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 273 miles per hour, but he finds that even there, in his glowing body, he is restricted. He meets other heavenly seagulls and becomes a student of them. He wonders why there are so few seagulls in heaven. His instructor tells him that it takes many lifetimes for a gull to imagine any life more meaningful than flight-as-a-means-of-eating and even more lifetimes to achieve the enlightenment necessary to reach heaven.
Jonathan meets an old and great gull, the Elder Gull named Chaing. Jonathan proposes to him the great question: Are there more and better worlds beyond this heaven? Chaing says, “Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect.” Chaing then disappears, only to reappear fifty feet away, introducing Jonathan to flight that does not involve time. Chaing begins to teach Jonathan that there are no limits. His last words to Jonathan are “Keep working on love.”
When Jonathan masters the time/space technique, he returns to his original flock and finds Fletcher Seagull, who has been made Outcast for reckless flying. He is angry with the others, but Jonathan teaches him that the others have hurt themselves more by sending him away than they have hurt him. Jonathan and Fletcher practice flying together. Young seagulls are impressed and join them, forming a smaller flock. Fletcher makes a mistake and crashes into a cliff at two hundred miles per hour, but Jonathan brings him back to life. Jonathan vanishes, and Fletcher is left to teach those in the Outcast group how to find their true selves and true freedom, through the practice and discipline of flying.
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...
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