The Flaws of Flatland

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  • Topic: Social class, Working class, Middle class
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  • Published : February 28, 2011
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Riley Rustad
English R1A: On the Anecdote
May 5, 2010
The Flaws of Flatland
Edwin Abbott’s novella Flatland is a clever treatise that criticizes the customs, laws, and hierarchy of Victorian Society. He creates a two dimensional world that is ruled by an elite minority who have put in place systems of oppression in order for them to stay in power and to keep those who are among the lower classes in their current social standing. Edwin Abbott intended to show the readers that all “shapes” are created equal. It is my belief that the classism that exists in Flatland society is due to the traditional systems of laws and customs put in place and not the other way around—as the narrator would have you believe. Each system has flaws in its logic that point to the circles keeping them in place in order to stay in power. This, as well as Square’s revelation of the third dimension, led to the underlying premise of the novella about the importance of citizens to question the laws and ideas of authority. Flatland is a world based on mathematics, a perfect science where once something is proven it cannot be refuted. Abbott, however, introduces politics into Flatland, and shows how easily authority can be abused, as well as the importance of questioning it. He demonstrates that even in a world of perfection and proof, politics can complicate the idea of authority. In order to understand Abbott’s message, the readers must recognize the limitations of Square as a narrator. Square is a member of the middle class, and although he intends to be an objective guide, the readers must take his social class into consideration. Square has a lot of pride for his own family because it was only in the last generation when his father was brought up from the lower class. Square places utmost importance on improving his family’s bloodline and striving to not revert back to the lower classes. This creates internal biases that Square is unaware of, and is unable to avoid. He is predisposed to the ways of Flatland and it becomes apparent throughout the story as he shows a clear bias against women and isosceles triangles, with common statements such as their lives are a “monotonous squalor of an existence” (9), and that they are, “wholly devoid of brainpower” (39). By using a fallible character as a narrator, instead of an omnipotent god-like narrator, Abbott achieves an almost sarcastic tone. If read closely, the readers notice fallacies in Square’s logic, which weaken his authority on the matter of Flatland, making the readers lose their trust in his descriptions. As the logic of Flatland’s laws start to break down, so does the power of the circular authority, and Square’s ability to be a compelling narrator of the story. Flatland, as a society, is shaped by circles. They make all laws and decisions, therefore, completely influencing the entire structure of Flatland society. According to Square, the circles are known by everyone as the “mainstays of the constitution of Flatland, the controllers of our conduct and shapers of our destiny, the objects of universal homage and almost of adoration” (35). As circles are considered the wisest shapes in Flatland, citizens take their word as law, and never question it. This makes for a society that resembles Totalitarianism. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems as though the circles have taken advantage of their unquestioning followers, and created a society with naïve citizens that fail to see the truth because they blindly accept what they are told by their overly influential leaders. Abbott, through the following examples, shows that it is important to question and possibly rebel against what is told to them by authority figures because those in power may not be the keepers of truth and wisdom. The Circles saying—the basis for all of Flatland’s laws—is “attend to your configuration” (37), which means that everyone should be aware of their shape and strive to improve it;...
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