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Flatland | Study Guide

Edwin Abbott Abbott

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Edwin Abbott Abbott | Biography


Birth and Education

Edwin A. Abbott was born December 20, 1838, to first cousins Edward A. Abbott and Jane Abbott in Marylebone, England. He attended the City of London School before enrolling at St. John's College Cambridge. He graduated in 1861, earning the Senior Classics Medal and becoming ordained as a deacon the following year. He then took a teaching fellowship at the college, but fellows were not permitted to marry. In 1863 Abbott left St. John's to wed Mary Elizabeth Rangeley (d. 1919), with whom he had two children, one son and one daughter.

Career and Works

Abbott taught briefly at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and Clifton College before becoming headmaster of the City of London School. During his tenure, Abbott applied various modern innovations to the curriculum, including universal science courses. He taught with substantial enthusiasm, leading to even higher standards for the prestigious school. Abbott wrote extensively on language, religion, and science, publishing several books on diverse subjects, such as Shakespearean Grammar (1870), How to Write Clearly (1872), Philocristus (1878), and An Account of the Life and Works of Francis Bacon (1887). His most famous work, however, is his 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. The novella uses geometry (mathematical branch concerned with object shape, spatial relationships, and the characteristics of space) to satirize restrictive Victorian (1820–1914, during the reign of Queen Victoria) class and gender hierarchies as well as the burgeoning eugenics movement (selection of preferred traits of inheritance to enhance future generations). It also uses dimensions as a way to talk about expanding consciousness and understanding. Abbott retired from City of London School in 1889 to devote more time to his writing.

Death and Legacy

Abbott died on October 12, 1926, of influenza, a viral infection of the respiratory tract. Though during his life he was regarded principally as an educator and theologian, his most enduring legacy has been Flatland. While the book was initially well received, it gradually fell by the wayside until it enjoyed renewed interest three decades later when German American physicist Albert Einstein's (1879–1955) theories of relativity brought the possibility of a fourth dimension into popular discourse. Based on sound mathematics, Flatland provides an easily comprehensible narrative description of the possible subjective experience of a new, unfamiliar dimension.

The concept of Flatland has continued to intrigue scientists such as British physicist Stephen Hawking (1942–2018) and American astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–96), who referred to Abbott's book in his lectures. It is possible that Sagan also had Flatland's episode in which the character A Square encounters the lowliest and most closed-minded entity of minuscule dimension, a dot, in mind when he wrote Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994). Much of Sagan's discussion in the book is a review of obstinate and repressive reactions by authorities to new ideas that later prove true. But he also exposes the vanity of humans who believe themselves to be the most important beings in the universe, as he sums up all human history's rulers as "momentary masters of a fraction of a dot."

Flatland has been rendered into nine animated movie shorts (2007–17), a video game, and a board game.

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