Review by Aimee Roebuck-Johnson
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too… What happens when you start to live as your true self? There is certainly some fear in starting to become the person you were born to be. If you’ve spent your life trying to do what is expected of you, your stepping out of that role may cause some consternation on the part of the people around you. Your new way of living may expose the drab existence that they are still clinging to.
For those readers developing the practice of listening to a voice other than those that clamor around them, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a welcome companion. This story has been described as a fable, a homily, and an allegory. The essence of the tale is a seagull’s desire to fly and his developing understanding of what flying means.
The story begins with a seagull named Jonathan who dreams of flying better than a seagull has ever flown, instead of spending his days looking for scraps of food. The author writes:
Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly…. This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds.”
Jonathan tries to behave like other gulls, “…screeching and fighting with the flock around the piers and fishing boats, diving on scraps of fish and bread.” His resolve not to pursue what he loves and to act like the rest of his species has some benefits: “He 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.” In the end, however, he finds the mundane life of the average gull meaningless and goes back to his flying, trying to perfect his technique, sometimes failing, sometimes experiencing great success.
One day, after breaking the seagull flying speed record, he tells his Flock of the freedom he has experienced, “Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!” Instead of sharing his enthusiasm, the Flock shuns and banishes him, saying, “Life is the unknown and the unknowable, except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.”
Jonathan flies into exile, regretting only the blindness of his fellows. He realizes that “boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short.” As he is flying one day, two unusually beautiful and skilled seagulls join him and tell him that they have come to take him “home” to begin new kind of learning. In his new home, he finds like-minded seagulls who experience the freedom of flight.
From time to time, he remembers Earth and thinks, “If [I] had known there just a tenth, just a hundredth of what [I] know here, how much more life would have meant!” He wonders whether there were others in his old Flock who were Outcasts because of wanting to live for more than just their stomachs.
He finds gulls who become his students and teaches them that flying involves skill, but also an understanding of unlimited freedom, which allows a gull to express his true nature, one with no limits. His students have difficulty understanding the meaning of flight beyond the physical precision and skill that flight demands, but they agree to return to the Flock on Earth to find souls in search of flight. Rumors circulate through the Flock about Jonathan’s identity and why this Outcast has returned. Curious Earth gulls flock to him and witness his ability to help others have a sense of their own freedom. He believes that he is unique only in that he has begun to practice the truth of who he really is.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a parable about a seagull, but Jonathan himself is someone who followed Kipling’s creed. He bore lies and twisted truths, success and failure. No matter what happened, he kept after his pursuit of the freedom of his true self.
Bach, Richard. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. New York: Scribner. 1970. ISBN: 978-1-4391-6729-8. 184 pages.