The idea that one can live outside of the crowd or the herd is one of the most attractive, and consistently used tropes in literature and in rhetoric. Many authors have constructed stories and characters which seek to provide a template for independent living and a life which baulks at particular stereotypes and conventional understandings of life and how it should be lived. Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingtone Seagull” is, in many ways, a fantastical variation on the a standard story of non-conformity and coming of age. However, while it largely follows the rhetoric of such a story, it does not settle into standard mode of reconciliation or resignation which most often accompanies a novelistic growth into maturity. Instead the story presents its protagonist as having been truly correct in his condemnation of the world and its conventions. Indeed, the Bach’s work presents a progressive deconstruction of a conservative approach to life; culminating in the revelation that this approach is responsible for the very problems that it is attempting to prevent.
One of the key rhetorical elements in Bach’s story lies in his ability to combine a fantastical situation with an everyday observational humour. This occurs especially in the passages in which Jonathan Livingstone, the seagull and main character of the story, is being dissuaded from flying away and exploring outside of the domain of his flock by his mother. When he expresses a desire to fly away from the flock, his mother responds: “ “Why, Jon ,why…Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon? Why can’t you leave low flying to the pelicans, the albatross? Why don’t you eat? Jon, you are bone and feathers!” (Bach, 2003, 4). In this passage, it is clear that the emphasis on the “flock” serves to create a conventional association with a crowd or heard of individuals that a particular character may seek to separate themselves from in order to achieve their independence. As well as this, Bach makes use of the typically infantilizing situation in which a mother is concerned with whether or not their child is eating enough. The combination of everyday banality with a fantasy situation serves to heighten the didactic element of the story, as well as generating humour.
Throughout the story, Bach expertly mimics this particular kind of conservative reasoning in order to demonstrate how it can provide the basis for a life which is based on fear and in which no individual is free to express themselves or to truly live. At one point, for example, Jonathan is confronted by a counsel who insist that he must abandon his ambitions. The reasoning which are given for this revolve around the suggestion that any kind of action taken outside of the norm is inherently risky, and that risk is to be avoided at all times. Bach has the leader of the council state: “Life is the unknown and the unknowable, except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long we possibly can” (Bach, 7). Not only does the story effectively mimic the concerns of a particular kind of conservative life-style, but it can also be argued to actively present the exact logic of this way of thinking. As such, Bach engages in a intellectual hyperbole, by taking the logic of conservative self-preservation to its most extreme point, while at the same time using the absurdity of the situation in order to generate humour along with pathos.
The story ends with what is not simply an idealistic critique of the conservative views that have been expressed by other characters, but also with their complete refutation. It is revealed that the primary reasons that other members of the flock had a relatively short life expectancy as entirely because of their refusal to fly in the manner in which Jonathan longed to. Once he has broken free of the conventions of the flock, he is therefore able to pursue a long and happy life as an independent personality. Bach ends the story with the statement that: “Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that gull’s life is so short and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.” (Bach, 11). As such, the story ends directly with Jonathan not simply being vindicated in his desire for adventure as breaking out of a cycle of fear and death which he would otherwise have remained trapped within. It is this revelation that it is the precisely the fear of the unknown that is responsible for the short life of members of the flock completes the rhetorical deconstruction which his the focus of the piece.
In conclusion, Bach’s “Joanathan Livingstone” presents a deconstruction of conservative reasoning and of life lived in fear. It does this first of all by using a combination of observational humour and a fantastical situation in order to generate humour. It then presents a rendition of the logic of fear and of a conservatism which sees life as something that must be endured and simply protected, rather than being experienced to it fullest. Finally, and most powerfully, the story presents a situation in which its central character’s desires for freedom are shown to be categorically right, and in which the fulfilment of these desires not only brings him satisfaction but also enables him to achieve the safety and longevity that is the aim of those who do their best to avoid any risk or danger.
- Bach, Richard. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. London: Harper Collins, 2003.