Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is the most notable artistic antecedent to Jaws. The character of Quint strongly resembles Captain Ahab, the obsessed captain of the Pequod who devotes his life to hunting a sperm whale. Quint's monologue reveals a similar obsession with sharks; even his boat, the Orca, is named after the only natural enemy of the white shark. In the novel and original screenplay, Quint dies after being dragged under the ocean by a harpoon tied to his leg, similar to the death of Ahab in Melville's novel. A direct reference to these similarities may be found in Spielberg's draft of the screenplay, which introduces Quint watching the film version of Moby-Dick; his continuous laughter prompts other audience members to get up and leave the theater (Wesley Strick's screenplay for the 1991 remake of Cape Fear features a similar scene). However, the scene from Moby-Dick could not be licensed from the film's star, Gregory Peck, its copyright holder. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb also drew comparisons to Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea: "Jaws is ... a titanic struggle, like Melville or Hemingway."
The underwater scenes shot from the shark's point of view have been compared with passages in two 1950s horror films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Monster That Challenged the World. Gottlieb named two science fiction productions from the same era as influences on how the shark was depicted, or not: The Thing from Another World, which Gottlieb described as "a great horror film where you only see the monster in the last reel"; and It Came From Outer Space, where "the suspense was built up because the creature was always off-camera". Those precedents helped Spielberg and Gottlieb to "concentrate on showing the 'effects' of the shark rather than the shark itself". Scholars such as Thomas Schatz noted how Jaws melds various genres while being basically a thriller film. Most is taken from horror, with the core of a nature-based monster movie while adding elements of a slasher film. The second half of the movie provides a buddy film in the interaction between the crew of the Orca, and a supernatural horror based on the shark's depiction of a nearly Satanic menace.
Critics such as Neil Sinyard have noticed similarities to Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People. Gottlieb himself said he and Spielberg referred to Jaws as "Moby-Dick meets Enemy of the People." The Ibsen work features a doctor who discovers that a seaside town's medicinal hot springs, a major tourist attraction and revenue source, are contaminated. When the doctor attempts to convince the townspeople of the danger, he loses his job and is shunned. This plotline is paralleled in Jaws by Brody's conflict with Mayor Vaughn, who refuses to acknowledge the presence of a shark that may dissuade summer beachgoers from coming to Amity. Brody is vindicated when more shark attacks occur at the crowded beach in broad daylight. Sinyard calls the film a "deft combination of Watergate and Ibsen's play".
Jaws has received attention from academic critics. Stephen Heath relates the film's ideological meanings to the then-recent Watergate scandal. He argues that Brody represents the "white male middle class—[there is] not a single black and, very quickly, not a single woman in the film", who restores public order "with an ordinary-guy kind of heroism born of fear-and-decency". Yet Heath moves beyond ideological content analysis to examine Jaws as a signal example of the film as "industrial product" that sells on the basis of "the pleasure of cinema, thus yielding the perpetuation of the industry (which is why part of the meaning of Jaws is to be the most profitable movie)".
Andrew Britton contrasts the film to the novel's post-Watergate cynicism, suggesting that its narrative alterations from the book (Hooper's survival, the shark's explosive death) help make it "a communal exorcism, a ceremony for the restoration of ideological confidence." He suggests that the experience of the film is "inconceivable" without the mass audience's jubilation when the shark is annihilated, signifying the obliteration of evil itself. In his view, Brody serves to demonstrate that "individual action by the one just man is still a viable source for social change". Peter Biskind argues that the film does maintain post-Watergate cynicism concerning politics and politicians insofar as the sole villain beside the shark is the town's venal mayor. Yet he observes that, far from the narrative formulas so often employed by New Hollywood filmmakers of the era—involving Us vs. Them, hip counterculture figures vs. "The Man"—the overarching conflict in Jaws does not pit the heroes against authority figures, but against a menace that targets everyone regardless of socioeconomic position.
Whereas Britton states that the film avoids the novel's theme of social class conflicts on Amity Island, Biskind detects class divisions in the screen version and argues for their significance. "Authority must be restored," he writes, "but not by Quint". The seaman's "working class toughness and bourgeois independence is alien and frightening ... irrational and out of control". Hooper, meanwhile, is "associated with technology rather than experience, inherited wealth rather than self-made sufficiency"; he is marginalized from the conclusive action, if less terminally than Quint. Britton sees the film more as concerned with the "vulnerability of children and the need to protect and guard them", which in turn helps generate a "pervasive sense of the supreme value of family life: a value clearly related to [ideological] stability and cultural continuity".
Fredric Jameson's Marxist analysis highlights the polysemy of the shark and the multiple ways in which it can be and has been read—from representing alien menaces such as communism or the Third World to more intimate dreads concerning the unreality of contemporary American life and the vain efforts to sanitize and suppress the knowledge of death. He asserts that its symbolic function is to be found in this very "polysemousness which is profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently 'natural' ones ... to be recontained in what looks like a conflict with other forms of biological existence." He views Quint's demise as the symbolic overthrow of an old, populist, New Deal America and Brody and Hooper's partnership as an "allegory of an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations ... in which the viewer rejoices without understanding that he or she is excluded from it."
Neal Gabler analyzed the film as showing three different approaches to solving an obstacle: science (represented by Hooper), spiritualism (represented by Quint), and the common man (represented by Brody). The last of the three is the one which succeeds and is in that way endorsed by the film.