On a bright, sunny day in June, a young woman named Mae arrives at a beautiful, colorful corporate campus. She walks down a road made of cobblestones, some of which are labeled with words like “Innovate,” “Dream,” and “Imagine,” and then she arrives at the main building of the campus. The company that owns the campus is called “the Circle.” Although it’s less than six years old, it’s one of the most famous and powerful companies in the world.
Like many books and movies about large, complex organizations, The Circle is told from the perspective of a new recruit to the organization. Readers might notice that the Circle campus bears a great resemblance to the Google campus in Northern California: in many ways, the Circle is a caricature of Google, with its emphasis on utopian innovation. However, Eggers has made it clear that the Circle could stand in for any number of contemporary tech companies.
Mae has been hired to work for the Circle, thanks in large part to the help of her friend and former college roommate, Annie. Mae feels exceptionally close to Annie, who once took care of Mae after she broke her jaw. After graduating from college, Annie got a business degree from Stanford University and was hired to work for the Circle. Afterwards, Mae applied to work there. She is sure that she got the job because Annie “pulled some strings” on her behalf.
Mae enters the main company building. Inside, a young woman named Renata greets her, and explains that Annie will be with her in an hour. Renata shows Mae to her new desk. As she walks with Renata, Mae thinks of how proud her father was when he found out she was going to work for the Circle. Mae is proud not to be a financial burden on her parents, “who had plenty else to worry about.” As Mae walks, she sees “Welcome Mae Holland” flash electronically on the walls, accompanied by her high school yearbook picture.
So far, all the Circle employees we’ve discussed have been very young. Perhaps this emphasizes the Circle’s youthful, enterprising spirit. Also, notice that the Circle has gone out of its way to welcome Mae, though it may seem a little odd that the company would look up Mae’s old yearbook photograph in order to do so. One could even interpret the gesture as an invasion of her privacy.
Renata and Mae walk across an elevated steel grating through which Mae can see the ground below. Mae is afraid of heights, and she tries to make a joke about it. Instantly, Renata becomes very serious, and begs Mae to tell her “if anything’s not right.” They arrive at Mae’s cubicle, and Mae is disappointed to see that the cubicle, lined with burlap, is virtually identical to the one she worked in at her old job: it’s “the first thing she’d seen at the Circle that hadn’t been rethought.” The computer on her desk is an “ancient model,” and her chair seems half-broken.
Renata seems extremely invested in Mae’s happiness—thus, she takes Mae’s joke very, very seriously. Renata’s behavior suggests that the Circle emphasizes its employees’ health and happiness. However, Mae doesn’t know what to think about her cubicle. It doesn’t fit with the cutting-edge feel of the rest of the company.
Mae thinks back to her time in her hometown of Longfield, California, which is located just outside of Fresno. Longfield is a working-class town, and Mae was one of the few people from her high school to attend a four-year college. Afterwards, she returned to Longfield and worked at a utility company. It filled Mae with shame to take such a menial job, especially since she was deeply in debt. Mae found her job easy, but her coworkers, most of whom were much older, were impressed with her computer skills. Mae resented her boss, her 9 to 5 schedule, and her coworkers.
This passage establishes some of Mae’s motivation for working at the Circle—she’s ambitious, she wants to make her parents proud, she doesn’t want to be a financial burden, and she seems to have something to prove. Mae, like many young people in America, hungers for a challenging, original job that allows her to put her computer skills to good use. (However, Eggers never specifies the skills that qualify Mae to work at a place like the Circle, which leaves open the possibility that Mae’s ambition exceeds her talent.)
As Mae surveys her ugly cubicle and thinks about her previous job, she hears Annie say, “Now I’m thinking this wasn’t such a good idea.” She turns, and sees that Annie is laughing. Mae says, “I can’t believe you went to that much trouble to upset me,” but Annie laughs off Mae’s protestations and takes her on a quick tour of the Circle.
Annie has brought out the cubicle as a prank. However, like many of the behaviors we’ve witnessed at the Circle so far, this prank comes off as slightly creepy, rather than funny. One wonders why Annie spent so much time planning something that would torture Mae.
As Annie leads Mae around the building, Mae thinks about Annie’s college days. In college, Annie was something of a “doofus.” She came from “generations of money,” had strange obsessions, and was physically awkward. She was also exceptionally friendly and loved parties. Mae still wonders how Annie, a “scattershot and ridiculous person,” rose so quickly through the Circle. Annie is one of the “Gang of 40”—one of the forty most influential people in the company.
Notice that it’s still not clear exactly which skills qualify people to work for a company as elite as the Circle. If Annie and Mae have any skills as computer programmers, engineers, or leaders, Eggers doesn’t mention them here. Annie’s primary qualification for working at the Circle, at least as Mae sees it, would seem to be that she’s social and friendly.
Annie explains that Mae will be working in the Customer Experience department, but she assures Mae that about half of the company’s senior executives started in that department. She tells Mae that every time Mae does something great, Annie will tell the whole company about it—as a result, Mae should rise fast. Annie shows Mae the different buildings on the Circle campus. There’s a kennel, where employees can spend time with the Circle’s collection of dogs; a nightclub, where employees are encouraged to dance during the day; and a theater, where the company’s many improv groups perform. Annie introduces Mae to dozens of people, each of whom, Annie claims, is working on something “world-rocking.”
This passage paints a quick picture of the structure of the Circle. Unlike at many successful companies, it’s possible to rise quickly to the top (as evidenced by Annie’s rapid ascent into the Gang of 40). Employees have exciting projects—indeed, by Annie’s estimation, almost every one of them will change the world. Finally, employees are treated extremely well, and get lots of perks. The Circle is, in short, perfect—maybe a little too perfect for comfort.
Annie takes Mae to the “Ochre Library,” a large, private reading room with an aesthetic that seems uncharacteristically old-fashioned. In the middle of the library, there’s a portrait of the “Three Wise Men,” the three visionaries who run the Circle. There is Ty Gospodinov, the young computer genius who founded the company and who’s rumored to have Asperger’s Syndrome. Because of his social awkwardness, Ty plays an invisible role in the Circle. In fact, some say that he’s no longer involved in its projects at all.
In this section, Eggers gives readers some important expository information about the Circle. Immediately, Ty seems like a mysterious character: he’s a brilliant man, but it’s not clear how much of a role he plays in running the company now. The suggestion that Ty is being pushed out because of his social awkwardness hints at the importance of socializing to the company.
Annie tells Mae more about Ty’s role in the company. Ty’s great idea—the one on which the Circle was founded—was that people’s different online identities (their social media profiles, payment systems, email accounts, etc.) should be combined into one system, known as “TruYou.” Ty’s innovations have made Internet use highly convenient and have essentially ended identity theft. In the first year of the Circle, almost all Internet users and websites adopted the Circle’s system. Online markets were particularly supportive of the Circle’s success, since TruYou made it much easier to advertise to individual customers.
Ty’s innovation was to merge different online identities into one. The advantages of such a system are considerable: there are fewer identity thieves (since the Circle’s security is excellent), and it’s easier for businesses to tailor their advertisements to individual customers. However, the passage is somewhat sinister, because it suggests that, thanks to the Circle, there is no more anonymity on the Internet: businesses and strangers know exactly who you are at all times.
Standing next to Ty in the portrait is Tom Stenton, the Circle’s CEO. Stenton seems to be in the “mold of the eighties Wall Street traders”—proud, aggressive, and flashy. As a result, he’s unpopular among many of the “utopian young Circlers.” Stenton’s style of conspicuous consumption clashes markedly with the lifestyles of Ty and Eamon Bailey, the third Wise Man.
Stenton is the most overtly dangerous of the three Wise Men, because he seems greedy and crudely ambitious. However, the fact that he’s only one of the Wise Men suggests that he could be balanced out by his two partners.
The third figure in the painting, Eamon Bailey, seems happy, earnest, and “merry.” He’s universally beloved for his folksy way of talking, his close relationship with his son who suffers from cerebral palsy, and his enthusiastic relationship with the company’s young employees. Somehow, Ty, Bailey, and Stenton balance each other out and keep the company successful. As Mae looks at the painting carefully, she realizes how poorly painted it is. Somehow, the three Wise Men each have a hand on another’s shoulder, which seems impossible in real life.
In many ways, Bailey is the face of the company: the charismatic advocate of openness and transparency. In all, the painting of the three Wise Men seems to be trying to give the impression that the Wise Men get along perfectly. However, if one looks closely at the painting, it becomes clear how crude and poorly conceived the painting—and, by extension, the Circle’s triumvirate—really is.
Annie shows Mae the rest of the library. It contains tens of thousands of leather-bound books, a testament to Bailey’s love for preserving the past. Annie asks Mae to give her “a verbal non-disclosure agreement,” and when Mae does so, Annie shows Mae a secret room in the center of the library. In the middle of the room, there’s a hole with a pole that extends down into the darkness. Annie admits that she’s not sure where the pole leads, but she guesses that it leads to Bailey’s parking spot.
It is a sign of Annie’s influence at the company that she knows about the secret room inside the library. However, the fact that she has no idea where the hole goes (and can only come up with the most banal theory) symbolizes her ignorance, and lack of curiosity, about the Circle’s secret operations. Annie may be powerful, but she has no more idea what the Wise Men’s long-term vision for the company is than Mae does.
Annie tells Mae that she needs to go back to work. She leads Mae down to the cafeteria and introduces her to two coworkers, Josiah and Denise, who both say that they’re delighted to meet Mae. Annie says that she’ll meet Mae at the solstice party later in the evening and she leaves. Mae spends the rest of the day getting the full newcomer tour from Josiah and Denise. The tour is a blur to Mae: she sees hundreds of happy, energetic people who all say that they’re overjoyed to meet Mae and that they love Annie. Mae is dazzled by her tour, and she finds herself thinking of everything outside the walls of the Circle as a “chaotic mess” by comparison. She thinks, “Who else but utopians could make utopia?”
In many ways, the central theme of the novel is utopianism: the ways in which human beings are trying to use science and technology to build a perfect world. Although Mae’s initial tour of the Circle campus reveals a dazzling world, this world is not without a vague sense of menace. Everybody seems so cheerful, and the company’s Three Wise Men seem to work so well together, that one can’t help but suspect that there’s more to the Circle than meets the eye..