I recently finished Flatland (full text link), and I found it generally a somewhat disconcerting read. I realize that it's satire, and it's written in the tone of satire, particularly when it comes to women - but some of the remarks that they make in writing are very off-putting.

I can conclude roughly one of three things:

  1. It's actually satire and I'm misreading it under a modern lens with modern expectations,
  2. or - It's poorly-executed satire,
  3. or - This portrayal isn't satire at all, and it just seems like it could be because of a modern lens.

I have no idea which of these it is.

The book as written is absolutely satire - the author denotes it as this; it's intended to remark on late Victorian-era societal structure. However, parentheticals sometimes include remarks and comparisons that we're intended to accept and gloss over, which has the effect of implying they're simply true without challenging them in any way (end of chapter 3):

Thus, in the most brutal and formidable of the soldier class - creatures almost on a level with women in their lack of intelligence - it is found that, as they wax in the mental ability necessary to employ their tremendous penetrating power to advantage...

Certain things are absolutely satirical (from chapter 4):

...others oblige a Woman, when travelling, to be followed by one of her sons, or servants, or by her husband; others confine Women altogether to their houses except during the religious festivals. 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.

This is a setup that allows Abbot to draw attention to a poor Victorian standard... and then he challenges it in the worst possible way:

For whenever the temper of the Women is thus exasperated by confinement at home or hampering regulations abroad, they are apt to vent their spleen upon their husbands and children; and in the less temperate climates the whole male population of a village has been sometimes destroyed in one or two hours of simultaneous female outbreak.

These kinds of things, in addition to offhand references to "the Frail Sex" which go unchallenged, lead me to question whether, or which parts were intended as satire, and which parts were intended to remain unchallenged.

Is there any way to tell? How do we know?

  • Hmm, I don't think I agree with your premise here. You say "remarks and comparisons that we're intended to accept and gloss over, which has the effect of implying they're simply true without challenging them in any way", but glossing over an assumption without challenging it can actually be a very effective way of drawing attention to it. Can't think of a good well-known example offhand, but I've read many books where an offensive assumption is made offhandedly and unchallenged just to demonstrate something about e.g. the PoV character's attitudes or the societal setting of the story.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 24 '17 at 22:08
  • @Randal'Thor It's possible that's what's going on, and I'd love to see an answer that explores the possibility. I can't find a way to read it like that myself, but it's plausible I'm missing something.
    – user80
    Sep 24 '17 at 22:26

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