Jump to content


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
The cover to Flatland, first edition
AuthorEdwin A. Abbott
IllustratorEdwin A. Abbott
GenreScience fiction
PublisherSeeley & Co.
Publication date
Publication placeEngland
LC ClassQA699
TextFlatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions at Wikisource

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is a satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, first published in 1884 by Seeley & Co. of London. Written pseudonymously by "A Square",[1] the book used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to comment on the hierarchy of Victorian culture, but the novella's more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions.[2]

A sequel, Sphereland, was written by Dionys Burger in 1957. Several films have been based on Flatland, including the feature film Flatland (2007). Other efforts have been short or experimental films, including one narrated by Dudley Moore and the short films Flatland: The Movie (2007) and Flatland 2: Sphereland (2012).[3]


Illustration of a simple house in Flatland.

The story describes a two-dimensional world inhabited by geometric figures (flatlanders[4]); women are line segments, while men are polygons with various numbers of sides. The narrator is a square, a member of the caste of gentlemen and professionals, who guides the readers through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The first half of the story goes through the practicalities of existing in a two-dimensional universe, as well as a history leading up to the year 1999 on the eve of the 3rd Millennium.

On New Year's Eve, the Square dreams of a visit to a one-dimensional world, "Lineland", inhabited by men, consisting of lines, while the women consisted of "lustrous points". These points and lines are unable to see the Square as anything other than a set of points on a line. Thus, the Square attempts to convince the realm's monarch of a second dimension but cannot do so. In the end, the monarch of Lineland tries to kill the Square rather than tolerate him any further.

Following this vision, the Square is visited by a sphere. Similar to the "points" in Lineland, he is unable to see the three-dimensional object as anything other than a circle (more precisely, a disk). The Sphere then levitates up and down through Flatland, allowing the Square to see the circle expand and contract between great circle and small circles. The Sphere then tries further to convince the Square of the third dimension by dimensional analogies (a point becomes a line, a line becomes a square). The Square is still unable to comprehend the third dimension, so the Sphere resorts to deeds: he gives info about the "insides" of the house, moves a cup through the third dimension, and even goes inside the Square for a bit. Still unable to comprehend 3D, the Sphere takes the Square to the third dimension, Spaceland. This Sphere visits Flatland at the turn of each millennium to introduce a new apostle to the idea of a third dimension in the hope of eventually educating the population of Flatland. From the safety of Spaceland, they can oversee the leaders of Flatland, acknowledging the Sphere's existence and prescribing the silencing. After this proclamation is made, many witnesses are massacred or imprisoned (according to caste), including the Square's brother.

After the Square's mind is opened to new dimensions, he tries to convince the Sphere of the theoretical possibility of the existence of a fourth dimension and higher spatial dimensions. Still, the Sphere returns his student to Flatland in disgrace.

The Square then has a dream in which the Sphere revisits him, this time to introduce him to a zero-dimensional space, Pointland, of whom the Point (sole inhabitant, monarch, and universe in one) perceives any communication as a thought originating in his own mind (cf. Solipsism):

"You see," said my Teacher, "how little your words have done. So far as the Monarch understands them at all, he accepts them as his own – for he cannot conceive of any other except himself – and plumes himself upon the variety of Its Thought as an instance of creative Power. Let us leave this god of Pointland to the ignorant fruition of his omnipresence and omniscience: nothing that you or I can do can rescue him from his self-satisfaction."[5]

— the Sphere
The last sketch in the book.

The Square recognises the identity of the ignorance of the monarchs of Pointland and Lineland with his own (and the Sphere's) previous ignorance of the existence of higher dimensions. Once returned to Flatland, the Square cannot convince anyone of Spaceland's existence, especially after official decrees are announced that anyone preaching the existence of three dimensions will be imprisoned (or executed, depending on caste). For example, he tries to convince his relative of the third dimension but cannot move a square "upward," as opposed to forward or sideways. Eventually, the Square himself is imprisoned for just this reason, with only occasional contact with his brother, who is imprisoned in the same facility. He cannot convince his brother, even after all they have both seen. Seven years after being imprisoned, A Square writes out the book Flatland as a memoir, hoping to keep it as posterity for a future generation that can see beyond their two-dimensional existence.

Social elements[edit]

Men are portrayed as polygons whose social status is determined by their regularity and the number of their sides, with a Circle considered the "perfect" shape. Women are lines, quite fragile but also dangerous, as they can disappear from view and possibly stab someone. To prevent this they are required by law to sound a "peace-cry" while moving about and to use separate doors from men.

In the world of Flatland, classes are distinguished by the "Art of Hearing", the "Art of Feeling", and the "Art of Sight Recognition". Classes can be distinguished by the sound of one's voice, but the lower classes have more developed vocal organs, enabling them to feign the voice of a Polygon or even a Circle. Feeling, practised by the lower classes and women, determines the configuration of a person by feeling one of its angles. The "Art of Sight Recognition", practised by the upper classes, is aided by "Fog", which allows an observer to determine the depth of an object. With this, polygons with sharp angles relative to the observer will fade more rapidly than polygons with more gradual angles. Colour of any kind was banned in Flatland after Isosceles workers painted themselves to impersonate noble Polygons. The Square describes these events, and the ensuing class war at length.

The population of Flatland can "evolve" through the "Law of Nature", which states: "a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility. Thus the son of a Square is a Pentagon, the son of a Pentagon, a Hexagon; and so on".

This rule is not the case when dealing with Isosceles Triangles (Soldiers and Workmen) with only two congruent sides. The smallest angle of an Isosceles Triangle gains 30 arc minutes (half a degree) each generation. Additionally, the rule does not seem to apply to many-sided Polygons. For example, the sons of several hundred-sided Polygons will often develop 50 or more sides more than their parents. Furthermore, the angle of an Isosceles Triangle or the number of sides of a (regular) Polygon may be altered during life by deeds or surgical adjustments.

An Equilateral Triangle is a member of the craftsman class. Squares and Pentagons are the "gentlemen" class, as doctors, lawyers, and other professions. Hexagons are the lowest rank of nobility, all the way up to (near) Circles, who make up the priest class. The higher-order Polygons have much less of a chance of producing sons, preventing Flatland from being overcrowded with noblemen.

Apart from Isosceles Triangles, only regular Polygons are considered until chapter seven of the book when the issue of irregularity, or physical deformity is brought up. In a two-dimensional world, a regular polygon can be identified by a single angle and/or vertex. To maintain social cohesion, irregularity is to be abhorred, with moral irregularity and criminality cited, "by some" (in the book), as inevitable additional deformities, a sentiment with which the Square concurs. If the error of deviation is above a stated amount, the irregular Polygon faces euthanasia; if below, he becomes the lowest rank of civil servant. An irregular Polygon is not destroyed at birth, but allowed to develop to see if the irregularity can be "cured" or reduced. If the deformity remains, the irregular is "painlessly and mercifully consumed."[6]

As social satire[edit]

In Flatland, Abbott describes a society rigidly divided into classes. Social ascent is the main aspiration of its inhabitants, apparently granted to everyone but strictly controlled by the top of the hierarchy. Freedom is despised and the laws are cruel. Innovators are imprisoned or suppressed. Members of lower classes who are intellectually valuable, and potential leaders of riots, are either killed or promoted to the higher classes. Every attempt for change is considered dangerous and harmful. This world is not prepared to receive "revelations from another world". The satirical part is mainly concentrated in the first part of the book, "This World", which describes Flatland. The main points of interest are the Victorian concept of women's roles in the society and in the class-based hierarchy of men.[7] Abbott has been accused[weasel words][by whom?] of misogyny due to his portrayal of women in Flatland. In his Preface to the Second and Revised Edition, 1884, he answers such critics by emphasizing that the description of women was satirizing the viewpoints held, stating that the Square:

was writing as a Historian, he has identified himself (perhaps too closely) with the views generally adopted by Flatland and (as he has been informed) even by Spaceland, Historians; in whose pages (until very recent times) the destinies of Women and of the masses of mankind have seldom been deemed worthy of mention and never of careful consideration.

Critical reception[edit]

Flatland did not have much success when published, although it was not entirely ignored.[8] In the entry on Edwin Abbott in the Dictionary of National Biography for persons who died in the period of 1922 to 1930, Flatland was not even mentioned.[2]

The book was discovered again after Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity was published, which brought to prominence the concept of a fourth dimension. Flatland was mentioned in a letter by William Garnett entitled "Euclid, Newton and Einstein" published in Nature on 12 February 1920. In this letter, Abbott is depicted, in a sense, as a prophet due to his intuition of the importance of time to explain certain phenomena:[9][10]

Some thirty or more years ago a little jeu d'esprit was written by Dr. Edwin Abbott entitled Flatland. At the time of its publication it did not attract as much attention as it deserved... If there is motion of our three-dimensional space relative to the fourth dimension, all the changes we experience and assign to the flow of time will be due simply to this movement, the whole of the future as well as the past always existing in the fourth dimension.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography subsequently revised his biography to state that [Abbott] "is most remembered as the author of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions".

Adaptations and parodies[edit]

Numerous imitations or sequels to Flatland have been created. Examples include:

Films and TV

Books and short stories inspired by Flatland include:[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Physicists and science popularizers Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have both commented on and postulated about the effects of Flatland. Sagan recreates the thought experiment as a set-up to discussing the possibilities of higher dimensions of the physical universe in both the book and television series Cosmos,[23] whereas Hawking notes the peculiarity of life in two-dimensional space, as any inhabitants would necessarily be unable to digest their own food. (This concept is parodied in the below-described episode of Futurama. The protagonists attempt to eat Flatland food but it falls out immediately. The native organisms in Flatland absorb food somewhat like amoeba.)[24]
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 2, issue 3, in chapter 3 of the series of writings New Traveller's Almanac, it is mentioned that in an unknown basement of New York, Flatland was discovered by a mathematician.
  • In the "2-D Blacktop" episode of the animated science fiction TV comedy series Futurama (season 10 episode 1, originally broadcast June 17, 2013), two spaceships moving at relativistic speeds crash head on and are compressed together into a flat disk. They meet natives of the realm, who chase after them when the concept of a third dimension is brought up.[25]
  • In David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest (1996), it is briefly mentioned that students from the Enfield Tennis Academy could be seen studying and highlighting copies of Flatland on the bus.[26]
  • Flatland features in The Big Bang Theory episode "The Psychic Vortex",[27] when Sheldon Cooper declares it one of his favourite imaginary places to visit.[28]
  • On the series The Orville, episode "New Dimensions", after entering a region of two-dimensional space Captain Ed Mercer references Flatland and its theme of social hierarchy.[29]
  • In the Sons of Anarchy episode "Straw", Clay Morrow is lounging on a cot in a private cell in county jail when he first meets retired U.S. Marshal Lee Toric. Morrow half-ignores Toric while keeping his eyes on a copy of Flatland.
  • In Gravity Falls, it is implied by the main antagonist Bill Cipher that he originates from a dimension very similar to Flatland.
  • The novel appears in the film Interstellar.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Abbott, Edwin A. (1884). Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions. New York: Dover Thrift Edition (1992 unabridged). p. ii.
  2. ^ a b Stewart, Ian (2008). The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Basic Books. pp. xiii. ISBN 978-0-465-01123-0.
  3. ^ Rehmeyer, Julie (29 July 2013). "Review of Flatland: The Movie and Flatland 2: Sphereland". Science News. Retrieved 10 June 2018.
  4. ^ "Flatlander, n. meanings, etymology and more | Oxford English Dictionary". www.oed.com. Retrieved 18 October 2023.
  5. ^ Abbott, Edwin A. (1884) Flatland, Part II, § 20.—How the Sphere encouraged me in a Vision, p 92
  6. ^ Abbott, Edwin A. (1952) [1884], Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (6th ed.), New York: Dover, p. 31, ISBN 0-486-20001-9
  7. ^ Stewart, Ian (2008). The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Basic Books. pp. xvii. ISBN 978-0-465-01123-0.
  8. ^ "Flatland Reviews". Retrieved 2 April 2011.
  9. ^ Stewart, Ian (2008). The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Basic Books. pp. 11. ISBN 978-0-465-01123-0.
  10. ^ "Flatland Reviews – Nature, February 1920". Retrieved 2 April 2011.
  11. ^ Flatland at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  12. ^ "DER Documentary: Flatland". Retrieved 11 October 2012.
  13. ^ "Flatland Animation: The project". Retrieved 11 October 2012.
  14. ^ "IMDB: Flatlandia". IMDb.
  15. ^ "Flatland the Film". Retrieved 14 January 2007.
  16. ^ "Flatland: The Movie". Retrieved 14 January 2007.
  17. ^ "IMDB Flatland: The Movie". IMDb.
  18. ^ "Flatland 2: Sphereland".
  19. ^ Flatland 2: Sphereland at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  20. ^ GeekDad.com Review of Flatland: The Movie and Flatland 2: Sphereland
  21. ^ "The Loss". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 20 May 2021.
  22. ^ Vanderborg, Susan (Fall 2008). "Of 'Men and Mutations': The Art of Reproduction in Fatland". Journal of Artistic Books (24): 4–11.
  23. ^ Tremlin, Todd (2006). Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0199739011.
  24. ^ Gott, J. Richard (21 May 2001). Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time. USA: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 61. ISBN 978-0395955635. a brief history of time flatland.
  25. ^ Nicholson, Max "Futurama: "2-D Blacktop" Review" IGN
  26. ^ Wallace, David Foster (2006). Infinite Jest. Back Bay Books. p. 281. ISBN 0316066524.
  27. ^ VanDerWerff, Emily. "The Big Bang Theory: "The Psychic Vortex"". A.V. Club. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
  28. ^ "Flatland Featured on The Big Bang Theory on CBS Television". Giant Screen Cinema Association. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
  29. ^ "New Dimensions". The Orville. Season 1. Episode 11. 30 November 2017. Fox.
  30. ^ Valcarel, Josh. "9 Easter Eggs From the Bookshelf in Interstellar". Wired.

External links[edit]

  • "Sci-Fri Bookclub"—recording of National Public Radio discussion of Flatland, featuring mathematician Ian Stewart (21 September 2012)

Online and downloadable versions of the text[edit]