Jonathan Livingston Seagull is different from the other birds in his Flock. Most gulls only know the “simplest facts of flight,” and use flight as a utilitarian mode of transportation and as a way to get food. Jonathan, however, loves practicing airborne acrobatics and testing the limits of his speed and form. He struggles with being different—he is sad to disappoint his parents, and he briefly considers trying hard to be just another member of the Flock. After he experiences a breakthrough in flight, though, and successfully executes a complicated dive from a height of five thousand feet, he is more determined than ever to devote his life to studying flight.
That night, when Jonathan rejoins his Flock up on the beach, he is called into the center of a Council meeting and singled out for Shame by the Elder Gull before being Outcast and banished to the distant Far Cliffs. Jonathan had hoped to share his new flight methods with the Flock, and show them how different methods of flight would make it even easier to find fruitful food sources in the ocean, but resignedly accepts that he will be a loner for the rest of his life. After many years pass, Jonathan has lived a long but solitary life. He is flanked in flight one evening by two gleaming gulls who invite him to ascend with them to a higher plane of existence.
Up in what he believes to be heaven, Jonathan finds that his body gleams in the moonlight, too—his new body flies more surely than his old body ever did, and with half the effort, though it still does have some limits. In this new world, there are a handful of gulls who believe the same things Jonathan does, and long to perfect their innovative methods of flight. Jonathan trains with an instructor named Sullivan, who admires Jonathan’s skill, speed, and self-possession, and tells Jonathan he is the best pupil he’s ever had. In his conversations with the Elder Gull of this new Flock, Chiang, Jonathan learns that there are ways to transcend even the physical limits of his body, if only he comes to realize that perfection comes from being present in the understanding that his true nature lives “everywhere at once across space and time.” Eventually, Jonathan masters instantaneous teleportation, impressing even Chiang and becoming Chiang’s special pupil. As Jonathan learns more and more, he cannot stop thinking about the world he left behind on earth—he longs to return and teach the gulls the truths he has learned in this new realm. Jonathan returns to earth and approaches a recently Outcast gull from his own Flock named Fletcher Lynd Seagull—admiring Fletcher’s flight, Jonathan offers to take Fletcher on as a pupil on the condition that one day they will return to their Flock and spread the things they have learned together. Fletcher agrees, and the two begin lessons.
After three months, Jonathan has amassed a small group of six special pupils, whom he trains in flight techniques and mental exercises to help them break the chains of their bodies. One day, Jonathan tells his students that the time has come to return to their Flock and share their knowledge. His students are doubtful, but agree nonetheless to follow him back to their old shore. The Flock shuns Jonathan and his pupils as they demonstrate their feats of flight over the water just beyond the shore, but slowly, some curious gulls from the Flock begin approaching Jonathan and his group and asking to learn to fly. Even the nervous Terrence Lowell Gull and the lame Kirk Maynard Gull exhibit bravery in joining Jonathan’s group, and soon hundreds and hundreds of gulls gather every day to listen to Jonathan’s musings on the glory of freedom and the rituals, superstitions, and limitations that stand in the way of true freedom. Jonathan is soon rumored to be a Divine bird—perhaps even the Son of the Great Gull himself, though Jonathan laments the fact that the others cannot simply see him as one of them. After Fletcher crashes into a cliff and has a near-death experience, which he returns to life from, the others begin to hail Fletcher, too, as a Divine gull. Jonathan tells Fletcher that it is time for him to ascend, and leave Fletcher behind to continue his legacy. Though Fletcher begs Jonathan to stay, Jonathan begins to shimmer, and then ascends into the sky. Fletcher, distraught but determined to carry on Jonathan’s teachings, assumes his new role as instructor of Jonathan’s old pupils.
In the years following Jonathan’s departure from earth, Fletcher and his new Flock of pupils travel up and down the coastline, spreading their messages to new Flocks, and as more and more gulls take up Jonathan’s message, a golden age of flight and innovation commences. Fletcher becomes an icon in his own right, though Jonathan, in his absence, has become downright holy. As Jonathan’s adherents grow in numbers, they begin ignoring his original teachings and focusing on the hagiography of Jonathan and his original pupils. As Jonathan’s original students begin to die, their graves become shrines where devotees drop pebbles in order to seem more holy. Groups gather weekly to obsessively recount the miracles of Jonathan’s making, but after two centuries, hardly any flying is done any more, and Jonathan’s teachings are only discussed in the abstract. Many gulls begin to resist these rituals and sermons, and in trying something “new” by practicing flying, actually end up circling back to Jonathan’s original desire for his Flock, and for all others—expanding the self through pushing one’s physical limitations in flight. A young gull called Anthony Seagull feels he is surrounded by hypocrisy and empty ritual, and seeks to end his life by dive-bombing out of the sky. On the way down to the water, though, he is approached by a gleaming gull who compliments him on his style and form. When Anthony asks the gull his name, the gull introduces himself as “Jon.”