How could Flatland be related to a real event in history?

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belarafon's profile pic

belarafon | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Flatland concerns the first contact between the residents of a two-dimensional land and the three-dimensional universe. Although the narrator, a two-dimensional Square, is educated and intelligent, he finds it impossible to understand the concept of a third dimension before he sees it; he is first terrified of the Sphere who visits him, and then regards the Sphere as some sort of supreme being.

This is similar to the reaction of native peoples when visited by technologically superior societies for the first time. In a way, Flatland is a metaphor for first contact with technologically superior/inferior people. Many indigenous peoples, being at a more primitive technological level, don't understand how more modern societies are able to perform great feats of strength and medicine. A cargo cult would be a good example; when visited by airplanes and given food and gifts, the people in the tribe didn't understand how the airplane worked and instead of trying to stay in contact or creating their own goods, they built representations of the airplane in an attempt to recreate the conditions. Like the Square, some primitive societies regarded superior cultures as gods, but usually only until they came to disagreement.

thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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First, we should note that the Reverend Edwin Abbott, as were most schoolmasters and university tutors of the period, was an ordained priest in the Church of England. Thus in some ways, Flatland serves as an allegory of a secular world encountering the divine (e.g. when characters in the Bible encounter the risen Jesus). Just as Flatlanders can only perceive in two dimensions and must use reason and intuition to extrapolate the nature of multidimensional objects, our knowledge is also limited by what we can perceive in a world that might seem as limited to other beings as Flatland does to us. This sort of reading would emphasize the parallels between Abbott's work and the Allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic; as Abbott was a Senior Classics medallist at Cambridge, he would have been deeply familiar with Plato. 

Another possible parallel you could draw would be between the hierarchy of shapes in Flatland and the hierarchy of skin color in the United States, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. Just as it appears to us absurd that the beings of Flatland were judged by shape rather than character, morals, or intelligence, to many of us now it seems equally absurd that people  were once judged by skin color, and that, for instance, where one could sit on public transit was once determined by the shade of one's skin.