Edwin A. Abbott’s fictitious treatise Flatland is a masterpiece of the imagination. Published in 1884, it details the story of a citizen of the two-dimensional Flatland, who is shown the wonders of the third dimension. The idea itself is wonderfully creative, and it is executed in a manner which is both compelling, and innovative.
In style, the story rather resembles those such as Thomas More’s Utopia, in which a person is taken from their own land and shown the possibilities of a utopian paradise that seems to them incomprehensible. Like these utopian narratives, Flatland is written as a first-person account of the author’s experiences and reflections on their homeland and the place which they travelled to.
The narrative is cleverly structured and well-thought out to encompass all of the differences and problems that the reader could possibly encounter when hearing about a person whose life exists only in two dimensions. For this reason, the novel is split into two parts: the first details the laws of Flatland, whilst the second details A. Square’s experiences in Spaceland. The use of diagrams to illustrate Square’s points really facilitates the reader’s understanding of his viewpoint, and the novel definitely benefits from having them.
Square himself is a rather enigmatic narrator. He is humorous, informative and clever and his style of speaking is captivating, even if he – or the things he is discussing – is not always likeable. Having visited Spaceland, it puts Square in a position to position his discussions about Flatland in relation to Spaceland, and thus makes it easier to understand. It also makes the book oddly educational, as much of the discussion necessarily revolves around geometry and mathematics.
One of the most interesting things is the ways in which Abbott, as the author proper, is able to use his fictitious platform to discuss the prejudices current in his own society. For example, in both Lineland and Flatland, women are horrifically oppressed and degraded. Women are viewed as unintellectual and often vicious creatures, inferior to men in all respects. There are also extreme class segregations and discrimination against the lower classes and those who they do not deem as ‘regular’. ‘Irregulars’ are subject to forced hospital treatment, lifelong imprisonment and even death. Whilst the nature of the world being read about is so different from our own that it is difficult to connect emotionally with the Irregulars as characters (especially as they are only discussed from Square’s privileged perspective), it still proves a point and the atrocities of it as a concept still come through. Although the Circles (those of the highest order) are necessarily portrayed in an overly positive light by Square (being his superiors), the fact that they are corrupt and manipulative of society and the lower orders does not go unnoticed by the reader. Abbott uses his platform to the utmost of its capabilities for talking about discrimination in a ‘removed’ and distant manner.
The second section, that in which Square is introduced to Shapeland, is interesting for other reasons. Abbott really captures the frustrations of attempting to explain something to someone when they have no concept of what it is you are trying to explain. It is intriguing to see Sphere’s various tactics to try and get Square to see his meaning. Similarly, Square’s dream vision in which he visits Lineland is interesting in showing how Square finds it near-impossible to see something from someone else’s point of view, and how dismissive he gets of people who do not agree with him. For a two-dimensional shape, Square is an extremely realistic and well-developed character.
Overall, I was immensely pleased to have read a novel in which no character was human. It gave a whole new perspective on things and made it incredibly interesting to read. I would certainly recommend this story to anyone who is interested in utopian narratives, or people who like to try something a little bit different.