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Flatland | Study Guide

Edwin Abbott Abbott

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Flatland | Preface | Summary

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Summary

The opening illustration of Flatland shows a cloud with annotations of the fifth through tenth dimensions. The book's name is superimposed on the cloud, and underneath it is the subtitle "A Romance of Many Dimensions." Above the cloud is the quote "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange." This line from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet (1599–1601) precedes the more famous lines "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Below the cloud are small depictions of the four regions A Square visits in his travels: Pointland (no dimensions), Lineland (one dimension), Flatland (two dimensions), and Spaceland (three dimensions).

Before the book's preface is a dedication "to the inhabitants of space in general." The author, A Square, hopes the book may help them aspire to explore higher dimensions, expand their imagination, and cultivate modesty. He cites this modesty as "that most rare and excellent Gift ... / Among the Superior Races / Of SOLID HUMANITY." The dedication by A Square, "a Humble Native of Flatland," professes the aim of the book: that three-dimensional people "May aspire yet higher and higher ... / Thereby contributing / To the enlargement of THE IMAGINATION" and the development of the "most rare and excellent Gift of MODESTY."

In the preface to the second edition, published shortly after the first, the unnamed fictional editor of Flatland takes a moment to address criticism leveled against the first edition. The original author, A Square, is in no condition to answer these objections himself because of imprisonment and failing health. The first objection is that objects in Flatland must have a height to be perceivable. Square concludes that this is probably true but that the inhabitants have no vocabulary to conceive of it, in the same way Spacelanders cannot begin to describe a fourth dimension. The second objection is that Square is a misogynist. The editor admits that Square is a shape of his time and that though he has reformed some of his ideas about women and the lower classes in prison, he is still molded by the society in which he was raised. As he puts it, all humanity is "liable to the same errors, all alike the Slaves of our respective Dimensional prejudices."

One point of hope for Square is that the Circles, who continue to suppress revolutions and "[maintain] their supremacy," are being bred out of existence. "Revolutions cannot always be suppressed by slaughter," he writes. Where the human revolutions have failed, nature has succeeded by "sentencing" the Circles to "ultimate failure" through a lack of fertility. Their rule by fear and suppression is unsustainable not just on a moral level, but also according to the wisdom and law of nature.

Square also cautions Spaceland readers to avoid taking stories of Flatland as directly corresponding to their world. He believes that it may be "suggestive" and "amusing" to moral Spacelanders but that they should be taken as neither pure fantasy nor absolute truth.

Analysis

From the start, readers may notice what seems like erratic capitalization of words throughout the book. This likely comes from the Victorian practice many writers used of capitalizing not only titles, personified nouns, and proper nouns, but also other words considered to be important or highlighted for emphasis. For example, a London 1772 textbook on arithmetic by John Hill meant to introduce young students to math reads, "Of Numbers are several Sorts; as Digits, Articles, Compounds, whole, broken or mixed." It is entirely possible that Abbott uses this as a sly point of satire, starting with his character A Square. By using capitalization for emphasis, Square also mimics a pontificating speaking style of lecture common to Victorian teachers and professors.

The dedication's purpose to "englarg[e] the imagination" speaks to the use of thought experiments such as the two-dimensional world of Flatland itself to examine and extrapolate intellectual questions. This is especially true of questions that, as the preface puts it, are "of the highest importance, but li[e] beyond experience."

Though the book is a satire, Abbott expresses a sincere wish in the dedication. By modesty, Square means that people should not assume they understand everything or that their way of thinking is the only plausible or correct worldview. The second half of Flatland tells how Square expands his consciousness by visiting realms of various dimensions. He sees the ways in which characters' limited perspectives keep them from viewing the whole of the universe. This is, by Square's reckoning, the limitation of human wisdom. The visions of Lineland and Pointland help Square understand his and others' limitations, and he hopes his story will do the same for the reader.

Abbott was an ordained minister, and Square's three-dimensional revelations are presented in religious terms even in the preface, where Spaceland is referred to as "that celestial realm." The way Square grapples with truths about the world beyond his understanding is tied into the way Abbott understood faith: that it is intellectual as well as spiritual. Sphere's miracles do not convince Square until he understands the logic behind the higher universe. For Abbott faith required both belief and the sort of intellectual curiosity and imagination he advocates in the dedication. Without this searching, religion prizes orthodoxy and obedience over truth. As Square says in the preface, "Alas, how strong a family likeness runs through blind and persecuting humanity in all Dimensions!"

When Square mentions the superior races of solid humanity, he means people who have three dimensions rather than two. However, this phrasing echoes the Victorian concept that some races of humans were simply more complex and competent than others. For example, Victorians referred to people whose origins were in Africa, the Americas, or South Asia as "the childlike races." It was also not uncommon for Victorian writers to address their readers as a superior class of people who would be able to understand and by implication agree with the arguments being presented. That Abbott uses this format seems in contrast to his point about modesty and humility, except as satire. After all, Square is a two-dimensional being, hoping to teach and inspire his three-dimensional audience.

In addition to addressing some of the real criticisms leveled against the first edition of the book, the preface establishes some of the most important aspects of Flatland as a text. The book is presented as a fictional work by a fictional author within the story itself. By talking about the prejudices of the author (Square) through his fictional editor, Abbott draws attention to Square's unreliability as a narrator. He also points out the way that cultural biases affect a person's report of places or events. As he points out, his prejudices are generally accepted in Flatland, and even in Spaceland, historians pay little attention to women and the lower classes. For any reader who might have missed Square's unreliability, this lays out plainly that he is falling into a logical trap that Abbott believes to be common to many intellectuals of his time. Just because it is the "generally adopted" view in both realms doesn't mean it is acceptable.

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