruelty have become more sympathetic and driven by justice over Winton’s lifetime, people still seem to lack sympathy for sharks. Though bees kill more people than sharks yearly, they don’t attract nearly as much disgust or fear, and because sharks are such a symbol of terror, humans don’t feel particularly outraged by barbaric acts toward them. There’s no real impetus to stop industries that continue to decimate sharks for their fins and meat, or the teenage boys who continue to maim sharks, because nobody has the urge to protect sharks.
Winton draws a contrast between public feeling towards bees versus sharks, and his conclusion suggests that the fear comes from how big and menacing the creature looks rather than the statistical proof of how much harm it causes. Because there’s still a widespread fear of sharks, there’s little public desire to protect them. This contrasts with Winton’s experience campaigning for Ningaloo Reef, which suggests that the symbol of the ocean in general is a pleasing one for the general public (and so people wanted to protect it), while the symbol of sharks—despite their connection to the ocean—is met with irrational disgust.
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Winton has had joyful and fun experiences with sharks and has found sharks to be as diverse as humans can be. He’s noticed that people who spend a lot of time in the water have mellowed to sharks, and even those who have been involved in shark attacks are less prone to anger or vengeance. Most commonly, statements like that are from politicians and others who spend very little time in the ocean and are looking to rile up the public—yet road accidents, which cause a huge number more deaths in Australia per year, do not stir up the same kind of fear as the threat of a shark attack.
Winton’s observation that people who have had proximity to sharks feel more sympathy for them echoes his experience, as detailed in “In the Shadow of the Hospital,” of witnessing the inside of a hospital and consequently understanding its value beyond fear. There’s an irony in the fact that most Australians fear sharks mostly because they’ve never met one, and this irony drives home the irrationality of public perception.
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Beyond cruelty and inhumanity, the current rate of shark decimation poses huge threats to underwater ecosystems. When sharks are killed, their food systems lose regulation, creating monocultures and potentially wiping out whole ecosystems. Winton believes that public opinion and awareness of sharks needs to change in order to save precious ocean habitats when there’s still a chance to do so.
Widespread fear of and disgust for sharks isn’t only ironic or irrational, but harmful, too. Like every other living thing, sharks play an important role in the ecosystem they belong to—an ecosystem that’s at risk of destruction purely because media-fueled fear makes hunting and killing sharks seem acceptable.
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One day in winter, Winton notices that as a storm presses in, there’s a swelling tide. He heads north in his vehicle until he reaches the beach. Wind is howling. His dog makes her way to the whale carcass rotting on the shore while Winton takes his surfboard and heads into the water to reach the peak, where he sits waiting with a small group of local surfers. They take turns riding the waves in and swimming back out. The locals tell Winton that the three sharks that have been lurking near the shore since the blue whale beached are back today.
The fact that Winton and his dog amuse themselves at the shore with different activities almost suggests an ecology of its own. While Winton is attracted to the idea of catching the waves, his dog delights in the whale carcass—and there’s a lighthearted implication that this is, in a way, honoring every element of the natural world, even at the very end of a creature’s life cycle.
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Winton catches a wave in and begins to paddle back out when a set of strong waves trap him in the shallows. He pushes back out, but he feels something bump against his arm. He realizes a shark has brushed up against him before panicking and swimming off. When he tells another surfer, the surfer heads to shore immediately, but Winton stays out in the waves. When he catches another, he almost slices right into the path of one of the sharks. The adrenaline forces Winton to stay out surfing until he’s totally exhausted.
The shark’s behavior, panicking after coming into contact with Winton, demonstrates that, far from being needlessly violent, most sharks only go hunting for what they need. Winton’s resolve to remain in the waves with the sharks speaks not only to the thrill-seeking side of his personality, but the fact that it’s possible to feel comfortable among sharks if you understand them well enough.
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