The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull enjoys practicing flight and learning to fly at increasing speeds. To him, the most important thing is to fly quickly. By the end of the story, Jonathan not only flies at previously unheard of speeds but also overcomes time as a tangible entity; he learns how to travel anywhere and to any time he wants.
Jonathan does not want to live the same way as the rest of his flock. The others only “get from shore to food and back again”; they have no interest in flying as an art form or as a spiritual quest. After a few days of practice, Jonathan breaks the world speed record for seagulls, which was ninety miles per hour. He soon makes a mistake and lands in an explosion, crashing into the sea. He wishes for death at this point. Feeling pity for himself, he gives up his pursuit of speed, but the uncontrollable desire to fly fast wells up within his soul. He flies at night, causing a breakthrough realization: If he pulls his wings together, like a hawk’s, he will be able to fly straight down at super-seagull velocities. He soon reaches a speed of two hundred miles per hour, a speed he experiences as power, joy, and pure beauty.
Jonathan shows the other gulls his accomplishment, but he is ostracized by the Elder and immediately banished to the Far Cliffs. He lives a long and happy, yet remote, life as Outcast until two angelic seagulls escort him to heaven, then leave him to discover his new life. In heaven, he travels at...
(The entire section is 537 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
As an allegory of self-enlightenment, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is meant to have universal implications. The story resists being located in any particular time or place—it could be happening on any coastline in the world at any moment in history. Because seagulls are the only characters, the moral of the story applies not simply to one race or nationality of people but rather to every creature capable of thought. The allegory is deceptively simple. It is told through a combination of uncomplicated language (reminiscent of folktales) and black-and-white photographs that capture the elegant flight of the gulls. Author Richard Bach also invests the story with an amalgam of Eastern and Western philosophy—ideas broad in scope but simplified for the lay philosopher and common reader. The use of allegory, in which the particulars of the setting are vague, suggests that the themes addressed are both universal and timeless.
As the story opens, while his Flock feeds on a fishing boat, Jonathan is elsewhere over the ocean testing his speed and control in flight. Unlike the other gulls, who use their powers of flight only to obtain the day’s meal, Jonathan views flight as an art form to be studied, tested, and perfected. He spends his time discovering how to access the full potential of his wing movements so that he can do barrel-rolls in mid-flight, so that he can control his turns at higher speeds, and, most important to him, so that he can go...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
Not surprisingly, Jonathan Livingston Seagull takes place at the seashore. Jonathan, however, is always at a distance from the rest of the flock. After being declared an outcast, Jonathan follows two strange gulls up into the sky, flying higher and faster than he ever has. He comes to a place that he thinks of as heaven; here he learns to overcome the barriers of space and time. He learns that 'The gull sees farthest who flies highest."
The novel is illustrated with photographs of the seashore and seagulls by Russell Munson that add to the atmosphere of the novel. Some of the photographs of gulls in flight were taken from an airplane and accentuate the beauty and exhilaration of flying. By setting most of the story in the air, Bach suggests a universality of locale, which allows readers to apply the story to almost any circumstance.
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Bach's descriptions of flight, exhibiting an acute metaphorical awareness of aerodynamics and sensation, reflect years of writing for pilots. His precision spills over into the reader's consciousness of theme words and lends them authority.
The stereotyped value words, actions, and dialogue work like symbols because they are incomplete. The loose style affords meanings vague enough to coax the reader into many automatic conjectures. The characters, without limiting detail, can suggest many parallels. Undefined value words can suggest whatever fits the reader's personal definitions. The setting, being mostly air, distracts very little from a wide range of interpretation. The plot — leave society, learn, return — has classic roots and is not specific enough to deny the reader's associations.
The allegory built on stereotypes is brief and approximate: Like an exaggerated impressionistic painting, it casts light in many directions but lets the viewer decide what is illuminated. The allegory builds on the traditional symbolism of flight, air, heaven, individual, and social group. From hints, the reader can interpret the allegory into four levels as has been done for Dante's Divine Comedy:
Literal Jon, bird Flock, birds flying return
Individual/Moral self, reader rejection, alienation perfection /self-actualization/ salvation
Allegorical achiever social group heaven teaching
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Bach's descriptions of flight exhibit an acute metaphorical awareness of aerodynamics and the sensation of flying, reflecting his years of writing for pilots. This precision gives a sense of authority to the general thematic words that Bach uses.
The stereotyped values, actions, and dialogue work like symbols because they are incomplete. Bach's loose style affords meanings vague enough to coax the reader into many automatic conjectures. The characters, without limiting detail, can suggest many parallels. Undefined value words can suggest whatever fits the reader's personal definitions. The setting, being mostly air, distracts very little from a wide range of interpretation. The plot—leaving society, learning, returning—has classic roots and is open enough to allow a wide range of reader associations.
Bach's allegory of stereotypes resembles an exaggerated impressionistic painting; it casts light in many directions and lets the viewer decide what is illuminated. The story builds on the traditional symbolism of flight, air, heaven, individual, and social group. Stories of flight, with their connotations of escape, freedom, control, intelligence, and sexual fulfillment, date from long before the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus.
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Jonathan Livingston Seagull is especially notable for how briefly (10,000 words) it integrates the reader into an optimistic vision. The story collects the many socially important themes into a fable of values appropriate to audiences from junior high school on.
In one sense, Jonathan Livingston Seagull portrays an antisocial individualism that eventually contributes to society. Jonathan's truest progress toward perfection begins only when he is ostracized from the Flock (society), after which he lives as an airborne hermit until he meets with the super society, an elite of birds (flyers) in the heavens who concentrate like Jonathan on perfect speed. Then Jonathan returns to the Flock to teach other gulls to fly correctly.
Individuals, according to the book, are ultimately immortal ideas inhabiting an illusory physical universe designed to let them work at becoming perfect. They will find true companionship in heaven; earthly society is merely a means of attaining heaven. Jonathan's returning to help younger gulls find the true way illustrates the charity learned by climbing to perfection alone. With the proper attitude, one can be alienated from society without feeling lonely or unproductive, if he follows the advice Bach paraphrased for an interviewer: "Find what you love to do, and do your darndest to make it happen." One will contribute to society only after he has achieved perfection, as does Jonathan, a messiah with...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Jonathan comments, "I am a seagull. I am limited by my nature. If I were meant to learn so much about flying, I'd have charts for brains . . . . My father was right. I must forget this foolishness. I must fly home to the Flock and be content as I am, as a poor limited seagull." Why has Jonathan given up? What makes him try again?
2. Can you find any similarities between your aspirations and Jonathan's? If so, what are they?
3. What is the significance of Kirk Maynard Gull's learning to fly?
4. Is it justified that Jonathan is made an outcast for "reckless irresponsibility" and "violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull family"?
5. Why does Fletcher Gull not die when he hits the cliff?
6. What is the basis for Jonathan's decision to leave the flock a second time?
7. What sets Jonathan's skill apart from the other gulls in his flock? Is it purely physical? Why or why not?
8. Why is the book divided into three parts? Discuss Bach's intentions when doing this.
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the lifestyle and habitat of seagulls. Are Jonathan's accomplishments extraordinary for such a bird, or is Bach taking liberties with science?
2. Read Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Are there differences between the freedom of a bird and the freedom of a pilot? Are the themes in the books similar?
3. Do Russell Munson's photographs add to the novel in any way? Take your own photographs of birds and write a story to accompany them.
4. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is said to be a book which has universal applications. Do you agree? Did you find some use for its message in your own life?
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Stories of flight (with its symbolism of escape, freedom, control, intelligence, and sexual fulfillment) date from long before the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus.
Two other popular allegories (Pilgrim's Progress, 1684, and the tradition of Everyman, fifteenth century) illustrate how allegorical reading can seem natural when it fits the education of the readership. Adult fairy tales such as St. Exupery's The Little Prince (1943) and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) illustrate that the appeal of simple figures is not new. Success books, from Franklin's autobiography, through Horatio Alger's boys' stories, to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) indicate that Jonathan's ambitions are widely reflected in the popular audience. Little books, such as The Little Prince, The Prophet (1923), and Love Story (1970), tend to use stereotypes and simple symbols in similar ways. Jane Roberts's Seth books include descriptions of "reality," which Bach largely agrees with, that explain the dictation phenomena of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Seth.
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Bach relates his messiah theme in two other best-selling books. Jonathan can be likened to a messiah, but Donald Shimoda in Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah is directly called that name, and Bach's wife, Leslie Parrish in The Bridge Across Forever: A Love Story is a new kind of messiah, a "soul-mate."
Illusions depicts the messianic characteristics as they would appear in a barnstorming pilot. Shimoda, for instance, speaks philosophically, and his windshield is always clean. The book's style is much more polished than Jonathan Livingston Seagulls, although Shimoda's language resembles Jonathan's. He says that all should be sons of God, who commands, "BE HAPPY."
While Jonathan is allegorical, Shimoda is a real friend of the narrator's seen in ultimate terms, and Leslie Parrish is portrayed as a cherished mate and savior. In both books, the perspective of Jonathan Livingston Seagull casts event and character in the breathless, sacred light of superlatives. In The Bridge Across Forever, Bach, more clearly autobiographical than before, lovingly depicts his soul mate and his long battle to let go of his solitude and marry her despite his vows to remain alone.
A second group of Bach's related works concerns flying, which is seen as one of life's highest experiences. Stranger to the Ground (1963), a novel with Bach naming himself as the hero, opens with photographs of his...
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For Further Reference
"Richard (David) Bach." In Current Biography Yearbook, 1973. Outlines Bach's career as "gypsy pilot" through Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the beginning of his fame.
Foote, Timothy. "It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Supergull!" Time (November 13, 1972): 60-62+. Bach and the controversial popularity and meaning of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Gardner, Richard M. "Stereotypes and Sentimentality: The Coarser Sieve." Midwest Quarterly (Summer 1976). Analyzes the relation between feeling and meaning in Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull
"Toward a Definition of Stereotypes." Midwest Quarterly (Summer 1985): 476-498. Explores the popularized allegorical technique of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Roberts, Jane. The Nature of Personal Reality: A Seth Book. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Compares authorship by dictation for Bach and Roberts.
Swift, Jonathan. " 'Not Another Jonathan, Please!': A Swift Reviews." English Journal 62 (May 1973): 725-742. Pans then praises Jonathan Livingston Seagull for young audiences.
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