Themes and Characters

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Jonathan Livingston Seagull encourages individuality and conviction; without these, one cannot overcome hardships and transcend a simply physical existence. As the book both heightens and oversimplifies life, readers can complicate the meaning as they wish, accepting the overall allegorical themes and applying them to various life situations.

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Bach presents his themes in general, almost mystical, terms. As the story progresses, readers, largely subconsciously, fill in their own connotations for the many recurring general terms, such as "love," "excellence," "discover," "breakthrough," "time," and "knowledge."

"We're free to go where we wish and to be what we are. . ."
As he reaches perfection, Jonathan finds that term applying to virtually everything: perfect speed, love, honor, freedom, wisdom, truth, self-esteem, beauty, spirit, immortality, and so on. At this point many readers feel a heightened self-knowledge and a sentimental certainty of painless success. This mystical identification seems apocalyptic and uplifting.

Broadly applied, the book's allegory borrows and blends diverse religious beliefs. Mary Baker Eddy's teachings in Christian Science (which Bach was reading during the years he wrote the book) include the illusoriness of birth, death, and evil, and the principle that the true person is the abstract, eternal "soul." Hinduism teaches that perfection is the goal of life, and Buddhism that the heavens are multiple.

The hero, Jonathan, is the ideal human spirit piloting a gull's body. Characterized primarily through actions described in a simple style, he tempts the reader to fill in his "personality." Jonathan's unjust ostracism from the flock awakens a sympathetic identification and openness. After this emotional preparation, the allegory seems natural: the individual leaves society, works to perfect a talent, and then returns to teach others the value of self-sufficiency and independence.

Many of the values that Jonathan embodies can be inferred from the plot. Practicing his skill independently, Jonathan is persistent; he altruistically offers his discoveries to the flock; he devises new experiments in flight creatively and with a joyful perfectionism; alert and brave, he faces routine dangers; almost religiously dedicated to his "desire-which-is-a-gift-to-others," he is nevertheless practical about the physical details of his discipline. Once he becomes wise, Jonathan has also become more generous, loving, humorous, and mystical. He tells his proteges: "Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom."

His study of flight largely for others' benefit, his living alone as if in the wilderness, and his returning lovingly to his people are parallels to Christ's life. But this parallel has limits. Tradition says that Christ wept and suffered, but Jonathan is joyfully intrigued by his specialty. Instead of being lifted onto the cross, Jonathan is guided up into heaven by two perfect gulls—in a resurrection without a death—after conquering a world that holds little evil beyond physical obstacles.

The minor characters are more or less stereotypes in gull feathers—the wise, old, mystical Chiang; the eager, innocent Fletcher Lynd Seagull; and Kirk Maynard Seagull, the healed cripple who learns to fly. These minor figures, participating in the transparency of the book's airy setting, invite the reader to fill them in as well.


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The hero, Jonathan, is the ideal human spirit piloting a gull's body. Characterized primarily through action described in a simple, rough-edged style of value names, he tempts the reader to elaborate from outside the text. Jonathan's unjust ostracism from the Flock can awaken a...

(The entire section contains 867 words.)

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Critical Essays