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Literature Study GuidesFlatlandPart 1 Chapters 9 10 Summary

Flatland | Study Guide

Edwin Abbott Abbott

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Flatland | Part 1, Chapters 9–10 : This World | Summary



Chapter 9: Of the Universal Color Bill

Because color made distinguishing shapes easy, the art of sight recognition was in decline, and other "scientific subjects" were coming to be viewed as superfluous. Even feeling was not being practiced, and Isosceles were beginning to assert that perhaps schools did not need chained-up specimens in the classroom. In fact, Triangles of all types began claiming they were equal to more complex Polygons and began to demand the abolition of funding for "monopolizing and aristocratic Arts." They also demanded that priests and women be painted red in front and green in back, and a bill to this effect was authored by an irregular Circle. This would have had priests and women look the same, which delighted women and horrified priests. Members of the priestly class worried that their status would be diminished by association with women and that with color in the home, they would no longer be able to accurately train in sight recognition.

Chapter 10: Of the Suppression of Chromatic Sedition

The social structure was failing in the last years of the age of color. Revolutionary Triangles defeated private armies of Polygons, and some women, agitating for equality, attacked their circular husbands. A Square lists the number of Circles lost at 23. However, the Circles managed to politically outmaneuver the revolutionaries.

A very acute Triangle used color to impersonate a Dodecagon (12-sided figure) and seduced the daughter of a Polygon, who took her life in shame. The Circles used this incident to turn women against the universal color bill, as they claimed it made it easier for women to be victims of fraud.

The Chief Circle of the day, Pantocyclus, declared that there would be a popular vote and that the Circles would abide by it. He made sure there were reactionary women and convict Triangles in attendance. He invited Chromatistes to speak, and after Chromatistes, he spoke on the potential dangers of the bill. He told Equilateral Triangles that the status they had worked hard toward would mean nothing when everyone was equal. Then he talked about the danger to the women, and on a prearranged signal, the women moved in and attacked the revolutionary Triangles while the convicts barred the doors. Many Triangles were killed in the initial charge, and the rest fell into confused violence. By the end all the Isosceles in attendance were dead, and the remaining figures all voted to abolish color. All irregular or possibly irregular Triangles were immediately destroyed without inspection by the medical board. The only person who now knows how to make color is the Chief Circle, who passes it to his successor on his deathbed. Only one factory makes it, and the workmen there are killed annually to keep the secret from leaking out.


These two chapters deal extensively with politics. Chromatistes and Pantocyclus, though historical figures, emerge as two of the better drawn characters in the book. Chromatistes seems to have been a genuine reformer and a powerful orator, though there is a suggestion he was swept up in the tide of the movement he started. His initial innovation seems to have been color for its own sake. Pantocyclus, by contrast, seems canny, treacherous, and interested in preserving his own power by any means necessary. The proponents of color make a number of perfectly sensible suggestions for reform. However, they are not entirely good-faith actors. Square's assertion seems correct that painting women and priests the same color is intended to humiliate and lower the status of the priests, even though functionally the similarity between the two was already achieved by them being the only two groups that remained unpainted.

Square lays bare the fear that equality would lead to "a total destruction of all Aristocratic Legislature and ... the subversion of our Privileged Classes." When the Triangles are attacking the hereditary privileges of the upper class, they speak in terms of the monopolization of the arts. Color—and by metaphorical extension, art—becomes an equalizer in Flatland. It's no coincidence that it is invented not by a Circle, but by a Pentagon who does not even have enough sides to be considered part of the nobility. Color also, in one incident, allows a man of the lower class to have a relationship with a woman of much higher standing. The fear of color and the way it leads to calls for a reorganizing of Flatland's systems reflect how much of the social order is maintained not by force or law, but by culture and institutions. By dictating what is beautiful and what is good—in this case, a shape's number of sides—the Circles give a philosophical underpinning to a system that keeps them at the top. As society begins to value color, however, this base of power is eroded.

It is important to note the numbers Square quotes and what he does and does not consider to be a tragedy. In his description of the intolerable violence of women against their circular families, he says 23 Circles were killed. He mentions a crowd in the council hall of 120,000 revolutionary Isosceles, of which he claims there were no survivors. He praises the way the latter was handled, drawing attention once again to the much higher value he puts on the lives of Circles. He praises the Circles not only despite the numbers of the dead, but despite the absolutely duplicitous tactics they employed. While he talks often about the dangerous violence of the lower classes, he congratulates Pantocyclus on promising a peaceful discussion and then murdering the Triangles on a prearranged signal. He is, like many, much more willing to accept morally dubious behavior that reinforces, rather than challenges, the social order.

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