Edwin A. Abbott

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Flatland: Hyperbole 2 key examples

Definition of Hyperbole
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements are usually quite obvious exaggerations intended to emphasize a point... read full definition
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements are usually quite obvious exaggerations... read full definition
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements... read full definition
Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Exterminated!:

In the fourth chapter of Flatland, Abbott employs satire and hyperbole to critique limiting 19th-century views on women's capacities. A Square’s cruel and dismissive descriptions reflect the Victorian view of women as powerless and overly emotional:

[...] they are consequently wholly devoid of brainpower, and have neither reflection, judgment nor forethought, and hardly any memory. Hence, in their fits of fury, they remember no claims and recognize no distinctions. I have actually known a case where a Woman has exterminated her whole household, and half an hour afterwards, when her rage was over and the fragments swept away, has asked what has become of her husband and her children.

This is one of many moments in which the author emphasizes the narrator’s ignorance and prejudice to satirize conservative and incorrect societal perceptions. Many people in Victorian England—and apparently everyone in Flatland—views women as lacking intellectual capacity and being driven by violent emotion. By stating that women are "wholly devoid of brainpower" and incapable of "reflection, judgment, or forethought," A Square mirrors the exaggerated and demeaning stereotypes about women’s characters prevalent in his own time. In this passage, women seem absolutely deranged and uncontrollable, even lacking the power of memory. A Square believes they can’t “recognise [...] distinctions” when they are angry, becoming completely indiscriminate and shambolic. Although it’s exaggerated here for effect, women throughout history in Britain and elsewhere have been prevented from accessing power or education because they were considered intellectually and emotionally incapable. In Flatland, they are placed completely under the power of their husbands and male counterparts, as if they have to be controlled and trained like animals.

The hyperbole of this passage amplifies the satire of Abbot’s depiction of women as emotional and inherently violent. In the passage, A Square describes an extreme—but, he implies, not uncommon—scenario of a woman “exterminating” her entire household in a fit of rage, only to forget about it shortly afterward. It’s an overstatement that points to the real history of women being discriminated against for arbitrary and unjust reasons.

Explanation and Analysis—Rules for Lines:

As A Square describes the way that women are compelled to behave in public, Abbott satirizes the ridiculous hoops of propriety that Victorian women were forced to jump through:

In some of the States there is an additional Law forbidding Females, under penalty of death, from walking or standing in any public place without moving their backs constantly from right to left so as to indicate their presence to those behind them; [...]But it has been found by the wisest of our Circles or Statesmen that the multiplication of restrictions on Females tends not only to the debilitation and diminution of the race, but also to the increase of domestic murders to such an extent that a State loses more than it gains by a too prohibitive Code.

The satire in this passage is clear, but it’s centrally located in the description of the absurd law that forces female shapes to move in a certain way—“constantly from right to left”—to advertise their presence. The idea that some “Females” would face the “penalty of death” for not walking in a certain way is an analogy for the rigid societal controls and expectations placed on women during the Victorian era. By presenting this ludicrous scenario as a factual truth from A Square’s perspective, the author sharply criticizes the myriad of hoops that women had to jump through simply to exist in 19th century society. Although there were no specific laws dictating how they walked in the real world, this “Law” points out how arbitrary and oppressive other standards for women’s behavior were in Abbott’s time.

Abbott amplifies this by using hyperbole to exaggerate the consequences of these societal restrictions. Although A Square does think “Females” are dangerous and unstable, he also believes that regulating them too much might be the cause of “increased domestic murder.” By making the absurd claim that laws like the ones dictating women’s bodily movements lead to the "debilitation and diminution of the race" and an "increase in domestic murders," Abbott further underlines how deeply rooted prejudices against women were in his time. Women already have almost no rights in Flatland: removing more of them, according to A Square, would just push these already volatile shapes over the edge. This exaggeration is not just for effect or to add humor, although it is meant to be funny. It also sheds light on the real and often overlooked consequences of societal oppression and of ignoring women’s rights to autonomy.

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