In the years after Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s departure, the Flock becomes the “strangest bunch of birds that ha[ve] ever lived on earth.” Many of them begin to understand Jonathan’s message—or at least they think they do—and soon gulls practicing wild flight maneuvers become just as common as gulls who refuse to engage with Jonathan’s methods and continue flying straight and level out to the fishing boats for their food.
As Jonathan’s “doctrine” takes hold of the Flock, his message of innovation and freedom through flight gets through to more and more gulls, who keep his legacy alive by dedicating themselves to practicing aerobatics.
Fletcher and Jonathan’s other pupils begin making missionary journeys to every flock on the coastline, spreading their instructor’s message of freedom and flight. Fletcher is heartened to realize that his pupils are not only free, but also accomplished in their flight maneuvers—many of Fletcher’s pupils become so talented and overcome their limits so perfectly that they shimmer and disappear from the face of the earth, just like Jonathan. It is a golden age of flight and innovation.
Jonathan’s message is, in this “golden age,” getting through to an extraordinary number of gulls. Not only are they practicing Jonathan’s ethos of freedom through flight, but they are succeeding in learning so much that they transcend the physical realm and go on to new planes, to practice even more with the gulls up in the sky.
Fletcher becomes an icon in his own right, and gulls flock to him just for the chance to touch someone who once touched Jonathan Seagull—who has achieved divine status in the minds of many birds on earth. Fletcher tries to remind the others that Jonathan was a regular gull, just like them, but no one will listen to this message. The gulls continue begging for any tidbit of information they can get about the “Divine Gull Jonathan,” his words, and his time on earth. The new pupils want to imitate Jonathan’s every move precisely, and though Fletcher continually tries to remind the new recruits that all Jonathan wanted to pass on was the fact that gulls can fly, his flock becomes a cult of personality obsessed with Jonathan rather than a group of pupils training, studying, drawing strength from one another.
As more and more gulls long to take part in Jonathan’s legacy, things start to get out of control. Jonathan is no longer seen as a visionary or an exceptional teacher, but as a kind of religious icon. Fletcher finds himself unwillingly swept up in the mounting mania over remembering and reconstructing Jonathan’s every word and every move. Jonathan never wanted to be an icon or a paragon of perfection—he just wanted to spread his message of freedom—but since he has departed Earth, he cannot influence what goes on there in his absence.
After a few years, hardly any flying is done at all—rather, gulls simply stand on the beach, reciting poems and histories about “the Divine One.” Fletcher and Jonathan’s other original pupils are puzzled, frightened, and even angry at the change, but are helpless to stop it. Jonathan’s original students have also become honored and revered, but no one really listens to them anymore. As one by one, the Original Students die, the Flock seizes upon their bodies and holds great ceremonies over them. Their burial sites become shrines where every gull who wishes for Oneness must drop a pebble and recite some words. No one really understands the concept of Oneness, but it is such a deep concept that anyone who asks about it is rendered a fool.
This passage is an allegory for the ways in which religious fervor can create confusion and misinterpretation surrounding doctrine and belief. Those who purport to be Jonathan’s “followers” are using warped versions of his ideals for their own purposes, and creating empty but rigid new traditions that are directly antithetical to the messages of freedom, individualism, and innovation Jonathan intended to spread.
Fletcher is the last of the original flock to pass away, during a solitary session of beautiful flying. In the middle of a complex roll, his body vanishes, lost in the perfection of his own flight. As Fletcher leaves no body behind, the rest of the Flock is confused and upset when they realize their de facto leader has vanished. As the Flock comes together in mourning, they begin spinning a story of how the Gull Fletcher was last seen flanked by the other Seven First Students standing on the Rock of Oneness, and that the Great Gull Jonathan Livingston Seagull had descended from the sky dressed in opulent plumes and a crown of pebbles to call Gull Fletcher up to the Beach of Oneness. Fletcher had ascended, the Flock says, surrounded by holy rays and a chorus of gull voices singing.
In this passage, Bach shows how religious fervor—and the misinterpretation of doctrine it engenders—can grow out of nothing. When Fletcher’s death leaves no concrete answers for his fervently devoted Flock, they begin spinning stories that cast his death in the light they want it to be seen in. They portray him as a divine disciple of their main figurehead, Jonathan, and invent a narrative about his passing that invalidates Fletcher’s truth and serves only the creation of new, stifling traditions, as Bach will show in the following passages.
The pile of pebbles on the Rock of Oneness, in commemoration of “Gull Fletcher,” grows enormous. Other piles are built in tribute, and Flocks all around the coastline gather weekly at these sites to listen to and recount the miracles of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his Gifted Divine Students. Hardly any flying is done anymore, and strange trends and customs begin to crop up: more affluent birds carry branches in their beaks, and the longer the branch the better and more progressive a flier that bird is considered—even if he never flies at all.
In this passage Bach shows how ritual and tradition, though seemingly deep and meaningful, are often empty and hollow at their core. The ritual of dropping pebbles at shrines to the memory of Gull Fletcher ultimately signifies nothing, as the story in which Jonathan Seagull, wearing a crown of pebbles, brought Fletcher up to heaven is a fiction and a falsehood.
Every Tuesday, all flying stops and recitations begin, and as the “sermons” become increasingly unintelligible, slurred speech and run-on sentences are eventually seen not as mistakes but marks of excellence. Images of Jonathan are pecked into the cliffs all along the coastline, and nearly two hundred years later, every element of Jonathan’s teaching is considered holy—and beyond the aspirations of common gulls.
This passage depicts how corrupted doctrine and empty pontification overtake the meaningful actions that inspired them in the first place. This leads to doctrine being seen as unapproachable, unchangeable, and unquestionable, and thus inaccessible and irrelevant to the common people.
Gulls who resist these changes—“thinking gulls”—begin instinctively closing their minds to any mention of Jonathan, purposefully flying routes that allow them to avoid the pebble-laden shrines that have sprung up in dedication to him and ignoring any mention of him. They experiment with flight, but refuse to call it “flight”—they decide they are simply “finding what’s true.” They reject the Students, but nonetheless become students themselves; in rejecting Jonathan’s name, they are actually practicing the original message he brought to the flock.
The status quo circles back around in this passage as many gulls grow dissatisfied with the empty traditions that are now an entrenched part of their society. In rebelling against the false misinterpretation of Jonathan’s message—which has been accepted as the truth of his “doctrine”—they are actually accomplishing what Jonathan wanted for them all along.
Some gulls begin questioning the things being taught at the shrines. A gull called Anthony Seagull realizes that all the gulls who come to the shrines each Tuesday and drop a pebble do so in hopes of becoming holy—or otherwise simply because everyone expects them to be there. Gulls like Anthony know there is something to be learned from Jonathan’s legacy, but do not know what that is. Anthony begins questioning whether the “Great Gull Jonathan” ever even existed, or performed the “miracles” of flight he is proclaimed to have achieved. He sees the story of Jonathan as a “fairy tale.” Anthony decides that he will not listen to what the Officials have to say until he can see a bird demonstrate one of Jonathan’s feats—for instance, reaching a speed of two hundred miles per hour.
Anthony is introduced as a parallel to Jonathan himself. Though he looks upon Jonathan’s legacy with scorn and doubt, Anthony is more like Jonathan than he could possibly realize, and this is precisely because of the perversion of Jonathan’s message, and of how he has been misrepresented as the years have gone by.
Many other gulls go the way of Anthony—they reject the ritual and ceremony of Jonathan Seagull, and begin to believe that life is futile. One morning, flying along the sea and contemplating the meaninglessness of life, Anthony decides to die—he sees no reason to prolong his boring life. He heads up to a height of two thousand feet and then dives straight toward the water. Halfway through his dive, he is aware of another seagull passing him in flight. Anthony brakes, and attempts to get a better look at the blur which has passed him by. The blur pulls out of its own dive and completes a long vertical slow roll, and Anthony is amazed by the gull’s impressive display. He calls to the other bird, asking it to wait for him to catch up.
Anthony’s suicidal ideation—a lonely, isolated state—represents the apex of hollowness in this new, Jonathan-obsessed world. Anthony is so worn down by the maddening rote repetitions of tradition and the endless posturing towards holiness and “Oneness,” that he feels there is no place for him in this social order. Just before he can follow through with the deed, though, Anthony encounters a gull whose flight so inspires him that he momentarily abandons his suicide plot.
The gull turns back toward Anthony and apologizes for startling him. Anthony expresses his admiration of the bird’s flight, but the demure bird insists he was “just messing around.” The other bird offers to help teach him how to do such a maneuver. Anthony asks the bird his name. The bird tells Anthony to call him “Jon.”
Jonathan’s reappearance to Anthony in the final pages of the novel seems to suggest that Anthony’s skepticism in a world of staunch but empty tradition is innovation worthy of Jonathan’s praise and attention. It’s implied that Jonathan—or “Jon” as he wants to be known, most likely to avoid being conflated with the lofty idea of him that has seized the Flocks of the world—will take on Anthony as a pupil, and help nurture Anthony’s innovative instincts.