Since its first appearance in 1884, Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions has charmed and intrigued readers and scholars alike with its inventive mix of fantasy and reality. What on the surface amounts to a clever means of teaching principles of mathematics and science, upon deeper inspection emerges as an entertaining yet thought-provoking literary experiment. Through the eyes of its narrator A. Square, the novel implicitly satirizes a Victorian society in the grips of extraordinarily rapid change. Abbott divides A. Square's story into two main parts: the character's descriptions of his own culture, followed by his travels to three "Other Worlds." A. Square's experiences impact him in meaningful ways, making him first a spokesman for and finally a victim of the culture he describes. In the spirit of Wonderland, Neverland, and Oz, Flatland shares inescapable, politically charged parallels to the world outside the text. Exaggerating the restrictions governing gender relations, social status, religion, and politics in nineteenth-century Britain, Abbott, through A. Square, creates Flatland as a parody of empire and human nature. Already having delighted and inspired for more than a century, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions continues to enjoy a rightful place in literary, scientific, and philosophical history, inviting its readers to be transported without roaming too far from home.
Widely published as a scholar, educator, and theologian, Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926) remains best known for Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. He was born in Britain's capital and at age twelve entered the City of London School wherehe quickly excelled, particularly in mathematics. A scholarship took Abbott to St. John's College at Cambridge University in 1857, where he focused on Classics. Graduating from Cambridge in 1861, Abbott later resigned a fellowship at the college to take orders as a deacon in the Anglican Church. He became a priest in 1863, yet earned his living and gained a considerable reputation as an educator. As headmaster at his alma mater, the City of London School, from 1865 until his retirement in 1889, Abbott was known for his tireless work ethic. He split his time between administrative duties, curriculum development, and teaching courses in English Literature, Classics, and Comparative Philology. Throughout his life Abbott interacted with some of the most noteworthy, influential thinkers and writers of his day, including Prime Minister Herbert Asquith among his former pupils, and novelist George Eliot among his friends. Abbott passed away in 1926 following a seven-year illness and is buried near his family in Hampstead Cemetery, not far from his home at Wellside.
Perhaps most appreciated for his remarkable contributions as an academic and religious reformer, Abbott found what may have been his true calling when he started publishing his ideas in 1871. He authored numerous theological treatises, many of which argued his vehement rejection of miracles as a basis for Christian belief. Abbott's article "Illusion in Religion," published in the Contemporary Review in 1890, marked his first public comments on what became an ongoing obsession in challenging the philosophies of John Henry Newman. More than a dozen years after his first foray into publishing, Abbott temporarily turned from scholarship to fiction with Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, but his spiritual philosophy clearly resonates in the novel, particularly in the latter half. A. Square's experiences culminate in his epiphany that if a world of three dimensions has existed heretofore without his knowledge, then surely lands of four, five, or more dimensions lie further beyond. Yet Abbott emphasizes that A. Square reaches his conclusion empirically, through hypothesis and experimentation, rather than as a result of an encounter with the miraculous. The portrayal extends from what Frank Turner calls Abbott's "scientific naturalism," which coincides with a Victorian movement to reconcile the seeming opposition between faith and science. Devoting his retirement years almost entirely to writing, Abbott produced numerous books on theology and literature, never revisiting Flatland, yet posterity, perhaps ironically, has placed A. Square's adventure far above any of his alter ego's more "serious" works.
On the surface, of course, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions appears as a primer of sorts on principles of geometry and scientific analogy. Ian Stewart makes a good point in suggesting Abbott may have been influenced by the work of Charles Howard Hinton (1853-1907), whose article "What is the Fourth Dimension?" (published in Dublin University Magazine in 1881 and as a pamphlet in 1884) "has several echoes" in Flatland. Although the concept of other dimensions had already captured the Victorian scientific and literary imagination by the time Hinton's article appeared, his use of geometrical shapes moving within confined space obviously finds a place in Abbott's mathematical fantasy, particularly through his choice of characters: lines, circles, squares, polygons, and the like. Still, if an influence exists, Abbott moves far beyond it, devising a world inspired by his own experience as educator and scholar. He peppers the story with diagrams rather than illustrations, and many of A. Square's explanations about life in Flatland easily read as "lessons." For example, in relating how one Flatlander identifies another, A. Square says, "Suppose I see two individuals approaching whose rank I wish to ascertain? They are, we will suppose, a Merchant and a Physician, or in other words, an Equilateral Triangle and a Pentagon." The lines read like a word problem that A. Square goes on to solve by applying the principles of bisecting angles and lines diminishing to show how "Recognition by Sight" operates in Flatland. In fact A. Square is "a Mathematician of no mean standing," and his subsequent experiences in Spaceland and Pointland proceed in similar fashion, propelled by explanations relying almost solely on mathematical theory. To argue his proof that worlds of multiple dimensions exist to his Spaceland guide the Sphere, for instance, A. Square applies "the Argument from Analogy of figures" and later adopts a similar approach in his effort to "diffuse the Theory of Three Dimensions" in his own world, an activity which, incidentally, turns out to spell his doom.
Interestingly Hinton was among the first to extend Abbott's portrayal, publishing An Episode of Flatland: How a Plane Folk Discovered the Third Dimension in 1907. Several sequels have since appeared, including Dutch physicist Dionys Burger's Sphereland (1965), Jeffrey R. Weeks' The Shape of Space (1985), and more recently, Ian Stewart's Flatterland (2001). Each of these works follows Abbott's example in different ways to apply the ideas and confirm the satirical slant of Flatland, ultimately paying tribute to his original accomplishment. To this day Flatland remains a standard text for teaching concepts of mathematics and physics, as well as an entertaining fantasy and an illuminating view of British history. Although the novel remains explicitly concerned with teaching some basic aspects of math and science, Abbott's creation of Flatland is fueled by social and political interest of which the geometrical shapes populating that world represent the unimaginative and restrictive quality of Victorian life.
At a time when challenging the establishment carried the possibility of being ostracized or worse, fantasy allowed many Victorian writers, as it had for their predecessors from Homer to Shakespeare, the opportunity to disseminate volatile statements to the reading public while working out in their own minds opinions about the most troubling societal conditions. Displaying undeniable connections to early fantasies inspired by Thomas More's Utopia (1516), such as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and George Orwell's 1984, to name a few, Flatland most notably compares as a close precursor to William Morris' News from Nowhere (1891). Like Morris (1834-96) in terms of outspokenness, social consciousness, and literary accomplishment, Abbott was "something of an intellectual radical" and, above all, as Thomas F. Banchoff describes, the headmaster was "a social reformer who criticized a great many aspects of the limitations of Victorian society." Both Abbott and Morris responded in their fiction and nonfiction to influences of the major thinkers of their day and of the past, including Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John Ruskin, as well as to their own persistent beliefs about their nation's future. In News from Nowhere Morris portrays a time traveler's encounters in a futuristic world approximating what Britain might become were it to transform into an egalitarian community. Similarly Abbott imagines in Flatland at least three realms meant to expose what was lacking in his own time and place.
Abbott's work more accurately reflects a dystopian rather than utopian approach, yet Flatland and News from Nowhere similarly treat the uneasiness felt by their respective writers and indeed by many Victorians. Abbott's A. Square reports information, but unlike Morris' Guest, who explains Victorian Britain by contrasting it to Nowhereian society, Abbott's narrator essentially does the opposite, spending most of his time specifically characterizing life in his own world. Morris more closely follows More's example by creating a utopia to show in a positive light how things might be and, through Guest's repeated comparisons, to reflect the misery of his own present. For example, Guest learns from his host that the building formerly housing Parliament now provides "a subsidiary market and a storage place for manure." Both works emerge out of the mixture of fear and optimism defining an approaching millennial moment, as Abbott makes especially clear by pinpointing the shift in A. Square's thinking at the turn of the twenty-first century. To show Victorian readers the folly of their ways, Abbott makes A. Square's descriptions intensely troubling yet clearly comprehensible as an exaggeration of their own experience. Flatland, Abbott implies, is the world capable of being born if present conditions are allowed to continue. For example, when the Victorian reader reaches A. Square's discussion "Of the Universal Colour Bill," he or she would easily recognize the controversy still lingering from the passage of "The Great Reform Bill" of 1832, which altered virtually the entire Victorian social and political system by granting the vote to larger numbers than ever before, thus furnishing power to the emerging middle class. A. Square, however, carefully and pointedly characterizes "The Suppression of Chromatic Sedition" as a violent overthrow resulting in "the balance of the classes [being] again restored." Such a situation, while literally presented as positive, plainly illustrates an opposing view and reflects a darker reality. Great Britain had avoided the massive, violent revolutions that tore apart much of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the anxiety about such upheaval striking at any time remained embedded in the Victorian consciousness. Here Abbott plays with the possibility, making revolution appear to be a necessary return to order but unmistakably defining such condition as a backward move. The complexity of A. Square's argument continues to unravel, especially when, in the manner of a Browning dramatic monologuist, he describes a society in which "Colour is now non-existent." The Victorian reader would recognize the negative implication, receiving Abbott's underlying meaning that a world defined by stagnant, rigid conformity stands in greater danger - or perhaps in even greater need - of a revolution than one defined by freedom and equality.
As the above example indicates, among many themes Abbott explores in Flatland, class constitutes one of the most prominent. Arguably, though, the novel treats the matter of gender in an even more vivid and problematic way, so that Abbott's fantasy becomes a subversive treatise on the most troubling interrelated social questions of his day. In the Preface to the Second and Revised Edition, which followed closely on the heels of the first, Abbott, ala Carlyle in Sartar Resartus, uses the voice of an anonymous "Editor" to respond to a provocative charge, writing, "It has been objected that he [A. Square] is a woman-hater; and as this objection has constituted the somewhat larger half of the Spaceland race, I should like to remove it [. . .] But writing as a Historian, he has identified himself (perhaps too closely) with the views generally adopted by Flatland [. . .]." Although the addition suggests "many of Abbott's readers may have misunderstood the irony" in A. Square's descriptions of gender roles in Flatland, the overarching critical view deems the fantasy as non-sexist satire, which Stewart neatly points out in his introduction to his annotated version: "By making Flatland men treat their women with undisguised contempt, [Abbott] was pointing out how common this attitude was in Victorian society."
In fact A. Square's extended discussions of the female Flatlanders, appearing not only in separate chapters devoted wholly to the purpose as well as in asides interspersed throughout the text, cannot but be taken as wholeheartedly tongue-in-cheek. Whereas women are "Straight Lines," those individuals occupying the highest levels of Flatland society are (male) Circles, actually composed of numerous "sides." Thus women exist at the very bottom of the social scale, even beneath the "Soldiers and the Lowest Classes of Workmen." Viewed as potentially dangerous and "deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion" women must announce their coming and going around the house with a "Peace-Cry" and use a separate door. Almost in the same breath with which he notes how female Flatlanders are kept uneducated and confined, though, A. Square admits "[t]o my readers in Spaceland the condition of our Women may seem truly deplorable, and so indeed it is." He goes on to close the informative part of his account by indicating a possible negative impact on men, and by extension, on society. He says, "My fear is that, with the best intentions, this policy has been carried so far as to react injuriously on the Male Sex [. . . .] On this simple ground of enfeebling the Male intellect, I rest this humble appeal to the highest Authorities to reconsider the regulations of Female education." Although in keeping with A. Square's characterization of a society in which women are kept ignorant, the comment reveals much about the novel's underlying commitment to cautioning the Victorian social milieu that appears almost as a secondary, albeit silent, character throughout Flatland. A vocal proponent of educational reform to extend opportunities to women as well as to the lower classes, Abbott obviously sides against the Flatland government and his views repeatedly appear in this not so subtle way.
Clearly Flatland, where, as A. Square admits, "life is somewhat dull," is not an inviting or appealing utopia, yet Abbott's portrayal of such a world with all its implications persistently captures the imagination. Taken as a whole, Flatland: A Romance in Two Dimensions uses the mode of fantasy to illustrate a critical view of Victorian Britain, or at the very least, of what that culture stood in danger of becoming: a place where speaking "Truth" is done at one's peril and threatens society's very foundations. Such an idea was not too far from reality at a time when the status quo felt increasing threats from women, workers, and scientists. Yet Abbott's masterpiece, like More's Utopia, Morris' News from Nowhere, Orwell's 1984, and others of the genre, continues to shape our thinking about the ways in which societies form and reform. For this reason and many more, Flatland offers an important, exhilarating look at the "Many Dimensions" of human consciousness.
Lori M. Campbell holds a Ph.D. in English from Duquesne University and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Her specialization is nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American literature, and she teaches and writes on Victorian fiction, children's literature, fantasy, folklore, and cultural studies.