“Upward, Not Northward”: Flatland and the Quest for the New

In his 1991 article, Gilbert argues for a meaning in Abbott’s Flatland that is not apparent on first glance. What this is has been challenging critics for well over one hundred years, and Gilbert asserts that it is an “insightful study of a persistent nineteenth-century preoccupation, the quest for new creative directions in a culture powerfully-if more and more uncomfortably-committed to history and tradition.” (Gilbert, 392.) He is arguing that Abbott uses the two-dimensional protagonist to satirize the “general Victorian faith in progress.” (Gilbert, 397.) He does so by discussing the rigorous hierarchy of Flatland society, based entirely on anatomical characteristics, and its predictable sterility, which eliminates the possibility of change within such a society. Sphere makes this abundantly clear to Square when he transports him to Pointland, the world inhabited by a single entity. The Point is his own entire universe, and Gilbert states: “This “king” of what the Sphere calls “the abyss of No dimensions” leads a life of narcissistic contentment, continually singing his own praises…that makes no distinction between self or other: “Infinite beatitude of existence! It is; and there is no one else beside It,” (Gilbert, 399). The Square tries to reason with him that there is a greater level of existence, but he is unable to perceive the Square’s words as anything other than his own, because he lacks the creative power that Gilbert is trying to articulate here. The Sphere too, runs into this problem when trying to explain Spaceland to the Square, a two dimensional being with no concept of the word “upward.” The Square cannot understand “upward,” because he only knows “Northward.” When he finally does understand, he tries to then preach his newfound knowledge to the rest of Flatland, and is subsequently imprisoned, because their way of life simply prevents the Square from making a convincing enough argument. Gilbert cites Rosemary Jann’s essay “Abbott’s “Flatland”: Scientific Imagination and “Natural Christianity” and its commitment to creating an alliance between Christianity and science, but Gilbert argues that this kind of reading would limit Flatland, and the kind of creativity that it strives to achieve. Abbott wants us to transcend the traditional views of the world, in search of something greater. Gilbert quotes Kaluza, who says: “if we enlarge our vision of the universe to five dimensions there is really only one force field, and that is gravity.” (Gilbert, 402.) He uses this to charge his reader to find whatever it is that will allow us to see beyond our limited vision, into a new direction, and Gilbert concludes by saying: “As for what that unimaginative new direction is, if the equivocal conclusion of Flatland fails to say, it nevertheless seeks to prepare readers to know it when they see it: in Abbott’s terms, a new dimension expressed in a new language, leading to a new life.” (Gilbert, 403.) 

This argument, to me, is extremely convincing. Abbott wrote Flatland in a time where the concept of the fourth dimension fascinated the public. However, Abbott seems to be telling readers to strive for more, to something even newer, and as Gilbert notes, he does it in a way that is palatable to the general public. Abbott was a huge proponent of English vernacular, and it is evident here.

Source: “Upward, Not Northward”: Flatland and the Quest for the New

Author(s): Elliot L. Gilbert

Source: English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 34, Number 4 (1991), pp. 391-403 Published by: ELT Press

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