The fourth and final section of Jonathan Livingston Seagull flashes forward nearly two hundred years after Jonathan’s disappearance from the face of the earth and supposed ascendance to heaven. In the centuries that have passed, Jonathan’s teachings of introspection, self-determination, and the pursuit of one’s individual truth have been misinterpreted, warped, and picked apart like so much chum. As the reader works their way through the final pages of the story, an obvious parable emerges: Richard Bach has composed a tale that mirrors the perceived failures of religions and belief systems the world over, and which indicts religious and spiritual movements for their creation of cults of personality and the self-centered search for validation through “holiness.” In pointing out the ways in which religious doctrines are often misinterpreted and misused, Bach suggests that religious and spiritual movements must—or at least should—reexamine their roots and return to the simplistic messages of self-discovery, charity and community, pursuit of a greater collective good, and the sacredness not of one figurehead but of each member of the larger community.
In the two hundred years since his departure from earth in a glimmering haze, “nearly every element of Jonathan’s teaching [has been] taken out of daily practice by the simple pronouncement that it was Holy, and beyond the aspiration of common gulls.” The central ethos of Jonathan’s message to his fellow gulls—the use of flight as a way to unify mind, body, and spirit around the goal of self-determination—has been replaced by obsessive rites and rituals that exclude many would-be disciples of Jonathan’s message. Jonathan has become an icon, depicted in rich plumage, wearing crowns of shells and other baubles. His likeness has been pecked into the sides of cliff faces from coast to coast, and adherents must place pebbles at his shrines in order to appear holy or in possession of “Oneness.” Jonathan’s image has been warped and morphed into something unrecognizable, used in pursuit of obscure and esoteric rituals that serve only to make gulls feel superficially pious without forcing them to actually work to expand their mind, test their bodies, or improve their spirits. As a result, the “thinking gulls” who long to shy away from the exclusionary and sacred rites and rituals of the movement eventually “close their minds at the sound of certain words,” and will not even hear anything associated with the concepts of “flight” or the “Great Gull.” They want nothing to do with Jonathan’s legacy, as they see through the sham it has become, and feel depressed by the false devoutness and self-serving shows of piety all around them. This backlash against sacrosanct but obscure rite and ritual in the world of the gulls mirrors the backlash against strict, dogmatic religions that exclude all who do not fit within the bounds of “Holiness.” As atheism and agnosticism grew out of frustration with the growing obscurity of practical applications of religious doctrine—such as seeing “love thy neighbor” being preached but never practiced—so too do the gulls develop a sense of apathy as regards the empty façades of faith which have sprung up all around them.
The gulls who shirk the trappings of the cult of personality that has sprung up around Jonathan’s image are nonetheless curious about his message, and begin experimenting with flight. Though they reject the traditions of the religion, they are still unwittingly practicing the message he originally intended to bring to the Flock—the pursuit of self-knowledge through pushing one’s limits in flight and aerodynamics. This demonstrates how even when doctrine becomes perverted or bastardized, there are still ways for the message to ultimately transcend the figurehead, and live on. The irony of the gulls’ accidental return to the truth of Jonathan’s message shows how false zeal can never overshadow the seed of truth buried beneath it.
Anthony Seagull, the last gull to be introduced in the novel, is a casualty of the ways in which the “doctrine” of Jonathan Livingston Seagull has, in its vast dissemination throughout gull society, strayed from its roots and become something so unrecognizable that it actually engenders pain and confusion in both its followers and dissenters. Anthony Seagull is young, and as a curious youth, he questions the religion all around him. He knows that dropping “a million pebbles” at one of Jonathan’s shrines won’t make him any more holy. Anthony does not believe that Jonathan truly accomplished the great feats of flight he is said to have accomplished, and Anthony himself is disappointed that his own attempts to reach great speeds and heights have failed. Feeling that life is a bore and that the idol that everyone around him worships is a “fairy tale,” Anthony attempts suicide—only to meet, in the middle of his death-driven dive bomb out of the sky, Jonathan himself, who introduces himself to Anthony simply as Jon. As the novel ends abruptly after Jon’s reappearance, the reader must interpret whether he has appeared to Anthony to restore the faith of a lost adherent, whether he knows that Anthony is special because he has so deeply questioned what it means to be “holy,” or because Jonathan longs, through Anthony, reset the entire movement which has flown so far off course. All of this can be read as a metaphor most directly for the ways in which modern Christianity has often been criticized for idolizing its figurehead, Jesus Christ, while shirking the very things he preached: love, understanding, and compassion for fellow human beings no matter their social standing, past sins, or present misfortunes. Jonathan’s return to earth speaks to Bach’s argument that if the figureheads of many world religions were able to see the state of their legacy, they would feel shame and discontent, and would long to return to earth to guide their followers in the direction of their original intentions.
“The forces of rulers and ritual slowly, slowly will kill our freedom to live as we choose,” Richard Bach writes in an afterword to the new edition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull—the first edition to include the fourth and final part of the story. In this quotation, he communicates his book’s overarching message to his readers: that doctrine, spiritual or religious, will—when misinterpreted—“kill” the very freedom it seeks to engender.
The Misinterpretation of Doctrine ThemeTracker
The Misinterpretation of Doctrine Quotes in Jonathan Livingston Seagull
"To begin with," he said heavily, "you've got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself."
The young gulls looked at him quizzically. Hey, man, they thought, this doesn't sound like a rule for a loop.
Fletcher sighed and started over. "Hm. Ah […] very well," he said, and eyed them critically. "Let's begin with Level Flight." And saying that, he understood all at once that his friend had quite honestly been no more divine than Fletcher himself.
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?"