Jonathan Livingston Seagull Summary

Jonathan Livingston Seagull tells the story of a young seagull with big ambitions.

  • In Part I, Jonathan defies his parents and spends all of his time practicing flying. He rejects their belief that a seagull's sole purpose is to eat and instead studies the mechanics of flight. He is banished from the flock because of this.

  • In Part II, Jonathan reaches a higher plane of existence, where he studies with the elder gull Chiang, who teaches him the secrets to "perfect speed."

  • In Part III, Jonathan returns to his flock to teach them what he has learned.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3228

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.

Part One

Most seagulls only care about one thing—eating. Jonathan is not...

(The entire section contains 3228 words.)

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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.

Part One

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.

Part Two

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 is suddenly tired. He lands among the dozen or so seagulls and feels welcome and at home, though none of them speaks to him. He is exhausted and falls asleep standing on the beach.

From then on, Jonathan is part of this group, which is interested in the craft of flying. They all strive to perfect their flight skills and spend hours each day on their aerobatics. Jonathan rarely remembers his old life; once, when he does, he asks Sullivan (his instructor) why there are so few gulls here. Sullivan explains that Jonathan is a “one-in-a-million bird”; most of them advance to the next world much more slowly, spending even hundreds of years before moving to the next level of experience. “We choose our next world through what we learn in this one,” Sullivan says, and if one learns nothing in this world, his next world will be no different than his last one. Every burden and encumbrance will remain the same. Jonathan was fortunate not to have to go through a thousand worlds to reach this one, he says. They resume their flying lesson.

One evening Jonathan approaches the elder gull, Chiang, and asks where heaven is, since he now understands this is not it. Chiang, who is about to move to his own next world, tells him heaven is not a place but a state of being perfect. He knows the younger gull’s desire for speed and explains that heaven can be reached in the moment one reaches perfect speed—something that is not about a number. “Perfect speed, my son, is being there.” Suddenly Chiang is fifty feet across the shore, and in a millisecond he is back. He tells Jonathan perfect speed is fun. Chiang explains that those who set aside perfection for travel go nowhere, but those who strive for perfection can go anywhere. The young seagull is captivated by such movement and asks if Chiang can teach him, and they begin immediately. The old teacher tells him the key to such flying is “knowing you have already arrived.” The trick is to forget he has a body with limitations and understand his true nature lives “everywhere at once across space and time.” Jonathan relentlessly practices thinking this way—and he never moves an inch. Just as he needed to understand flying before he could perform aerobatics, he now needs to understand his true nature before he can fly perfectly. One day he is with Chiang and he realizes the truth—that he is an unlimited creature. As he joyfully exclaims that truth, he discovers they are on a totally unfamiliar beach, a place where two suns beat down on the sand and the sky is green. Jonathan asks where they are, but Chiang dismisses the question as unimportant. The only truth is that Jonathan now understands perfect freedom, though they must work on his control. They work diligently on control of time and place, and Chiang tells him once he can control them, he can move to an even higher perfection. He will be able “to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and of love.” Jonathan works with Chiang for months; he is an apt pupil who learns at an extraordinary rate from ordinary experience. He absorbs new ideas with alacrity.

One day Chiang is teaching and suddenly grows brilliant, so brilliant that none can look upon him. As he is transported to his next world, he tells Jonathan to keep working on love. As he does, he thinks more and more about his life on earth and wonders if there are any gulls there who yearn to fly as he had. Jonathan is a natural teacher despite his solitary past, and he sees it as an act of kindness and love to show the truth to anyone who is searching for it. Sullivan is rather discouraging and reminds him of a proverb: “The gull sees farthest who flies highest.” The seagulls on Earth are all squabbling and scrabbling for food on the ground; they are not able to see or hear what he has for them. Staying here and teaching others what he knows seems the best course of action for Jonathan, and he does so for awhile, until he is inspired again to show the birds on Earth how to see and be a thousand miles away from their meager existence.

Fletcher Land Seagull is flying to the Far Cliffs to which he has been banished by the Flock. He cannot understand why his fellow birds want to limit themselves, why they do not want to experience the joy that comes from soaring and dipping and rolling far above the sea. He hears a quiet voice in his head tell him to forgive them because they are only hurting themselves and will one day understand how wrong they were. Startled, Fletcher sees a brilliant white gull flying effortlessly even at top speed inches from his right wing. The voice asks him if he wants to fly, and the young bird says he does. The voice persists, asking if he wants to fly badly enough to one day forgive those who made him an outcast and be willing to come back and work to help them see the truth. Fletcher is unable to lie to such a magnificent creature, and he answers yes. Jonathan begins to teach the young gull.

Part Three

Jonathan observes young Fletch and thinks he is an ideal flight student, strong and light and quick—and filled with a burning desire to learn. He makes mistakes but he keeps trying. At the end of three months, six more Outcasts have joined Fletcher in flying lessons. They like the aerobatics practice, but they do not understand (or seem very interested in) the reasoning behind perfecting flight. He explains that they were created by the Great Gull to be free and without limits, and flying is but a step to realizing their true nature. All limitations must be put aside, he says...and his students then fall asleep. Not one of them understands that the flight of ideas is just as real as physical flight. If they will break the chains of their thoughts, they will break the chains of their bodies, as well...and still they sleep.

A month later Jonathan announces it is time for them to return to the Flock. His students protest that they are not ready, that no Outcast is allowed to return to the Flock—but their teacher is already a mile away and heading for the Flock. They agree that they are no longer part of that body so the rules do not apply; they also determine Jonathan may need their help in a fight, so they follow him. The formation of eight is a glorious sight, and eight thousand unblinking eyes watch them land gracefully on Council Beach. The Flock’s reaction is mixed. Older birds are outraged that Outcasts have come back against the rules; younger birds are impressed with their maneuvers and want to know how to fly like that. An edict is issued, and the Outcasts are shunned; however, Jonathan continues teaching his pupils directly over the outraged birds, pushing them even harder than before. Each of them experiences breakthroughs and moments of tremendous success, and all of it is joyful—a sharp contrast to the miserable Flock on the ground. At night he talks to his students, who are beginning to understand, and soon there is another ring of gulls huddled around them, listening. By dawn, the new group has dissipated.

The first new seagull to ask how to fly is Terrence Lowell Gull, and he immediately becomes an Outcast. The next night Kirk Maynard Gull steps out of the Flock, his left wing dragging behind him. Jonathan wants him to join him immediately in the air, but Maynard reminds Jonathan that he has a damaged wing. Jonathan explains that the Law of the Great Gull says he is free and he has the freedom both to be his true self and to fly. And he does! The Flock is awakened by the sound of Kirk Maynard Gull’s exhilarated cry that he can FLY! That morning, thousands of gulls hover around the teacher, uncaring about the consequences but eager to listen and learn. When they say they can never fly, Jonathan tells them their fellow gulls are simply learning who they are, which is why they are learning to fly.

The crowd grows; some come to learn, some to mock, and some to worship. Some say Jonathan is the Son of the Great Gull, and Jonathan is discouraged by their lack of understanding. Disaster strikes one day: Fletch is diving at high speed and has to change course to avoid hitting a young gull just learning to fly. Fletch smashes into a rock cliff, and he feels as if he is entering another world. Jonathan speaks to him, telling him he has changed his level of consciousness. Fletcher has a choice: to stay here and learn to go even higher or to go back and teach the Flock. The younger bird says there is still work to be done and wants to return to the Flock. When he arrives, there is an outcry that he who was dead now lives. Accusations that the Son of the Great Gull is actually a devil ripple through the crowd, and it becomes a hostile, even dangerous environment.

Jonathan asks Fletch if he wants to escape the mob; when Fletch says yes, they are immediately transported to another place. Fletch is amazed. The next day he asks Jonathan how he can still love a Flock that wanted to kill him. The answer is simple: do not love the evil or the hatred but do love the real gull. That kind of love is fun, says Jonathan, because it overlooks what does not matter and concentrates only on what is important. Jonathan reminds Fletch that he was once an Outcast who was bitter about being isolated from the Flock. Now he is a teacher leading others to discover their true selves.

As he finishes explaining this idea, Jonathan begins to shimmer brilliantly. He tells Fletcher to go back and become the teacher, for he has other places to go and other Fletchers to teach. Back on the beach, Fletcher tries to explain true freedom to the puzzled young gulls in front of him. He smiles inside, knowing he will one day show up on a beach with Jonathan and teach him something. Until then, he looks at his pupils as they really are, and he loves what he sees. His race to learn is just beginning.

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