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Literature Study GuidesFlatlandPart 1 Chapters 11 12 Summary

Flatland | Study Guide

Edwin Abbott Abbott

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Flatland | Part 1, Chapters 11–12 : This World | Summary



Chapter 11: Concerning Our Priests

A Square pauses to say that he is going to skip a lot of information about Flatland. This is not because he hasn't thought about it, but because readers already know almost everything they need to know for the story he is about to tell. He does, however, need to talk about Circles. Circles are the priests of Flatland, but their duty is not only religious; they are administrators of every facet of life. As Square puts it, "Doing nothing themselves, they are the Causes of everything worth doing, that is done by others."

Circles are not true circles, but polygons with such a large number of sides that they appear circular. This number may be as low as 300 or so, and the Chief Circle is assumed by tradition to have 10,000. Once Polygons begin to appear more circular, their number of sides begins to increase more rapidly. Thus where the son of a Triangle is a Square, the son of a 500-sided Polygon may have as many as 600 sides. However, the more sides a Polygon has, the less likely he is to produce offspring.

Doctors are able to fracture and reconfigure polygonal infants to increase their number of sides significantly. A successful operation may render a Polygon into a Circle. Although 90% of children treated this way do not survive, the social reward for circularity is so attractive that parents do it anyway.

Chapter 12: Of the Doctrine of Our Priests

"Attend to your Configuration" is the maxim of the Circles, who believe that "Configuration makes the man." The Circles preach a doctrine, promoted by Pantocyclus, that shape, not action, determines moral character and that faults in character arise from irregular shape. If the shape is not congenitally irregular, it has perhaps been deformed by injury or temperature. Neither good nor bad conduct deserves blame or praise, as they are merely the logical outcome of shape. Square agrees with this doctrine theoretically but finds it difficult to live in accordance to when, for example, his grandchildren blame their bad behavior on the weather rather than themselves. He finds it best to assume that scolding has a reinforcing effect on his grandson's configuration. He is aware that Circles also fall back on "right" and "wrong" rather than configuration in disciplining their own children. Because more sides are believed to be morally better, the men of Flatland are expected to put the interests of their children and grandchildren before their own.

Square also reports that the Circles are unreasonably permissive with regard to women. Men with fewer sides carefully scrutinize the pedigree of their wives for any irregularity. But Circles often marry women based merely only beauty, which Square feels will lead to fewer offspring, more of whom will be irregular. Square worries that eventually the Circles will not be able to produce someone capable of being Chief Circle and that Flatland will fall into anarchy.

Square also worries about the policy of not educating women, which he feels hurts men. About 300 years ago, the Chief Circle declared that since women were incapable of reason, they should not be treated as rational or receive any education, including reading or even enough math to count their children. Now men, unfortunately, have to learn a sort of doublespeak to communicate with their wives. They talk to women in terms of their emotions and their love and esteem for them; they talk to men in terms of rationality and their disdain for women. There is no moral consistency in how they deal with women versus anyone else. Square worries that the extra effort of this duplicity exhausts energy that men could be putting to better use. He proposes educating women to lessen the burden on men.


Circles are not actually circles, but polygons with many, many sides. Geometrically, a polygon may be said to be a true circle when its number of sides is infinite and thus each side is infinitely small, or not a side at all. Even Square cannot deny that the Circles' claim to be circles is a fiction that allows them to more effectively wield power. However, he approves because he believes they are right to rule, as they are the closest thing to circles available. Part of the reason the nobles practice sight recognition exclusively is to avoid people touching Circles to feel that they still have angles and sides. That the Circles are pretending to be a completely different class of shape than others when they are not functions as social commentary. In Victorian England, monarchs and nobles still attributed their rulership to an order set down by God. Queen Victoria (1819–1901) herself was, by historical accounts, convinced that she was set apart from common humanity to rule by divine providence.

Square refers to Circles as priests, but they are also the practical rulers of Flatland. He delivers the very pointed line: "Doing nothing themselves, they are the Causes of everything worth doing, that is done by others." Like much satire, Abbott is taking the opposite position of what he means in order to demonstrate the flawed logic of what he is critiquing. Through Square's adoration, we see the Circles' flaws. They do nothing, consume disproportionate resources, and control a system that routinely kills members of the lowest classes. Later, readers will see them deliberately suppress knowledge of other dimensions. They also propagate a doctrine that ties moral character to shape, even while they ignore it in their own homes and many-sided selves.

However, as shown in other places, while the circular class reaps disproportionate rewards from the system, members of the class are still hurt by the strictures applied to them. In earlier chapters, readers are told that Circles who do not complete their education are shut out of society. In these chapters readers learn that many high-status children, of which there are fewer than in other classes, are subjected to a side-breaking procedure that kills 90% of them.

Square's discussion of the doctrine of configuration critiques the Flatlandian—and Victorian—belief that a person's moral nature is inherent and reflected in the physical body. According to the doctrine, it is useless to attempt to raise a young person into a moral adult or to implore someone to be a better person because moral nature is already predetermined by shape. Taking the doctrine to its extreme, the only possible improvement is medical—a "solution" that removes all responsibility from the person in question. The doctrine of configuration also speaks to social Darwinism and the beginnings of the eugenics movement. Positive eugenics was the attempt to create more children of "good" parents, as opposed to negative eugenics, which attempted to prevent propagation by "bad" parents. Proponents of eugenics would select mates with the physical traits they believed correlated to moral and mental fitness. Charlotte Brontë's (1816–55) romantic novel Jane Eyre (1847), for example, includes a scene in which the two lovers examine each other's skulls (phrenology). Based on the shape of his skull, Jane determines that Mr. Rochester is a good man despite his behavior—a judgment she can get away with in Victorian England because of their class.

Square's discussion on the moral hazards of not educating women is particularly interesting. He ascribes reason to men and emotion to women, even though both sexes appear to have both faculties. Square himself is terribly excitable. While he discounts any inconveniences to women as unimportant, he is upset about the extra burden that constant lying and hypocrisy to which women are prone puts on men. He dreads the thought that women may ever find out how men really talk about them when they are alone together. Abbott places extreme logic as a point of satire to the misogynistic discourse (primarily written by men) of his time intended to argue against women gaining any cultural or political rights.

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