The titular character of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an independent gull who would rather practice aerodynamic flight techniques than forage for food in the wake of the fishing boats that chug up and down the shoreline of the Flock’s home. Jonathan’s staunch individualism initially seems in direct opposition to the collectivism of the Flock. The members of the Flock do everything the exact same way, day after day, and never question the rote routines of boring, straightforward flight or the endless pursuit of nothing but food. However, when Jonathan finds himself a part of a mystical new group of seagulls whose self-exile from their home Flocks has rendered them “Outcast,” Bach makes the complex and nuanced argument that individualism and collectivism do not have to exist in stark opposition. The individual cannot thrive without a solid, supportive community; likewise, a truly successful collective will be composed of individuals whose independence of thought and action inspires and nourishes those around them.
At the start of the novel, Jonathan is already something of a loner within his Flock—but it is his own drive towards individualism that isolates him, rather than the external derision of his fellow gulls. Jonathan’s love of flying outweighs his desire to make himself “popular with the other birds,” for example, and even his parents’ disappointment is not enough to deter his dreams of testing his limits through flight. He tells his parents that he “just want[s] to know” the extent of what he can do, and as his flight practice allows him to reach new speeds and—quite literally—new heights. Where other gulls are concerned with maintaining the status quo and merely living to eat, Jonathan finds himself thinking only of how he can achieve more and more, and break records the other gulls have never even dreamed of. When Jonathan is “centered for shame by the Elder Gull and the rest of the Council—the governing body of his Flock—he is affronted by the slight and made nervous by the prospect of being “cast out of gull society, banished to a solitary life on the Far Cliffs.” Nevertheless, once Jonathan leaves his Flock, his “one sorrow” is not solitude; rather, it is that the collective Flock “refuse to believe the glory of flight.” Jonathan’s banishment frightens him despite the fact that he has always been a solitary gull. His inability to make his Flock see the “glory” of a different way of life, however, cements in his mind the idea that he is meant to be alone. This reflects his initial conception of a collective group as something restrictive and antithetical to individuality.
Jonathan enjoys his solitude until the fateful day when he finds himself brought up to a new plane of existence, where he encounters a new Flock of mystical seagulls who embrace the ideals, goals, and questions Jonathan has had all his life. In this new realm, Jonathan sees how collectivism can, in fact, allow for the advancement and nurturing of every individual member of a group. The few gulls he finds there have similarly faced hardship and isolation from their Flocks as they moved through their lives. However, now that they have all arrived in this new world, they are free to practice flight and attempt to improve, learn, and grow until they come to an understanding of their own inherent perfection, and the notion that their consciousness exists everywhere at once across space and time. With this new understanding that collectivism can be a positive thing, Jonathan longs to implement the mutually respectful, inquisitive, and encouraging collectivism he has experienced in this higher realm back on earth.
In the years following his departure from the Earth, Jonathan has become an icon renowned the world over, revered as the “Great Gull Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” A messiah of sorts, Jonathan is seen as a divine being—but his lessons about the joys of flying have been long forgotten or misrepresented as entreaties for other gulls to strive for Oneness—a vague concept that seems to denote a bastardization of the state of collective consciousness Jonathan initially tried to bring back to earth from the higher plane. Flocks all over the world have recognized Jonathan’s unique vision, but are focusing on the wrong things when it comes to his “doctrine”; gulls who follow Jonathan’s teachings focus too much on remembering or reassembling the exact words he spoke, but they do not seem to care about the meanings behind the words. As a result, the world has been swept up in chaos as the gulls fervently try to reconstruct their idol, all the while ignoring the heart of his message: that flying “fast and free and glorious” in the sky is a way of transcending the physical realm. In this way, collectivism has swung from one kind of exclusionary cadre to another, as the earthly gulls continually aim for a homogenized society organized around a single idea. By neglecting the chance to develop a kind of community that supports one another while still honoring individualism and the virtues of unique beings, the gulls have failed to truly understand, interpret, and disseminate the teachings of the “Divine Gull” they purport to revere and worship.
Bach condemns neither individualism nor collectivism in the pages of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Instead, he uses the world of the gulls as a metaphor for the human world’s readiness to erase individuality and favor a homogenized collective. By using the parable of Jonathan Seagull and his journey to another plane and back again, Bach extolls the virtues of a society in which people—or, in this case, gulls—are allowed to come as they are and be appreciated as individual members of a variegated whole. In doing so, Bach highlights the inequities in our contemporary society and ultimately urges his readers to apply the knowledge Jonathan was unable to share with his Flock within their own lives, social circles, and societies.
Individualism vs. Collectivism ThemeTracker
Individualism vs. Collectivism Quotes in Jonathan Livingston Seagull
[Jonathan] felt better for his decision to be just another one of the flock. There would be no ties now to the force that had driven him to learn, there would be no more challenge and no more failure. And it was pretty, just to stop thinking, and fly through the dark, toward the lights above the beach.
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull! Stand to Center!" The Elder's words sounded in a voice of highest ceremony. Stand to Center meant only great shame or great honor. Stand to Center for Honor was the way the gulls' foremost leaders were marked. Of course, he thought, the Breakfast Flock this morning; they saw the Breakthrough! But I want no honors. I have no wish to be leader. I want only to share what I've found, to show those horizons out ahead for us all. He stepped forward.
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull," said the Elder, "Stand to Center for Shame in the sight of your fellow gulls!"
It felt like being hit with a board. His knees went weak, his feathers sagged, there was roaring in his ears. Centered for shame? Impossible! The Breakthrough! They can't understand! They're wrong, they're wrong!
Jonathan Seagull spent the rest of his days alone, but he flew way out beyond the Far Cliffs. His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see. He learned more each day. He learned that a streamlined high-speed dive could bring him to find the rare and tasty fish that schooled ten feet below the surface of the ocean: he no longer needed fishing boats and stale bread for survival. He learned to sleep in the air, setting a course at night across the offshore wind, covering a hundred miles from sunset to sunrise. With the same inner control, he flew through heavy sea-fogs and climbed above them into dazzling clear skies […] in the very times when every other gull stood on the ground, knowing nothing but mist and rain. He learned to ride the high winds far inland, to dine there on delicate insects. What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid. Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull's life is so short, and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.
Jonathan stayed and worked with the new birds coming in, who were all very bright and quick with their lessons. But the old feeling came back, and he couldn't help but think that there might be one or two gulls back on Earth who would be able to learn, too. How much more would he have known by now if Chiang had come to him on the day that he was Outcast!
“Sully, I must go back," [Jonathan] said at last. "Your students are doing well. They can help you bring the newcomers along."
Sullivan sighed, but he did not argue. "l think I'll miss you, Jonathan," was all he said.
"Sully, for shame!" Jonathan said in reproach, "and don't be foolish! What are we trying to practice every day? lf our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we've destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think that we might see each other once or twice?"
Fletcher Lynd Seagull was still quite young, but already he knew that no bird had ever been so harshly treated by any Flock, or with so much injustice.
"l don't care what they say," he thought fiercely, and his vision blurred as he flew out toward the Far Cliffs. "There's so much more to flying than just flapping around from place to place! A... a ... mosquito does that! One little barrel-roll around the Elder Gull, just for fun, and I’m Outcast! Are they blind? Can't they see? Can't they think of the glory that it'll be when we really learn to fly?
"l don't care what they think. I'll show them what flying is! I'll be pure Outlaw, if that's the way they want it. And I'll make them so sorry […]."
The voice came inside his own head, and though it was very gentle, it startled him so much that he faltered and stumbled in the air.
"Don't be harsh on them, Fletcher Seagull. ln casting you out, the other gulls have only hurt themselves, and one day they will know this, and one day they will see what you see. Forgive them, and help them to understand."
An inch from his right wingtip flew the most brilliant white gull in all the world, gliding effortlessly along, not moving a feather, at what was very nearly Fletcher's top speed.
There was a moment of chaos in the young bird.
"What's going on? Am I mad? Am I dead? What is this?"
Low and calm, the voice went on within his thought, demanding an answer. "Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly?"
"YES, I WANT TO FLY!"
It was only a month later that Jonathan said the time had come to return to the Flock.
"We're not ready!" said Henry Calvin Gull. "We're not welcome! We're Outcast! We can't force ourselves to go where we're not welcome, can we?"
"We're free to go where we wish and to be what we are," Jonathan answered, and he lifted from the sand and turned east, toward the home grounds of the Flock.
When Fletcher didn't show up on the beach in the next week, when he vanished without leaving a note, the Flock was in brief consternation. But then they gathered together, and thought, and decided what must have happened. It was announced that Gull Fletcher had been seen, surrounded by the other Seven First Students, standing on what would henceforth be known as the Rock of Oneness, and then the clouds had parted and the Great Gull Jonathan Livingston Seagull himself, clad in royal plumes and golden shells, with a crown of precious pebbles upon his brow, pointing symbolically to sky and sea and wind and earth, had called him up to the Beach of Oneness and
Fletcher had magically risen, surrounded by holy rays, and the clouds had closed again over the scene to a great chorus of gull-voices singing.
And so the pile of pebbles on the Rock of Oneness, in sacred memory of Gull Fletcher, was the biggest pile of pebbles on any coastline anywhere on earth. Other piles were built everywhere in replica, and each Tuesday afternoon the Flock walked over to stand around the pebbles and hear the miracles of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his Gifted Divine Students.
ln time, the rites and ceremonies that were planted around the name of Jonathan Seagull became obsessive. Any thinking gull altered course in the air so as not to even fly in sight of the cairns, built as they were on the ceremony and superstition of those who preferred excuses for failure instead of hard work and greatness. The thinking gulls, paradoxically, closed their minds at the sound of certain words: "Flight," "Cairn," "Great Gull," "Jonathan." On all other matters they were the most lucid, honest birds since Jonathan himself, but at the mention of his name, or any of the other terms so badly mauled by the Official Local Students, their minds snapped shut with the sound of trap doors closing.
Because they were curious, they began experimenting with flight, though they never used that word. "It's not flight," they'd assure themselves over and again, "It's just a way of finding what's true." So, in rejecting the "students" they became students themselves. ln rejecting the name of Jonathan Seagull, they practiced the message he had brought to the Flock.
“Now look," [Anthony] had told his official Local Student, "the birds who come to hear you every Tuesday come for three reasons, don't they? Because they think they're learning something; because they think that putting another pebble on the Cairn is going to make them holy; or because everybody else expects them to be there. Right?"
“And you have nothing to learn, my nestling?"
"No. There's something to learn, but I don't know what it is. A million pebbles can't make me holy if I don't deserve it, and I don't care what the other gulls think about me."
"And what is your answer, nestling?" ever so slightly shaken by this heresy. "How do you call the miracle of life? The Great-Gull-Jonathan-Holy-Be-His-Name said that flight […]."
"Life isn't a miracle, Official, it's a bore. Your Great Gull Jonathan is a myth somebody made up a long time ago, a fairy tale that the weak believe because they can't stand to face the world as it is. Imagine! A seagull who could fly two hundred miles per hour! I’ve tried it, and the fastest I can go is fifty, diving, and even then I'm mostly out of control. There are laws of flight that cannot be broken, and if you don't think so, you go out there and try it! Do you honestly believe—truly, now—that your great Jonathan Seagull flew two hundred miles per hour?"