Edwin Abbott wrote Flatland as a social satire of Victorian England, and the central target of Abbott’s ire was the class rigidity that characterized English society in the nineteenth century. Because of this, fully half of his book is devoted to an exhaustive cataloguing—to the point of absurdity—of the horrifying and intricate ways in which the social hierarchy of the fictional world of Flatland is established and maintained. Abbott shows that this hierarchy is harmful, not only because it oppresses Flatlanders by limiting their freedom and justifying violence against the powerless, but also because the consuming nature of the hierarchy dominates every Flatlanders’ ability to imagine any life or values other than their own.
Perhaps the most striking example of the oppressive nature of Flatland’s social hierarchy is the difference between men and women. In Flatland, women are line segments, while men are full polygons. On an allegorical level, this gestures toward the “flattening” of women by oppressive Victorian social norms—norms that required women to rigidly adhere to an ideal of femininity that did not allow them to exhibit the more “multi-dimensional” personality allowed (and even expected) of men.
Abbott also describes the hierarchical oppression that occurs among men. All men in Flatland are polygons, and the social class of each is determined by the number of sides he has. Circles belong to the highest class—the priest class—and the polygons with the most sides (that is, those that most closely resemble circles) have the highest social standing. Conversely, isosceles triangles—with only three sides—are the lowliest. Yet despite Flatland’s rigid and hierarchical method of determining social class, there is social mobility in Flatland (at least, among men). By natural law, polygons are supposedly born with more sides than their fathers, thereby promoting families, generationally, up the class ladder. However, the possibility of social mobility obscures what is actually the strict rigidity between social classes. A Square argues that it instead further promotes the social arrangement because the occasional emergence of an Equilateral from isosceles parents offers them a hope that ultimately prevents them from seeking rebellion. Moreover, social mobility is not equally available to everyone in Flatland; it is more pronounced among the upper classes, and less so for the lower classes. The sons of polygons with several hundred sides, for example, might gain fifty more sides than their fathers, while the sons of isosceles triangles can gain only a half a degree in their angles, rather than a full side, each generation. This should be seen as a direct allegory of the increased opportunities available to upper class Victorians, and the wretched inability of the lower classes to create a better life.
Interestingly, the rigidity of this social hierarchy is rooted in the upper-class, male fear of violence and social upheaval. Abbott shows that the oppression of women is inextricable from the males’ fear of women. As women are pointy line segments, they can easily stab male polygons to death (either by accidentally bumping into them, or by stabbing them on purpose)—a power that male Flatlanders lack. Thus, the men place a series of draconian restrictions on women, including making them use separate entrances to buildings and requiring that they constantly emit a “peace-cry” when walking in public. As evidence of how seriously men take the danger of women, the breaking of any of these rules punishable by death. Clearly, Abbott is suggesting a latent and dangerous power inherent to Victorian women, a power of which men should take note. Likewise, lower-class polygons are dangerous because their more-developed voices allow them to imitate the sounds of upper-class polygons (and even circles), a deception that threatens the integrity of the social order.
It’s also important to note that most of the methods of social control in Flatland involve ensuring that all class differentiations are clearly visible to every inhabitant of Flatland. Women are required to wiggle their backsides while they walk so that it’s clear to everyone that they are a line segment, rather than a point. Thus, one way to control women is to require them to be visibly female (notably, through an action that any human woman would recognize as sexualization). Similarly, Flatland’s fog helps the class status of male polygons be more visually clear. Polygons with many angles recede more gradually into the fog than polygons with fewer angles. Thus, the most visible polygons are the most respected (and women, of course, who are the least visible of all, are the least respected). Finally, irregular polygons are considered to be dangerous because, unlike regular polygons, their full shape cannot be immediately discerned by seeing only one of their angles. This means that an irregular polygon could potentially present a favorable angle to the world in order to appear to be of a higher class. Because of their mysteriousness and subversive potential, irregular polygons are social pariahs who put under heavy surveillance and are stigmatized, and are even sometimes subject to euthanasia. In a similar vein, Flatland has banned the use of all colors, because lower-class polygons were using trompe l’oeil paint (a technique of painting the illusion of depth or distance) to create the appearance of having more angles. The crux of Abbott’s satire is that trompe l’oeil paint is a serious enough threat to the social order of Flatland to require prohibiting color. Social hierarchy, then, is only skin-deep—it’s aesthetic, rather than essential, just like the superficial yet powerful class distinctions of Victorian England.
Abbott’s use of absurd allegory satirizes the rigidity of social class, but perhaps the most disturbing allegorical element of Flatland is how much space Abbott devotes to explaining the intricacies of class distinctions. When Abbott (through the voice of his fictional narrator, A Square) notes that there are a “hundred other details of our physical existence I must pass over” in order to detail the social arrangement of Flatland, he stresses how the nature of social hierarchy completely consumes the lives of Flatland’s inhabitants. Not only does the rigid social hierarchy oppress Flatlanders by limiting their freedom, but it also makes them unable to focus on any part of life that is unrelated to class. As A Square’s narration shows, this restricts self-knowledge and bars Flatlanders from enjoying their lives and the full complexity of the world they inhabit.
Social Hierarchy and Oppression ThemeTracker
Social Hierarchy and Oppression Quotes in Flatland
To the Inhabitants of SPACE IN GENERAL
And H. C. IN PARTICULAR
This Work is Dedicated
By a Humble Native of Flatland
In the Hope that
Even as he was Initiated into the Mysteries
Of THREE Dimensions
Having been previously conversant
With ONLY TWO
So the citizens of that Celestial Region
May aspire yet higher and higher
To the Secrets of FOUR FIVE OR EVEN SIX Dimensions
To the Enlargement of THE IMAGINATION
And the possible Development
Of that most rare and excellent Gift of MODESTY
Among the Superior Races
Of SOLID HUMANITY
How admirable is the Law of Compensation! And how perfect a proof of the natural fitness and, I may almost say, the divine origin of the aristocratic constitution of the states of Flatland!
A Male of the lowest type of the Isosceles may look forward to some improvement of his angle, and to the ultimate elevation off the whole of his degraded case, but no Women can entertain such hopes for her sex. ‘Once a Woman, always a Woman’ is a Decree of Nature; and the very Laws of Evolution seem suspended in her disfavour.
It is with us a Law of Nature that the brain of the Isosceles class shall begin at half a degree, or thirty minutes, and shall increase (if it increases at all) by half a degree in every generation until the goal of 60 degrees is reached, when the condition of serfdom is quitted, and the freeman enters the class of Regulars.
All this very plausible reasoning does not convince me, as it has not convinced the wisest of our Statesmen, that our ancestors erred in laying it down as an axiom of policy that the toleration of Irregularity is incompatible with the safety of the State.
Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn his lesson, that to be self-contented is to be vile and ignorant, and that to aspire is better than to be blindly and impotently happy.
Yet I exist in the hope that these memoirs, in some manner, I know not how, may find their way to the minds of humanity in Some Dimension, and may stir up a race of rebels who shall refuse to be confined to limited Dimensionality.