The Circle

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The Elderly Couple Symbol Analysis

The Elderly Couple Symbol Icon

During one kayaking trip, Mae Holland passes by an elderly couple who are sitting in a boat, drinking wine, and reminiscing about the past. The elderly couple seems to symbolize the “old way of life,” which the Circle is slowly killing: a life characterized by ordinariness, simplicity, and person-to-person connection. As such, the elderly couple is a kind of Rorschach test for how one feels about life lived outside of social networking: envy of the couple’s life reflects skepticism of the Circle, and disdain for their life indicates an alignment with the Circle’s goals.

The Elderly Couple Quotes in The Circle

The The Circle quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Elderly Couple. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Social Networking and the Internet Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of The Circle published in 2014.
Book One, part 5 Quotes

"'Were you here when that burned?" the man asked, pointing to a large uninhabited island in the middle of the bay. It rose, mute and black, behind them. Mae shook her head.
‘It burned for two days. We had just gotten here' At night, the heat—you could feel it even here. We swam every night in this godforsaken water, just to stay cool. We thought the world was ending."

Related Characters: Mae Holland
Related Symbols: The Elderly Couple
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

In this mysterious passage, Mae kayaks out to sea and encounters an elderly couple sitting in a boat watching the sunset. The couple invites Mae aboard the boat, and she spends a few minutes talking to them.

While Mae’s encounter with the elderly couple has no direct bearing on the plot of the novel, it’s thematically important insofar as it shows how pre-internet generations lived. The elderly couple seems perfectly content to simply talk to one another and look at the sky, even though, by Mae’s Internet-age standards, the couple is slow-paced and a little boring.

One important thing to notice about the passage is the description of the burning island. It’s possible that Eggers intends this image to symbolize the decline of privacy in the age of social networking (burning is a symbol of destruction and an island is a symbol of solitude, so, together, a burning island could represent the end of solitude). Because of social networking and Internet access, it’s almost impossible to ever be truly alone. In a way, the central question of the novel is, does the “burning of the island” represent the end of the world, or the beginning of a utopian age?

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Book Two, part 3 Quotes

Mae pictured all this. She pictured the Circle being taken apart, sold off amid scandal, thirteen thousand people out of jobs, the campus overtaken, broken up, turned into a college or mall or something worse. And finally she pictured life on a boat with this man, sailing the world, untethered, but when she tried to, she saw, instead, the couple on the barge she'd met months ago on the bay. Out there, alone, living under a tarp, drinking wine from paper cups, naming seals, reminiscing about island fires.
At that moment, Mae knew what she needed to do.

Related Characters: Mae Holland (speaker), Ty Gospodinov / Kalden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Elderly Couple
Page Number: 491
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, at the climax of the book, Mae has a decision to make: she can either partner with Ty Gospodinov and speak out against the Circle, denouncing the company for its human rights violations, or she can betray Ty and continue serving the Circle.

The book does not explicitly explain why Mae thinks about the elderly couple from the boat during such a tense moment, but it’s suggested that the elderly couple represents a certain way of life: the private, old-fashioned way of life that Ty is trying to preserve and the Circle is trying to destroy forever. The reader is left to guess whether Mae is thinking about the couple and imagining that she and Ty could have a similarly rewarding life together on a boat, or whether she dreads the notion of turning out like the couple. The fate of the company—and even of the country and world overall—depends on how Mae thinks of the couple. Eggers does leave this as a cliffhanger, but the ending nonetheless seems to be embedded in Eggers’ language in this passage. Mae’s imagining the Circle being dismantled seems far more emotional than her thoughts of the elderly couple. She seems distressed by the idea of the company falling apart, but she describes the couple dispassionately and even with disappointment (which implied in the phrase “but when she tried to, she saw, instead…”). It seems clear that Mae’s emotional investment in her company, produced by sophisticated manipulation and outright brainwashing, will win out.

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The Elderly Couple Symbol Timeline in The Circle

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Elderly Couple appears in The Circle. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book One, part 5
Social Networking and the Internet Theme Icon
Privacy Theme Icon
Utopianism and Perfection Theme Icon
Mae kayaks out to a distant fishing boat, where she finds an elderly couple sitting down to have a cocktail. A woman invites Mae to join them for a... (full context)
Privacy Theme Icon
...she needs to return her kayak in eight minutes. She says her goodbyes to the elderly couple and paddles back to Walt. During her trip back, she realizes that she’s been blissfully... (full context)
Book One, part 7
Privacy Theme Icon
...and the boat passes by. Then, she rows out to the abandoned island that the elderly couple told her about. On the island, she imagines the animals that must live there and... (full context)
Book Two, part 3
Social Networking and the Internet Theme Icon
Surveillance and Transparency Theme Icon
Privacy Theme Icon
Totalitarianism and Indoctrination Theme Icon
Utopianism and Perfection Theme Icon
...a boat with Ty, and, for some reason, all she can think about is the elderly couple she met while kayaking. She thinks of how they spent their time drinking wine and... (full context)