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Literature Study GuidesFlatlandPart 1 Chapters 3 4 Summary

Flatland | Study Guide

Edwin Abbott Abbott

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Flatland | Part 1, Chapters 3–4 : This World | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3: Concerning the Inhabitants of Flatland

The people of Flatland are usually no more than 11 inches across, with 12 as an absolute maximum. Men are shapes, and women are straight lines. The men's shape is related to their social status.

On the lowest social level are Isosceles Triangles (triangles with two equal sides) with a single acute angle that makes them sharp and formidable. The Isosceles are soldiers, serfs, and servants. The middle class is made of Equilateral Triangles (triangles whose sides and angles are equal). Professional men such as lawyers and scholars are Squares and Pentagons. Hexagons (six-sided figures) and others with more sides are considered nobility and given the title Polygonal (many sided). Circles, with so many sides they seem round, are the highest, priestly caste of society.

The son of any Equilateral will almost always have more sides than his father. Thus the son of an Equilateral will be a Square, the son of a Square will be a Pentagon, the son of a Pentagon will be a Hexagon, and so on. This is not true of the Isosceles, whose sons sometimes have wider bases than their fathers. For the Isosceles, it takes generations of careful marriage to produce the occasional Equilateral, who is then taken away from its parents to be raised in middle-class prosperity. The narrator claims that this birth is celebrated by the Isosceles and that this very rare ability to rise up from the ranks of serfdom helps keep the larger population from rebelling. If they ever put their mind to rebellion, the Triangles' sharp angles and superior numbers would easily overwhelm the other shapes.

Fortunately, A Square is convinced, intelligence is correlated to the sharpness of angles, and so Triangles will always be either intelligent or dangerously sharp—never both. He believes that this keeps Triangle leaders from fomenting rebellion from below. When rebellion does arise, the Circles are able to have a few of the Triangle leaders declared Equilaterals and thus undermine their fight for equality for all. Then the Circles unleash armies of paid Triangle mercenaries on the others. So far the Circles have put down 120 large rebellions and 235 "minor outbreaks" in this manner.

Chapter 4: Concerning the Women

Women in Flatland are even more deadly than Triangles, being straight lines like needles. They are invisible when viewed from straight on. One end of the line is a woman's eye and mouth; the other end has only a sharp point. Different governments in Flatland have taken numerous strict measures to control women's movement and conduct in such a way that they are not a danger to men. Square outlines three major measures:

  1. Every house will have a separate door for women, which they must enter "in a becoming and respectful manner."
  2. A woman walking must continuously utter a "peace cry" on pain of death.
  3. Women who suffer from epilepsy, fits, chronic sneezing, or anything else that causes sudden jerking movements will be immediately euthanized.

There are various regional codes, including those dictating that women must swing back and forth as they move on pain of death, must be followed by their husbands or sons, or must be confined entirely to their houses. Square believes that such codes cause more domestic murders than the lives they save in public accidents and thus are not worth the trouble. Women who are too confined sometimes lash out violently at their families, though often in doing so they become stuck and shatter themselves.

The narrator asserts that since intellect is tied to wider angles, women biologically lack the capacity for reason and complex thought. They are instead ruled by passion and may get so angry that they forget themselves, turn around, and attack. Their sections of houses are thus built so that turning is impossible, and it is acceptable to lie to women to pacify them, as they will soon forget why they were angry. Only acute Triangles, the narrator says, lack the diplomatic skill to keep out of brawls with their wives. Circles regard these often-deadly fights as a net benefit, as they eliminate "redundant population" and rid the world of the more hot-headed Triangles.

In the highest circular households, women are required to always keep their eye and mouth ends toward their husbands and fathers. Circles, however, complain about all the women's talking they are forced to endure because of it.

Because the women of Flatland have no angles, they are socially below even the lowest Triangle and can never rise. "'Once a woman, always a woman' is a Decree of Nature," says the narrator. He recognizes that this is a miserable state but takes consolation in the fact that women lack the brain power to apprehend how poor their situation is.

Analysis

Because Square is an unreliable narrator who has internalized all the prejudices of his society, the truth of his statements about the Isosceles and women is ambiguous. In all likelihood, they are not true, but Square's report reflects a pseudoscientific understanding that perpetuates oppression. The language he uses is charged and negative, calling the acute Triangles "degraded" and "wretched rabble" and the women "wholly devoid of brain-power." His attitudes closely mirror those of some Victorian thinkers. For example, Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), a social Darwinist and professor at the University of Turin, wrote, "Women have many traits in common with children, that their moral sense is deficient, that they are revengeful, jealous." He believed criminality was a result of retrograde evolution and could be predicted by skull shape (phrenology). Echoes of such thinking are evident in Square's fixation on acute angles as brutish and prone to violence. The idea of forward evolutionary progress also appears in the fact that each generation of Isosceles increases its angle and other regular shapes increase their number of sides. However, it is clear that the Circles and more complex polygons are not, despite Square's insistence, superior to anyone else. They are only visibly different than the lower classes and afforded more power and education.

Much of Square's treatise on Flatland focuses on how the small number of Circles continue to exert their control over the much more numerous lower classes. Written in 1884, Flatland came into being after a century of major revolutions, including the French revolutions of 1787, 1830, and 1848 as well as the 1848 revolutions in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Austria. The year 1848 also saw the publication of Karl Marx's (1818–83) Communist Manifesto. The possibility of lower-class uprisings still dominated much of popular discourse. In Flatland the Circles use a variety of tactics, including restrictive laws, other triangular enforcers, warfare, a tithe of Triangles to the universities to be used as disposable subjects, fomenting strife between Triangles, and offering a slim hope of advancement. They also encourage and celebrate the things that cause Triangles to kill one another or die in domestic disputes. The blatant callousness of the way Square and the Circles regard the Triangles is one of the most important signs that the work is meant to be taken satirically. In this way it is much like Johnathan Swift's (1667–1745) essay "A Modest Proposal." The 1729 essay mocks the English response to poverty and famine in Ireland by suggesting that the most logical and productive solution is for the Irish to eat their children.

The restrictions on women are pointedly harsh and deadly. Punishments such as execution for chronic sneezing are blatantly satirical and meant to seem monstrous. But Square has no moral objection to laws that restrict women or even call for their death even if he believes they're less effective than simply encouraging social norms that accomplish the same goals. Abbott thus establishes Square as a traditionalist who considers himself perfectly rational and unburdened by "sentiments" about liberty, equality, or kindness.

The restrictions on women in Flatland speak explicitly to the restrictions experienced by real women in the United Kingdom during the Victorian era. Women were unable to vote or own property once they were married; all their wealth, including any patents, inventions, or intellectual property, belonged legally to their husbands. Divorce left women destitute and with no access to their children. Women's education did advance in the Victorian period, with even elite universities such as Cambridge allowing in a handful of female students. But higher education was still strictly segregated and overwhelmingly male. Not only was educating women often considered a waste of money; some at the time suggested that an unfeminine amount of thinking would stunt a woman's ability to reproduce. Upper-class women were often not allowed to travel without a chaperone to ensure their behavior was in keeping with the ideals of the time. Women of any class were not allowed to earn an income without the permission of their husbands or fathers, with the exception of widows. A husband's right to beat, confine, and force sexual contact upon his wife was enshrined in law. However, as with Square's assessment of Flatland's women, many of the restrictions on women's behavior were enforced by custom more than by law. Modestly, chastity, and submission were seen as deeply desirable qualities in women. With marriage as a woman's principle access to property, it was in the best interests of a woman's survival to cultivate those qualities.

These ideas, though widely accepted, were not universal. The Victorian era saw many women advocating for reform in their situation, including better divorce laws, inheritance and education reform, labor laws that restricted how late into a pregnancy a woman could be forced to do manual labor, ability to work in fields such as medicine, and early agitation for the right to vote. The question of women's proper place in society was widely discussed, and advocates for more equal treatment included economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–73), who in 1869 wrote "On the Subjugation of Women." These public debates would have been familiar to Abbott and his audience, and readers would have easily understood that the severe restrictions placed on two-dimensional women were meant to lampoon those of their three-dimensional counterparts.

The description of Flatland women as being lowly as to have only one side that is sharp as a needle is also a play on the humble Victorian womanly art of sewing (with a needle), which if turned against a person instead of cloth could prick and wound. The requirement that Flatland women shout a "peace cry" when entering a room contrasts with the requirement of Victorian servants to remain utterly silent unless directly addressed by a superior and to make every effort to be invisible in going about daily duties. For example, a maid carrying laundry was expected to cover her face when meeting someone on the stairs.

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