Jonathan Livingston Seagull Summary
by Richard Bach

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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.

Extended Summary

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.

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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...

(The entire section is 3,346 words.)