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Jonathan Livingston Seagull Essay, Research Paper
Parkersburg High School
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach is basically about the story of an adventurous seagull’s life. It looks like a book for a grade school reading level. After you scratch beneath the surface, however, I found the book is filled with things many fourth graders probably wouldn’t grasp. Such as the use of use of personification, symbolism, and didactic themes.
The story starts as a we are introduced to a young gull named Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He finds he is being oppressed by society because he finds the life of a typical seagull is disconcerting in it’s inane and tedious nature. In a rebellious move he begins to teach himself to fly at very high speeds, which would be a crime the equivalent of a felony in human society.
One day while Jonathan is flying he loses control while trying to change direction and flies straight through the flock and the tyrannical elders. After many failed attempts, he is able to control himself. He begins back to the flock filled with glee and thinking, “We can lift ourselves of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can learn to be free! We can learn to fly!” (Bach 30). What Bach is trying to say is that being persistent pays off.
Back to the plot, when returning to the flock to show off his discovery, the heartless elders await him. They banish him for endangering the lives of his brothers by his careless behavior. After being banished, he lives on the cliffs at the far end of the shore and practices his flying daily. In time he finds that he is better off without the oppression from the flock, he is now free to practice whenever he feels.
One night while practicing, two seagulls, who have a bright glow about them, start to fly with Jonathan with more skill than Jonathan. Jonathan follows them to a place he thinks is heaven. He inquires about this and his instructor, who answers, “Most of us came along ever so slowly. We went from one world into another that was almost exactly like it, forgetting right away where we had come from, not caring where we were headed, living for the moment” (61). Which is a way of saying that most of us waste our lives doing tasks, and not really living. The instructor then continues by saying, “We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome” (62).
Jonathan goes to the elder of the flock, Chaing, and asks, “This world isn’t heaven at all is it?” (64). Chaing replies, “No, Jonathan, there is no such place. Heaven is not a place and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect” (64). So heaven doesn’t really exist, but it is more of an enlightened state of mind.
Jonathan starts learning from Chaing how to attain perfect speed. After Jonathan learns all he can from Chaing, Chaing departs from that world and Jonathan begins instructing other gulls. Soon he decides that his place is back with his original flock because he wants to help them find the perfection he has found. Jonathan does not hate those that threw him out, but rather help enlighten them towards perfection.
After Jonathan returns he meets a seagull, Fletcher, who is outcast as Jonathan had been. Jonathan begins teaching him all he knows and eventually gains more students. Jonathan decides that he and his students will go back to the flock to try and free some more idle minds. His students are very nervous but decide to follow Jonathan. When they return, the elders of the flock announce that anyone who even looks at the outcasts will be outcast themselves.
More and more seagulls ask Jonathan to teach them as well. One day, a group of seagulls is watching what Jonathan’s students are able to do and one makes a comment that Jonathan and his students are special and gifted. Jonathan wisely replies, “The only difference, the very only one, is that they have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it” (114). Soon, Jonathan tells Fletcher he is going and Fletcher will have to become the teacher. He then tells Fletcher , “Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly” (125).
The first thing I noticed was the use of personification. He treats the seagulls as people. They are even given full human-like names. Every seagull in the story has it’s own personality, and the interaction between the seagulls is like communication in human society. Speaking of societies, another interesting concept is the gull society. It has laws and rules, and just like some early human society, when a gull doesn’t accept these rules or is rebellious in nature, the flock doesn’t hesitate to cast them out. This is the same way humans act, if a person does something that isn’t the norm, they become outcasts and infamous throughout society. An example would be Martin Luther and the norms of the Roman Catholic Church. It is clear to me that Bach was using the seagulls as a metaphor for humans, good proof is in the first sentence “To the real Jonathan Seagull, who lives within us all.” (1)
There is a lot of teaching in the story. Chaing helps Jonathan to develop his flying skills, and then to open his mind to love, happiness, and the freedom that all gulls should experience. When Jonathan finally grasps this transcendental concept he passes it down to Fletcher, who, in turn, passes it down to another group of young gulls. The story is didactic, it deals with teaching and knowledge being passed down through generations of gulls. Bach is trying to tell us something also, that you should keep an open mind. All people are generally good, and it is through love that you will see the goodness of people.
Superstition is the idea that things happen depending on one’s actions. “Forget about faith”, said Chiang (81). Most superstitions are not true. You pick your own destiny. Jonathan believed he could achieve perfect speed. Bach’s idea of the purpose of life is to achieve personal perfection. For Jonathan it was speed. “I…..I enjoy speed” said Jonathan (64). His teacher replied by saying “Perfect speed, my son, is being there” (65). Perfection for different people is totally different things
The use of symbolism is abundant in the story. The main symbol in the story is the seagull standing for freedom. This symbol is found throughout the story, such as Jonathan’s free-spirited nature and his rebellion towards the flock. When Chaing teaches Jonathan about flight he is told there are no limits, and by reaching heaven you will break all the limits. This would be pure freedom. Fletcher also refers to this symbol at the end of the story saying, “…a seagull is an idea of unlimited freedom.”(125) Bach also uses other symbols, the flock for repression, the Elder for tyranny, and Jonathan as the savior.
I found the book to be somewhat of a paradox. It is written light-heartedly and easy to read, but yet has lots of deep and concerning issues lying deep within.
Bach, Richard. Jonathan Livingston Seagull .
1972, Avon Books, New York.
C.O. Burrelson. “Literary Explorer”-
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