Questions, Intuitions, Revisions:
Telling and Re-Telling Stories About Ourselves in the World
A College Seminar Course at Bryn Mawr College

Forum 5 - Flatland: A Fairy Tale? A Story? Or ... ?

Name:  Anne Dalke
Subject:  Flat fairy tale? Dimensional Story?
Date:  2003-09-30 09:45:13
Message Id:  6705

Friends and fellow-tellers of tales:
This week's questions (posed by me and Paul, to be chewed over by us all...) are two in number:
Is Flatland a fairy tale? (If so, what makes it so? If not, why not?)
Is it a story?
(So, and: what's your working definition, four weeks into the semester, of story...?)
Hm. Seems as though this week's questions are...
five in number. Go for the bold.
(Sometimes I get ahead of myself....or rather: ahead of the common story we are writing.
Chalk it up to enthusiasm for the tale, in all its dimensions, and know that...
we will be filling in details as we go on, figuring out together which ones are meaningful....)

Name:  Gillian Confair
Subject:  So Many Angles
Date:  2003-09-30 09:45:13
Message Id:  6706
Alright, so I still don't fully comprehend the idea of multiple dimensions within our own (my brain isn't flexible enough to wrap around it) but what I do understand is that it would be pompous of us to think that just because we are advanced mathematically and scientifically that there couldn't possibly be another dimension of thought above us. I guess that correlates into the idea of telling stories and changing them: if you're proud enough to swallow your pride and admit you're wrong, then you can change your story. If not, you won't- but that doesn't mean that the world won't change it for you. We're in flux. I guess admitting that is the first step towards thinking of other dimensions as well as our own.
Name:  Paul Grobstein
Subject:  connections/extensions
Date:  2003-09-30 10:02:19
Message Id:  6708
Does anyone care enough to LOOK for additional dimensions? Yep, see photo to right. From todays NY Times Science Times.

While we're on the subject, the Galileo space craft was deliberately crashed into Jupiter last week, for an interesting reason: to avoid possible contamination of Jovian moons with earth life forms. To avoid our changing THEIR stories?

And, remember/notice that, if you want some additional spaces/stories to explore yourself there are always links related to our conversations on our course home page ("some relevant web resources" lower down in the right column).

Name:  Stephanie Olen
Subject:  Flatland a Fairytale?
Date:  2003-09-30 11:59:59
Message Id:  6711
"Is Flatland a fairy tale? (If so, what makes it so? If not, why not?) Is it a story?"

Since this has been so utterly ambiguous, let's start with the defininition of a fairytale:

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Main Entry: fairy tale
Function: noun
Date: 1749
1 : a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins) -- called also fairy story

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

fairy tale (or story)
1 tale about fairies or other fantastic creatures

Is Flatland about fantastic forces, fairies, wizards? Is it about any other fantastic creatures? No. Furthermore, a fairtale is a compulation of folk tales taken from the general consciousness (at least, so I see it), which Flatland is not. But, furthermore a fairytale is the metaphorical dead horse that we're collectively beating with our semantics.

Is Flatland a story? What is a story, anyway? I hear you wonder. Again, thanks to our friends

at Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: 1sto·ry
Pronunciation: 'stOr-E, 'stor-
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural stories
Etymology: Middle English storie, from Old French estorie, from Latin historia -- more at HISTORY
Date: 13th century
1 archaic : HISTORY 1, 3
2 a : an account of incidents or events b : a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question c : ANECDOTE; especially : an amusing one
3 a : a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; specifically : SHORT STORY b : the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work
4 : a widely circulated rumor
7 : a news article or broadcast

And, from the lovely OED:

story /stawree/ n. (pl. -ries)
1 account of imaginary or past events; narrative, tale, or anecdote
2 history of a person or institution, etc.
3 (in full story line) narrative or plot of a novel or play, etc.
4 facts or experiences that deserve narration
5 colloq. fib or lie

So, is Flatland a story? Why, yes, as a matter or fact, it is. It's an account of imaginary events, it's even a narrative and a tale. In the life of A. Square, it's the history of a person, and in view of Flatland itself, it's the history of a society.

Interestingly, it took me about five minutes to come to reach these conclusions, instead of 90.

Name:  Paul Grobstein
Subject:  interesting ...
Date:  2003-09-30 12:27:01
Message Id:  6712
I wonder what kind of story about fairy tales and stories might emerge if one were disinclined to appeal to authority and time efficiency? What would the Flatland narrator's answer have been to the question of how many dimensions there are if he were operating under those constraints?
Name:  Bethany Keffala
Subject:  flatland and paper reflections
Date:  2003-10-01 11:02:15
Message Id:  6742
Ok, so here's what I found really really interesting in Flatland. All the male shapes are different according to class, but all the women are the same shape. The only real differences in appearance between the women according to their class is how they sway back and forth in order to be seen. This reminds me of a conversation I had with someone this summer about societal/biological differences between males and females, more specifically on the subject of movement. It's sort of like fish; when a fish sees something shiny, or something that moves in the water, it is attracted to it. Women tend to sway when they walk. They can't really help it, it just happens that way, and men tend to be attracted to that. Thus, women tend to be the ones in our society at least who wear flowy things, like skirts or dangly earings or whatever, whereas men tend to appear solid. For example, when they wear earrings/an earring, it tends to be a very small, solid, still object. So we sort of associate movement with female attractiveness. When this theory is applied to Flatland, you might say that the only difference (for the line-women) between a noble-woman and a low-class prostitute is in the finess she uses in her method of attracting a mate. Does anyone else find that odd, or at least worth thinking about a little?

Second subject: I had a bit of a surprise last Thursday when I went to my C-Sem let's-talk-about-your-papers meeting. I had gone with the thought in mind that my three essays so far had gone from ok to bad to worst, the first being the life of learning paper, the second the fairy tale, and the third the analysis of the fairy tale. When I got there, though, Professor Grobstein said that he had actually found the fairy tale to be a powerful story. I spent that afternoon thinking about why our opinions had been so different, and I came up with a guess. As a part of my personality type, I don't like to publicly display my emotions. I don't really have a problem when other people do it, but it's just really difficult for me to pull off. The best example I can think of is The Kitchen God's Wife, by Amy Tan which is an entirely emotion-based book. I love reading it, and I think it has lots of literary merit, but when I talk about the same sorts of things, I tend to view it as a cop-out, like I'm not actually thinking about anything, or like I'm relying on my emotions to do all the work and I'm not really doing anything at all. But when I thought about, I was working when I wrote the fairy tale, just in a different sort of way. What place does emotion have in literature anyway? Is it an intellectual subject/ is it valid for emotion to be the drive, subject, decision-maker when it comes to writing? I don't know, maybe this is silly, but it really struck me as something that was maybe important for myself, and maybe for other people around, too. What do you think?

Name:  ginny costello
Username:  vcostell
Subject:  Flatland
Date:  2003-10-01 20:41:49
Message Id:  6768
Flatland was not a fairy tale. Flatland was a social satire about Victorian England and the various social classes. It was a mathmatical sci/fi about England's social caste system of the time. Kind of an expose'of the unjust treatment of the various social classes. Abbott originally penned this work anonymously. That is interesting in itself.
What was he afraid of?
Name:  Flicka
Subject:  Is Flatland a fairy tale?
Date:  2003-10-01 21:12:38
Message Id:  6771
I don't believe Flatland was a fairy tale because there were no fairies, or witches, or magicians, or anything magical. It was not written to entertain children; it was written to comment on the societal structure of the time period and to introduce the idea of various dimensions. It is impossible for children to grasp the meaning of this, and as adults we have trouble with the concept as well. So I would say no, that Flatland is not a fairy tale.
Is it a story? Yes. It has structure of thought, it has a plot, and it has various characters . It also has a climax and an ending to the narrative. I'm not saying that this is the definition of a story. I'm simply saying that because Flatland has these characteristics, it is a story. I don't want to go into trying to define a story because it's going to be too complicated.
I want to go back to something we discussed in class. We talked about how fairy tales have good and bad characters and that they are presented as very black and white. Flatland does not have distinctly bad and good characters. Just because the Square learns the truth about dimensions and understands it doesn't mean that he is necessarily a good person. And just because society locks him up for speaking his mind, doesn't mean that they are necessarily bad people. They honestly believe that they are acting in the best interests of the people, and although this does not justify their actions, it also does not make them "bad" people.
Just some thoughts....the Square is actually more intelligent than the Sphere because when the narrator learns and accepts that a 3D world exists, he uses this knowledge to then think about 4th or 5th dimensions. Whereas the Sphere, although he opened up the eyes of the Square, is so close-minded that he will not consider the possibility of more dimensions. I find this interesting because it demonstrates very well the resistance society has to new ideas and to change in general.
Name:  Jenny Barr
Subject:  dnaltalF
Date:  2003-10-01 22:16:05
Message Id:  6772
Here's my thought. Some things that go into making a fairy tale: a sympathetic figure facing some terrible problem, a magical figure (or one so perceived by the people in the story), and a happy ending ("never bothered by diapers or dust") brought about by the work of said magical figure. So, if you read it backwards (and gloss over some details), Flatland could be a fairy tale.

A. Square starts out in a miserable position -- in jail, unheard, isolated. He then gets un-separated from his wife and family. He goes on some wild journey to another land with this magical character (who seems to grow from being flawed to being all-knowing). The sphere floats out of view, and the Square is magically restored to his normal two-dimensional world and the social order is unperturbed.

Ok, so maybe that's a stretch. But forwards or backwards it's a story. What's not a story, after all? If the reader supplies enough personal allusions and context, maybe even a grocery list could turn into a story.

Name:  Anita Lai
Subject:  Flatland
Date:  2003-10-02 07:28:18
Message Id:  6775
Flatland is not a fairy tale for the simple reason that it doesn't have any magical characters such as a fairy, godmother, wizard, or witch. This is not to say however that Flatland is not a story. I believe that Flatland is obviously a story considering the fact that it is a book with characters the author has created through the use of his imagination. I guess my definition of a story is an organized thought with the purpose of imparting knowledge and challenging the reader to use imagination to a certain extent. Also, another characteristic of a story is that it ususally affects the reader by making him or her feel some type of emotion in response.
Name:  Tamiyo Britton
Date:  2003-10-02 08:54:43
Message Id:  6776
I think Flatland can be a fairy tale, but it is a different kind of fairy tale from what we assume as a fairy tale. Flatland does have most of the elements we see in fairy tale, Through the conversation we have had in class about fairy tales and what makes it story, Flatland seem to satisfy most of the elements which we discussed. The elements, I meant, mostly what Bettelheim talks about. So it seems to me that he was following certain format for writing fairy tale.
Name:  Gillian
Subject:  Here's the skinny
Date:  2003-10-02 09:49:50
Message Id:  6777
Or the flat, if I were being satirical about our latest reading choices. It's time for a mini-rant:
Flatland is not a fairy tale. I repeat: NOT a fairy tale. It doesn't have the general characteristics, mode, or simplicity of a fairy tale. The characters are shapes, not people, and if the Little Engine That Could traumatized that woman enough to not be a fairy tale, then reading about dimensionality definitiy doesn't qualify.
On that note, Flatland does talk about shapes, as an ALLEGORY for LIFE. It's, and I know there are other people out there who want to say this with me, reminiscent of the Allegory of the Cave (or Den depending on the translation). It goes from a lack of knowledge to knowledge, and the person who finds out that what he originally saw isn't the whole truth has the first instinct to go back and tell his story (note the careful placement of the word STORY. Yes, this is a story, no questions about that). The reticence of people to hear him, the authorities arresting him is a result of the fear of change.
It's an allegory for the way society works and treats new ideas.
Reading Gallileo only confirms that.
Well, I think I'm done for now.
*steps off of soap box*
Name:  Flicka
Subject:  The real, the truth, and Galileo
Date:  2003-10-02 17:02:58
Message Id:  6778
I wanted to continue the discussion we were having in class about where "real" is in relation to stories."Real" is too broad a word to place into a category. You can't draw a box and say "that is real" because we don't even know what real is. We don't even know what truth is. According to Galileo, "Truth is the Daughter of Time..." so we will never really know the truth until the end of time. Since time is constantly moving, we can only get closer to the truth. But we can't become "less wrong" about the world unless we keep an open mind and let ourselves consider new ideas.
I don't think the Brecht meant to write the book as a way for people to realize that change is good. I got the feeling when i was reading it, that Brecht understood how hard it was for society to consider Galileo's new theories. After all, they contradicted 2000 years of Church teachings and if the Church was wrong, what would people believe in? Their whole world would be turned upside down, and the idea frightens them. Ultimately, however, Galileo's ideas were proven to be correct. I believe we should be open to new ideas b/c they may take us closer to the truth than we already are. And although it may seem confusing and frightening to look at such incredible theories, it will be ulitmately be beneficial to everyone to to work together to come as close to the truth as possible.
Name:  Anne Dalke
Subject:  Many Windows in this "Story"
Date:  2003-10-03 11:10:50
Message Id:  6780

I've been thoroughly enjoying the conversations about stories which we've been having in my section, as well as listening in to the stories being told over in the other section....

and just wanted to archive here, for the record and further mulling-over, some of what I've been learning...

When the McBrides and I tried defining "story," we came up with a range of possibilities:

It occurs to me, recording these definitions, that none of them worry with the relationship of "reality" to "story." My American Heritage Dictionary lists "an allegation of facts" as the 6th definition of story and "a lie" as the 9th. But it also says this:

"The set of rooms on the same level of a building. From Middle English storye, fr. Medieval Latin historia, originally a row of windows with pictures on them, from Latin historia, story (tale)."

The house of fiction, Henry James told us, has many windows.

I play w/ this in my book: am I telling certain stories in order to limit the possibilities of my own life, and those of others? Can doing so open up new possibilities instead? In the McBride section, we also talked very interestingly about the role of the listener in the construction of story: is she the critic? the authority? is telling a story a way of making a connection/entering into a relationship w/ others? a way of inviting them to tell their stories back, to fill in all sorts of gaps you may have left open? what sort of action is requested (required?) of those who listen to tales?

Yet another key idea that emerged from our discussions this week: the idea of the a-symmetry of the process of revising stories: once you have new data, and draw up a new story to accomodate it, is it possible to "go back"? Is this why the narrator of Flatland couldn't return to the old story of 2-dimensionality? Because his experience of 3-dimensionality made it impossible to tell the the old story any more?

Name:  Alicia
Subject:  Story or Fairy Tale?
Date:  2003-10-04 16:11:42
Message Id:  6792
My 2 cents - plain and simple - Flatland is a story! It's a "novel," unique, creative way to present ideas about "breaking the order of things" in a society that insists on limiting the livelihood of some of its members. It is one man's opinions, presented at first anonymously, in a text that "exposes" the unfair and unjust societal dilemmas of the time. It allows one to think in a linear and mathmatical (logical) way by using lines, squares, circles and octagons that appear flat and undimensioanl, perhaps as a way to diffuse the emotion behind the ideas that it presented. What better way to go about "revealing the truth" that to use math, which is so unemotional.

In regards to the "is it a fairy tale?" question: The answer is NO! It doesn't work as a fairy tale, it does not have the components of a fairy tale and as clever as Jenny's response was (to read it backwards) it still does not satisfy the "fairy tale theory" because, let's face it, we're not going to read it backwards (no disrespect of opinion intended JB).

That's all for now.


Name:  Beverly Burgess
Subject:  Flatlands, Galileo
Date:  2003-10-05 18:06:54
Message Id:  6799
Flatlands is certainly a story and absolutely not a fairytale. Flatlands contained too many grey areas to fit into the black and white of the fairytale. Fairytales are normally relaxing to read just before one dozes off, however, Flatlands read almost like a legal document.

The theme of Flatlands is similar to that of Galileo: fear of change to an established order leads to repression of new ideas.

Name:  Christine Lipuma
Date:  2003-10-05 22:10:12
Message Id:  6802
I don't have a solid standing on what a fairy tale is, but I'm pretty convinced that Flatland is not one. It is a story because it was retold. That which is not yet a story is reality. I don't think anyone can say what reality is because by doing so we would be making it into a story. This seems to be what I got out of our class discussion, though I'm sure everyone thinks something different.
Name:  Kristin Black
Subject:  Story Time
Date:  2003-10-07 09:26:01
Message Id:  6818
While I would agree with most of the previous posts in asserting that Flatland is not a fairy tale,I am struggling with the idea of story.Definitions from dictionaries are all well and good,but I'm not sure what the term 'story' means to me,which has made it difficult to write the past two essays.I feel like there might be two stories within a person,the story of themselves and who they are,in addition to their story of the world.That is to say,the stories people contain are the story they tell to demonstrate their inner selves to others,and the story they tell themselves about the world around them.So does this allow Flatland to be a story?It seems like it's Abbott's story he tells himself to understand the world around him,and that he's just letting us have a peek at it.Perhaps?

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