In chapter one , "Of the nature of flatland":

very much like shadows — only hard and with luminous edges

What does he mean by "only hard"?

I just find it a little difficult to associate "shadow" and "hard", but maybe I am misunderstanding something.

Here's a longer quote to provide more context (emphasis mine):

Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows — only hard and with luminous edges — and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said "my universe": but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.


5 Answers 5


Here, “only” has the same meaning as “but”. The inhabitants of Flatland are like shadows, but they are hard and have luminous edges.

When he says “hard”, I think he means that two Flatlanders cannot occupy the same place at the same time, and they cannot change their shape.

  • 14
    The "hard" is in contrast to shadows, which are soft edged, and can merge. Mar 6, 2012 at 13:41
  • 1
    @Schr: make that comment an answer.
    – Mitch
    Mar 6, 2012 at 14:04
  • 6
    I'd say "only" here means more like "except", but same idea.
    – Jay
    Mar 6, 2012 at 15:04
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    I took it to mean "hard" as in hard-edge, not hard as in solid. A hard edge is a very distinct edge, as opposed to a soft-edge, which is blurry/fuzzy, like shadows often are (though shadows can be hard as well). The occupants of Flatland have hard edges, as you'd expect. Mar 6, 2012 at 18:44

Perhaps it is the use of the word only that's confusing. In this case, it means "like shadows except that they are hard and have luminous edges."


In the excerpt, only means but or except, and hard means impenetrable except by force. Like cast shadows, Flatland figures are surface phenomena; unlike shadows, which merge or overlap when they encounter one another, the figures cannot overlap, and break when forced together. In short, like shadows, Flatland figures are of the surface, but unlike shadows, have substance that can be felt.

Note, Flatland is a flat plane. Its figures are straight line segments, isoceles triangles, or convex regular polygons in that plane; or are "circles", approximated by polygons with hundreds or thousands of sides. The sharp ends of lines or the acute angles of isoceles triangles are dangerous to other figures. For example, in Chapter 10 one finds:

Every Isosceles now saw and felt a foe in every other. In half an hour not one of that vast multitude was living; and the fragments of seven score thousand of the Criminal Class slain by one another's angles attested the triumph of Order.


The "hard" is in contrast to shadows, which are soft edged, and can merge. The implication is that they are not as ethereal as shadows. But as 2-dimensional.


I think he means "but material", i.e. made of something substantial, as opposed to shadows which are only virtual.

The normal word would be "solid", but that would imply three-dimensional, which is not appropriate here.

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