. . and in my nightly visions the mysterious precept, “Upward, not Northward,” haunts me like a soul-devouring Sphinx.
Edwin Abbott’s Flatland
A Romance of Many Dimensions
Abbott’s novel premiered in the England of the 1880s, an unsuitably proper Victorian atmosphere but perfect for his didactic approach. But does the novel merely offer a “romantic fantasy” of an alternate world, teach geometry, promote women’s rights, or mock the pettiness of society–or does it also allude to theological ascent? Since Abbott spent much of his life defending Christianity against irrationality and superstition, the clues may be altogether too clear. . . . One particular battle in the 1840s revolved around the Catholic Church’s call to “credulity,” a faith-based (and therefore not scientific) acceptance of the improvable and unlikely. For Abbott, like his idol Francis Bacon, all knowledge comes from logic and personal experience, whether it’s physical or spiritual. Abbott argued that if the supernatural were to impose itself on the natural world, it could only do so without violating natural laws. Credulity must be replaced with credibility. Why does our universe have three physical dimensions instead of two or four? Does it exist this way because it must; that is, do the laws produce their own universe or is there a universe that demands certain laws? Are we mathematically limited to three dimensions or is this by Design? How might we perceive an encounter from One who dwells in a universe with more dimensions?
Too, we can look at the novel as a witty attack against Victorian society. Women, though compelled to wiggle their posteriors and emit small cries of warning where they walk, are ironically capable of “piercing” men and causing great damage or death. The circular priests and sages of Flatland protect their social status politically, spurning the concepts of “sides” even while ensuring the practice of determining how many sides every citizen has by putting down the Chromatic Sedition.
However you choose to read the novel this first time, it endures because it is eminently re-readable; Flatland can be revisited and re-argued as can “the infinite beatitude of existence.”
Podcasts from Chisnell: (music is Kazmir Boyle’s soundtrack to Flatland the Movie)
Some opening thoughts on why we are reading and how to approach the novel, including thoughts on its structure.
Some strategies for reading the novel, including notes on allegory, satire, irony, and style.
Some discussion on the Shakespeare references in the text.
Some Reading Tips
- The first half is mostly essay/exposition; the second half is “story.” Why would Abbott set it up this way?
- Think, too, of it as a genre: not merely fiction, but journal/confessional. What does this do to your understanding of Square’s motives?
- Most narrators of novels are ironic in that they do not see the entire picture. What is Square failing to understand that readers do understand?
- How are readers the same as or different from Square?
- Victorians, proper as they are, don’t always write openly or frankly. The full meaning of the text is suggested or intimated instead. Where does Square intimate a larger idea than he says honestly?
Videos from Chisnell: (music is Kazmir Boyle’s soundtrack to Flatland the Movie and Paul McCartney’s Standing Stone)
Ch 3: Politics and Obfuscation
Ch 12: Language and Sexism
Ch 17: Religious References
Square and The Sphinx
Like the book? Try these “sequels” by later writers!
- Hinton, C.H. An Episode of Flatland. 1907. An intriguing extension where the occupants of Astria inhabit a two-dimensional planet which revolves around a two-dimensional sun. Makes the premise more plausible, but adds a plot of socialist revolution against totalitarianism.
- Burger, Dionys. Sphereland. 1965. Places Flatland in three-dimensional space (a curved plane) and follows the adventures of Square’s grandson, a hexagon, as he begins his space curvature project. He has discovered that a giant triangle’s angles add up to more than 180°, which implies a third dimension. Mostly a mathematical novel.
- Dewdney, A.K. The Planiverse. 1984. Computer science students accidentally contact the members of a two-dimensional universe named after Hinton’s Astria. They talk to Yndrd and discuss his quest for the Beyond. This is the most exacting of the sequels, with logical problems “solved” by scientists and theoreticians all over the world and assembled by Dewdney.
- Stewart, Ian. Flatterland. This 2000 sequel toFlatland is mostly about the mathematical operations around multiple dimensions, fractional dimensions, fractals, and other imaginary concepts. Some fun cultural puns in this update, but it’s definitely for the numerically literate (and I’m not one)! Very slow going, but socially updated. Various dimensions explained in novel ways, to what effect I’m still not sure!
- Flatland, The Movie! Two different film versions, both premiering in 2007! The first is an indie flick available on limited DVD release (I have it!): www.flatlandthefilm.com. The other (with its own awful sequel!) is currently in limited release and stars Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell, and I have a DVD of this, as well! https://www.flatlandthemovie.com/
- Here’s a great Flash movie on understanding higher dimensions, like the 10th! Click on the helix: https://www.tenthdimension.com/flash2.php
References to Shakespeare in Flatland
Title Page, First Edition
“O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.” (Hamlet I.v.164)
“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.” (Hamlet I.v.165)
Title Page, Second Edition
“Fie, fie, how franticly I square my talk!” (Titus Andronicus III.ii.31)
Preface to the Second and Revised Edition
“One touch of Nature makes all worlds akin.” (Troilus and Cressida III.iii.175)
“Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.” (Romeo and Juliet III. iii, 16)
“O brave new worlds, That have such people in them!” (The Tempest V. i. 183)
“The baseless fabric of this vision…” (The Tempest IV. i. 151)
“Melted into air, into thin air.” (The Tempest IV. i. 150)
“Such stuff as dreams are made on.” (The Tempest IV. i. 156-157)
Edwin Abbott Abbott: A Quick Biography
Okay, so the odd double-name explanation first–it comes mostly from when his father Edwin Abbott married his first cousin, Jane Abbott. Ah, well. . . .
He did well in school, earning scholarships to Cambridge. He was ordained as a deacon by age 24 and a priest by age 25. By age 26, though, he became a master teacher, headmaster of the City of London School, and he remained at that post until his retirement in 1889. A devotee of Shakespeare, Abbott compelled each student to read one Greek and one Shakespeare play each term.
It wasn’t until his later years that he began writing in earnest. He published over 50 books, many to be used as school texts. However, nearly all of these were textbooks, literary scholarship, or theology. Only one is a work of fantasy and is unique to English literature,Flatland, first published under the pseudonym of A. Square.
The first part is clearly a satire of Victorian England, while the second part, more story-like, plays with the idea of a fourth dimension. But the novel also fits into Abbott’s theological leanings. Rudy Rucker writes that Square’s journey is a “perfect metaphor for the mystic’s experience of a higher reality” (in Stewart, xvii). The introduction to the Princeton edition of the novel says that “It is as if the story of Gulliver were told by the mayor of Lilliput or the adventures of Alice by the White Rabbit…. The reader has to stay with the story all the way through to appreciate the change that takes place in the storyteller.”
But while he reformed the schools, he was most provocatively a religious reformer, too. A member of the Broad Church, he opposed the high mystical language of the Church of England. This quite possibly provided a motivation for his writing of Flatland, as his rivals believed in an unquestioning acceptance of Church dogma. Abbott’s view was that the laws of the universe must exist according to reason and that faith can be supported through the processes of thinking well. Perhaps the 19th century’s Tractarian controversy might shed some light. Anglican priest John Henry Newman published a work entitled Tract 90 in 1841 which called on the Church of England to return to traditional practices. Unsuccessful, Newman turned to the Catholic Church in 1845 and was soon ordained as a priest and later a cardinal. Abbott and others in the Church of England saw this conversion as a direct threat–Abbott believed that Newman had been duped and would go on to fool others into believing in “credulity,” the acceptance of the improvable and unlikely.
Not surprising, the two biographies Abbott wrote in his lifetime are of his idol, the rational Francis Bacon, and of his nemesis, Cardinal Newman. What Abbott’s motives completely were, however, will likely never be known. Most of his personal records and notes were stored at Cambridge, but were borrowed in the 1930s and subsequently disappeared.
- A. K. Dewdney’s Review of the novel (20 mins.)
- Isaac Asimov’s Introduction to the novel (3 mins.)
- The Onion: Evangelistic Scientists and “Intelligent Falling” (5 mins.)
- Flatland, full text (pdf)
Includes directions, writing tips, and a sample essay with annotations