It is morning, and the sun is sparking across the calm sea. A mile from shore, a fishing boat trawls through the water, and a crowd of a thousand seagulls comes to pick and fight for bits of food. Far away from all the action, however, Jonathan Livingston Seagull practices his flight skills by himself. Most gulls only learn the “simplest facts of flight,” and use the mechanics of flying only in pursuit of food. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, however, is different—he loves to fly “more than anything else.”
Because of how different he is from the other birds, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is not popular among his flock, and even his parents are disappointed by his preoccupation with flight. His mother and father beg him to be like the rest of the flock—they want him to stop flying and eat more, as he has grown thin and wan. Despite their warnings that winter will come soon, and food will be harder to come by—not to mention that the only reason to fly is to eat—Jonathan cannot manage to behave like the others, try as he might. Every time he joins the flock in searching for food, he can’t stop himself from thinking that he is wasting time he could be using to perfect his flight skills.
By choosing to show how Jonathan is not even motivated by food—most gulls’ main directive in life—Bach also establishes his protagonist as unusually strong-willed, and completely dedicated to his pursuit of innovation through flight.
Jonathan is practicing “blazing steep power-dives,” gathering speed as he plunges towards the ocean. With each dive, however, he finds that he loses control right as he reaches a high speed. Each time, his left wing stalls, causing him to fall into a “wild tumbling spin.” After ten failed attempts, Jonathan decides to try a new technique, and hold his wings still at high speeds. He tries once more to dive from a height of two thousand feet, and though his new technique takes tremendous strength, it works—in just ten seconds he reaches a speed of ninety miles an hour, and is proud that he has set a “world speed record for seagulls.”
The careful attention to detail in this scene demonstrates not only Jonathan’s prowess, but also the author’s knowledge and love of flying. Bach uses excellence in flight as a marker of reaching the pinnacle of physical triumph—for gulls as it is for humans, flight is difficult and taxing, and accomplishing major feats of flight is a mark of success and specialness.
Jonathan’s pride in his victory, however, is short-lived; as soon as he begins his pullout from the dive, he “snap[s]” into the uncontrollable disaster of a tumble, and smashes out of the sky into the “brick-hard” ocean. When Jonathan regains consciousness, he finds himself floating in moonlight on the ocean’s surface. He feels like a failure and wishes that he would drown. At the depth of his misery, he tells himself that he is “limited by [his] nature,” and is not meant to learn about flying after all. He decides to fly home to his flock and try to be content, knowing that attempting normalcy will make everybody else happy. He pushes out of the water and flies low and slow back to shore, promising himself that he will, from now on, fly like every other seagull.
Jonathan has failed—he thought he was being innovative, and his shame in realizing that he was perhaps just being foolish and wasting time cuts him so deeply that he decides to give it all up. He sacrifices his dreams of thriving as an individual for the resigned reality of living as a drone-like part of the larger collective, and recommits himself to tradition, however boring, unfulfilling, and even ineffective it might be.
As he flies, Jonathan feels good about his decision to be just another one of the flock. His life will be free of challenges, and he will be able to stop thinking so much about flying and just do the bare minimum to get from place to place. As he powers toward shore, however, a voice inside tells him that seagulls never fly in the dark—if he were meant to fly in the dark, he’d have the wide eyes of an owl and the short wings of a falcon. In an epiphany, Jonathan’s resolutions dissolve, as he realizes what he is missing—short wings.
Jonathan flies up once again to two thousand feet, and “without a moment for the thought of failure and death,” he burrows his wings close to his body, leaving only the wingtips extended. He then descents into another dive. He climbs to an enormous speed of one hundred and forty miles per hour, but barely feels the effort—he is completely in control. He feels “guiltless” about breaking his promise to himself to rejoin the flock, and renewed in his own belief that he is extraordinary.
In this passage, Jonathan approaches the novel’s theme of self-determination through mind, body, and spirit for the first time as he manipulates his mind to refocus on his goal, his spirit to lighten in the face of failure, and his body to do what he wills it to, and surpass the things it was made for.
At sunup, Jonathan is back to practicing, now flying up to five thousand feet before diving. From such great heights, the swarming Breakfast Flock looks like “a faint cloud of dust motes.” As Jonathan plunges through the air, he reaches a speed of two hundred and fourteen miles per hour. He knows that if he loses control and spreads his wings at this speed, he will be blown apart—but it is worth the risk to him. The feeling of speed is “power,” “joy,” “and pure beauty.”
In this passage, as Jonathan risks his very life in pursuit of a new and exciting goal, readers clearly see that flight is everything to him. Flight gives him life, and if he dies in pursuit of triumph in flight, then so be it—to do so would be to die in the midst of “pure beauty.”
At one thousand feet above the sea, Jonathan pulls out of his dive, but finds that he is about to fly right into the flock of gulls. He cannot stop—he does not know how to navigate at such a high speed—but knows that collision means “instant death.” Jonathan shuts his eyes and prepares for impact, but by some miracle manages to fly directly through the center of the flock, slowing to a hundred and sixty miles per hour, and then twenty. Relieved that he was able to avoid disaster, Jonathan congratulates himself on his triumph of reaching terminal velocity—“the greatest single moment in the history of the Flock.”
It seems as if Jonathan will fail once again, on an even more lethal scale, but as he defies the odds and succeeds, he congratulates himself on having surpassed even his own old records. He sees himself as an innovator in earnest now—and, more than that, as a being separate from the rest of the Flock, the “greatest” of them to ever exist.
Jonathan returns to his lonely practice area and begins practicing diving from eight thousand feet, with the goal of learning to turn. As he experiments with lightly extending one single wingtip feather at a time, he slowly learns how to turn and perform aerobatics—the first of any seagull anywhere in the world to do so. Jonathan flies until the sun goes down, learning loops, slow rolls, and spins, not pausing or taking time to talk to any other members of his Flock.
Jonathan is not satisfied with simply setting a goal and meeting it. He continues to stretch and challenge himself despite his previous triumphs. This unwavering commitment to innovation isolates him from his fellow gulls, but it also fills him with self-worth and purpose.
That night, when Jonathan joins his Flock on the beach, he is dizzy and tired, but delighted. He can’t stop thinking about how the Flock will be “wild with joy” when they hear about his breakthrough. He thinks they will be excited to follow his lead and learn about the joys of flying for themselves. However, as Jonathan approaches the Flock, he sees that they have convened a Council Gathering, and are waiting for him.
As Jonathan heads home to his Flock, he is dreaming of glory for himself but is mostly excited by the prospect of being able to include his peers in his joy and triumph, and help them experience how wonderful and liberating flight can be.
The Elder Gull calls Jonathan to Stand to Center—a command which Jonathan knows signals either great shame or great honor. As he takes his place in the Center, he humbly thinks that he does not want to receive any honors; he only wants to share what he has learned. As Jonathan takes his place, the Elder commands him to Stand to Center—for Shame.
Jonathan’s knees go weak, and he feels as if he has been hit by a board. He knows that his fellow gulls do not understand him. As the Elder Gull condemns Jonathan for his “reckless irresponsibility,” and for “violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull Family,” Jonathan know he will be cast out of gull society and banished to live on the Far Cliffs. As a final reminder, the Elder tells Jonathan that the only point to life is to eat, and stay alive as long as one possibly can. Jonathan raises his voice and speaks back to the Council Flock, though such a thing is never done—he begs them to see that he is in fact being responsible, as there is nothing more responsible than seeking a higher purpose in life. The Flock, however, will not hear his words—they turn their backs and cast him out.
Despite Jonathan’s self-imposed isolation and his repeated rejections of his parents’ attempts to re-integrate him into the Flock, being forced out of the community hits him hard. Jonathan is determined to make his case, and show the others how in exiling him they will be bringing detriment to their own lives. However, the others refuse to listen, underscoring their small-mindedness and their belief that Jonathan is a threat to their status quo. Jonathan is a true loner now and must prove that he can make it on his own without even marginal support from the rest of the Flock.
Jonathan flies out beyond the Far Cliffs. His sorrow does not come from his newly imposed solitude, but the fact that the other gulls cannot see the glory of flight. He wishes the other would open their eyes and see the things he has seen. He continues to practice diving and flying, learning new things every day, and eventually learns new, more efficient methods for catching the tasty fish that swim several feet below the surface of the ocean. He is able to fend for himself now and no longer has to rely on fishing boats for survival. He learns how to sleep in the air, and how to ride the winds inland to hunt for insects.
Jonathan does fine on his own, but he still wishes that the others could share in the joy he has found, emphasizing that he longs for an encouraging community. His old Flock is blind to the joys of flying, though, wrapped up as they are in their narrow-minded tradition. As Jonathan doubles down on his commitment to exploring the limits of what his body can do in flight, he finds many new methods of eating that would actually help his Flock better meet their goals of eating and staying alive as long as possible.
Jonathan had hoped he’d be able to help the Flock discover all of these tricks, but he now resigns himself to using and perfecting them alone. He is not sorry for the price he has paid—he realizes, now that he is free, that boredom, fear, and anger are the things that make a gull’s life so short. Free of these entrapments, Jonathan goes on to live a long, fine life.
Once again, Jonathan wishes sadly that he could share his new knowledge with the Flock, but has at last come to accept that they will never see the world the way he does. Because of this, the Flock will never be able to be free in the way Jonathan has since become free.
One evening, as Jonathan is gliding peacefully through the sky, two gulls “pure as starlight” appear at his wings. There is a gentle, friendly glow about them, and they fly skillfully, just like Jonathan himself. Noticing their expertise, Jonathan decides to put them to a test—one no gull has ever passed. He drops into a high-speed dive, and the other gulls dive with him. He twists into a roll, and the other gulls roll, too. Pleased with the others’ skill, Jonathan slows down, and asks who they are. They respond that they are from his own Flock—they have come to take him higher and take him home.
Jonathan is shocked to encounter two gulls who can fly as gracefully and dexterously as he can. When they say they are from his “Flock,” he can hardly believe it. Bach leaves it up to the reader to decide whether these gulls are from Jonathan’s home Flock, and have taken up his tradition in his long absence. Alternatively, these gulls may be speaking about a larger, spiritual Flock, connected by likeminded ideology rather than home, family, and tradition.
Jonathan replies that he has no home or Flock because he is an outcast. He also confesses that he is flying at his peak, give or take a few hundred feet, and can lift his “old body” no higher. The other gulls insist, though, that Jonathan can go higher—“one school is finished, and the time has come for another to begin.” Jonathan finally understands—it is indeed, he realizes, time to fly higher and go home. He looks across the sky one last time, and then says aloud that he is ready. He rises with the two other gulls and disappears into the dark sky.
Though the prospect of moving on is a frightening one, Jonathan’s courageous spirit pushes him to take yet another leap into the unknown. This choice suggests that Jonathan’s innovative spirit will help him to transcend boundaries he’s never even imagined before.