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Literature Study GuidesFlatlandPart 1 Chapters 7 8 Summary

Flatland | Study Guide

Edwin Abbott Abbott

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Flatland | Part 1, Chapters 7–8 : This World | Summary



Chapter 7: Concerning Irregular Figures

Up to this point, A Square has been speaking with the assumption that all figures in Flatland are regular: that all women are straight lines, that Isosceles have two equal sides, and that every figure of higher social standing than this has equal sides and angles. Square contemplates the absolute chaos that would ensue if figures did not have regular sides and angles. Anyone could look like anyone else, and shapes could only be determined by feeling completely around them. In Square's opinion, society would collapse.

Square also posits that "Natural Law" means that people who are physically irregular are morally irregular as well, destined to be criminals. He admits that not everyone thinks so, but he's quite sure. The counterargument is that people born irregular are treated poorly by everyone in society and denied any potential for advancement or family, so of course they lash out.

Lawmakers have declared that irregularity is "incompatible with the safety of the state." In some states, any infant with an angle deviating more than half a degree is immediately killed, but Square thinks that's a bit extreme. Some of the best men in history, when they were young, deviated by up to 45 minutes (or 3/4 of a degree), and medicine has learned how to compress, extend, trepan (drill a hole in the head), colligate (bind together), and otherwise surgically alter irregular figures into regularity. Square believes that the decision of what to do with an irregular figure should be held off until the age when the frame is beginning to set. At that point if the medical board doesn't believe the shape can become regular, it should be euthanized.

Chapter 8: Of the Ancient Practice of Painting

Flatland, Square admits, can be boring. Flatlanders can only see each other as a single line with no variety except degrees of brightness and obscurity. It wasn't always so.

About 600 years ago, a Pentagon, whose name is usually reported as Chromatistes, figured out the rudiments of color and how to paint. He painted his home, his servants, his relatives, and himself. He gave each of his sides a different color, and no one mistook his front for his back or confused him for anyone else. People began to say that nature intended for sides to be painted. The fashion spread to everyone but the highest nobility, and within two generations everyone was painted but women and Circles. Women have no sides to paint, and Circles' prestige rests on the idea that they have only one smooth round face, rather than being merely a Polygon with so many sides they appear circular.

While Square doesn't morally approve of color, he concedes that it must have been a glorious time to be alive. The beauty of color made any group wonderful to look at, and military parades would have been spectacular, to say nothing of battles. To this day, the best poetry of Flatland is still from the period of color.


Flatland has an intense eugenics program, and Square approves of it. There is no room in society, as it is constructed, for anyone who falls outside of the carefully cultivated categories. The inability to deal with irregularity emerges both from a system that rigidly protects its own power structure and from the shapes' limited ability to view the world. If they were able to look vertically down on the world, as the Sphere later does, most of the practical complications of irregular shapes would completely disappear. However, at present, all they can see are lines of varying brightness.

Square has clearly argued with people who believe that any correlation between criminality and irregularity is not biological but the result of the way society treats irregular shapes. "What wonder," another Flatlander states, "that human nature, even in the best and purest, is embittered and perverted by such surroundings!" But Square remains unconvinced. The question of nature versus nurture in Flatland has been decided very firmly on the side of nature. The result is that people like Square believe that it is better to simply kill those who cannot be made to biologically conform because there is no hope of them becoming useful members of society otherwise.

As much as Square believes his arguments are logical, he resorts immediately to hyperbole. The parallelogram he imagines is more than twice the size of any figure in Flatland. His list of unimaginable horrors from allowing irregulars to continue to exist includes both the utter collapse of all civilization and difficulty in making social arrangements. While the principal point of this juxtaposition is humor, it also paints Square as making any excuse he can think of to maintain the status quo.

The color revolution also fits well into any discussion of Flatland's rigid systems. Much of the way Flatland operates, including its destruction of irregular figures, is designed to solve the logistical problem of telling shapes apart. Color not only solves this problem, but, in the estimation of many of the people both at the time and later, enriches the lives of the shapes who view it. However, it is worth noting that the proponents of color immediately theorize their own set of "Natural Laws"—in this case, "distinction of sides is intended by Nature to imply distinction of colors." This bears as little relation to the reader's understanding of nature as do any of the previous natural laws proposed. Abbott carefully avoids suggesting that color is the correct answer. It may be an improvement, but it suffers from the same limited vision as everything else in Flatland. By extension, the implication is the same for much of human philosophy and science. While it may make steps in the right direction, it is important to avoid believing that it completely explains the universe. As Square says in the dedication, modesty is a rare virtue.

The way Square talks about color as "immoral, licentious, anarchical" echoes a Victorian preoccupation with modesty and virtue in dress, manner, and artistic expression. One of the most famous examples of this is the work of Thomas Bowlder (1754–1825), who in 1818 produced an edited edition of poet and playwright William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) work that removed mentions of sexuality and blasphemy. Many Victorians viewed open discussion of these subjects, especially around women and children, as a moral danger. Poetry and literature were viewed by many as a tool to instill proper moral virtues in the reader. This came into conflict with a movement known as aestheticism, which argued that the value of a work of art was its beauty and had nothing to do with morals. Irish author Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was among the prominent figures in the aesthetic movement and was publicly criticized by for his decadence. Despite widespread sentiment that art, if not properly virtuous, had the potential to be a huge corrupting influence, appreciation of art was still considered an elite virtue, even when the art itself was of an immodest type. The way the Circles keep the secret of color for themselves echoes this elitist concept: that the masses cannot be trusted with art.

Square's contradictions as a character emerge again in these chapters. While he appears to genuinely believe that color was anarchic and immoral, he also wishes that he had been alive to see it and laments the monotony of life without it.

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