Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, was published in 1970. By 1972 the novella had sold more than a million copies. This fable has been adapted into film, ballet, and music. It has also been widely parodied.
Most seagulls only care about one thing—eating. Jonathan is not an ordinary seagull, though, and above all else he cares about flying. On this morning, thousands of gulls flock toward the promise of a free breakfast behind a fishing boat on the water below them. Jonathan is practicing flying on a curve, sometimes stalling in midair but soon resuming his curve.
Jonathan’s love of flying sets him apart from the other gulls and even from his parents. They are dismayed that their son spends hours alone each day practicing various aspects of flight, and he knows this fascination with flying separates him from the others. When he experiments with aerodynamics, Jonathan realizes he can fly more easily when he is closer to the water; this is usually only done by lesser birds, such as albatross and pelicans. This is another source of disappointment for his parents. They fear he is not eating enough, but Jonathan simply has to know what he can and cannot do in the air. His father admonishes him to study food and how to get it, for winter is approaching. He reminds him that the only reason seagulls fly is to eat. Jonathan is an obedient son and tries for a few days to do what the other seagulls are doing. He dives and screeches and fights for scraps like the rest, but he simply cannot keep doing it. There is too much to learn, and soon Jonathan is alone, far out at sea, hungry but happy.
He practices steep dives into waves and realizes why seagulls never do this: at seventy miles per hour in a vertical fall, he crashes—every time. But he perseveres, makes some corrections, and is able to dive at ninety miles an hour, setting the “world speed record” for seagulls. His exhilaration is short-lived, however; as soon as he changes the angle of his wings, he explodes in midair and hits the wall of water below him. It is dark when he regains consciousness. He is physically exhausted, but even worse is that he feels a deep sense of failure. He wishes he could just sink to the bottom of the ocean and “end it all.”
As he floats, he hears a voice in his head and begins to focus on his limitations. He is a seagull, so he does not have the brain to determine the complexities of flying and he has long wings (not short, like a falcon’s), which are not meant for speed. His father is right, and he must now go home and learn to be content with what he is: “a poor limited seagull.” The voice is finally silent. He vows to be a normal seagull from now on and make everyone happy. With great effort, Jonathan flies toward shore, thinking he has gotten rid of his drive to learn. There will be “no more challenge and no more failure.”
Flying this way, without thought, is nice. The voice returns and shouts that seagulls do not ever fly in the dark, but Jonathan is no longer listening to that voice and continues on his way to the beautiful lights ahead of him. The voice continues, reminding him that if seagulls were meant to fly in the dark they would have eyes like an owl’s, and suddenly all vows and resolutions are gone. He thinks that if he can make his wings shorter, like a falcon’s, he will be successful. All weariness gone, he flies to two thousand feet and draws his wings into his body, flying with only their tips. Jonathan is unmindful of the possible consequences and veers into a vertical dive. The wind roars, and he is flying at a hundred and twenty, then a hundred and forty miles an hour, and the strain on his wings is now less than it was at seventy miles an hour. He barely moves his wingtips and eases out of the dive and over the waves rather than into them. Immediately he wonders how much faster he can go if he starts at five thousand feet rather than at two thousand. The promises he made are gone, and he feels no guilt. Those who have “touched excellence” are not bound by such promises.
By dawn Jonathan is practicing again, and from five thousand feet he is flying straight down at two hundred and fourteen miles an hour. At a thousand feet he prepares to pull up from his dive. Ahead of him is a flock of seagulls following a boat, and it is directly in his path. He does not know how to stop—he does not even know how to turn—so there is a collision. Fortunately, no one is killed.
Jonathan continues experimenting and learning. At eight thousand feet, he tries moving his wing feathers slightly and becomes the first seagull to fly aerobatics. Moving a single feather, he discovers, is enough to turn him even at high speeds. Before the day is over, he learns how to do “the loop, the slow roll, the point roll, the inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel.”
As he lands gracefully with a loop and roll near the rest of the Flock, exhausted and somewhat dizzy, Jonathan is confident his fellow seagulls will be “wild with joy” at being able to do more than just the “drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats.” There is now a way for them to lift themselves out of ignorance and into excellence and intelligence—and freedom. The gulls are flocked into a Council Gathering; they are waiting for him. He assumes they are gathered to express their admiration for his flying breakthrough, and already he is anxious to take no credit but to teach them all he has learned. Instead, they call him out for being reckless, irresponsible, and undignified. Being centered for shame means he will be cast out of the Flock and sent to live alone on the Far Cliffs. The leader reminds him that seagulls are put in the world to eat and “stay alive as long as we can.” Although it is improper to speak back to the Council, Jonathan tries. He tells them there is now something higher, something loftier for which to live. They can learn and discover and be free! But the Flock turns away, banishing him from the body.
The rest of Jonathan’s life is spent alone, as an Outcast, though he does not confine himself to the Far Cliffs. His only sorrow is that the others chose not to share in the glory and freedom of flying. He learns so many new things: to catch fresh fish, to fly above the sea fogs, to dine on “delicate insects.” The things that shorten a gull’s life, he believes, are boredom, fear, and anger. He experiences none of these and lives a free and satisfying life.
One evening as he is flying, two beautiful seagulls suddenly appear and fly mere inches from Jonathan’s wings. He tests them by flying slow, by diving, and by doing a vertical slow-roll; no other seagulls have passed his test. These two fly with him flawlessly in each maneuver. When he asks who they are, they tell him they are his brothers, and they have come to take him home. His learning time, his school here, is finished and it is time for another kind of learning to begin. Understanding comes to Jonathan; he knows he can fly higher and he knows it is time for him to go home. He looks one last time at the place where he learned so much, and then he disappears into a “perfect dark sky” accompanied by two shining gulls.
As he enters heaven, Jonathan feels his body changing. He is the same on the inside, but he can fly far better now than he ever did on Earth. His body glows and his wings are smooth like burnished steel. He can reach speeds far greater than before, as much as two hundred seventy-three miles per hour, but Jonathan knows there is a limit on this heavenly body. It is a disappointing discovery; he thinks there should be no limits in heaven. As the clouds part, his escort leaves him, and Jonathan flies toward a shoreline where a few seagulls are flying. He wonders why there are so few gulls and why he...
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