The Circle

The Circle Book One, part 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s Saturday, and Mae is eating dinner with her parents to celebrate her first week at the Circle. Mae’s father used to be a building manager in Fresno, and her mother used to work at a hotel restaurant. Later, they bought a parking lot. In high school, it was always humiliating for Mae to hear her classmates talking about running into her parents at the lot. In recent years, Mae’s parents have become gentler—a “sweet older couple.”
We already know that Mae is highly ambitious, but in this section, we get a better sense of why she’s so ambitious: she has something to prove to her old community, and she wants to distinguish herself by having a good job. Mae is clearly close with her parents. Their relationship isn’t perfect, but she loves them.
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At dinner, Mae’s mother tells Mae that she’s bragged about Mae’s salary and health insurance to her friends back home. She gives Mae advice, like, “Don’t take lunch your first week. Sends the wrong message.” She also mentions that she saw Mercer, Mae’s old boyfriend—someone Mae doesn't feel like talking about. Together, Mae’s mother and father say that they’re exceptionally proud of her.
Like a lot of adults, Mae has a love-hate relationship with her parents. She doesn’t enjoy everything about them (here, she seems not to appreciate her mother’s unsolicited advice or her discussions of her ex-boyfriend), but she loves them nonetheless.
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Mae asks her parents about their insurance, and they tell her that things aren’t going well. Her father was diagnosed with MS while she was still in high school. Recently, he’s been in near-constant pain, but his health insurance no longer covers his painkillers. Mae is horrified—she knows how badly her father needs his medicine. Before she can express sympathy, her parents give her a gift: a heavy silver pen, which they think will look good on her desk.
Mae is understandably upset when she learns that her father isn’t getting the healthcare he desperately needs. In light of their obvious financial problems, Mae’s parent’s gift comes across as especially poignant. In spite of their own problems, they’re sincerely proud of their daughter, and they buy her an old-fashioned but sincere gift to show their pride.
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Mae sleeps late at her parents’ house and they go to a diner for lunch. Mae’s father—whom her mother calls Vinnie—says that he’s feeling stiff, and he goes to recline in the car. Mae and her mother finish their meal quickly and then go out to join Vinnie. From the car, Vinnie says, “Well, this has been wonderful.”
In this chapter, Eggers paints a picture of an imperfect but happy family. It’s clear, though, that Vinnie’s health is a serious problem.
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Get the entire The Circle LitChart as a printable PDF.
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After saying goodbye to her parents, Mae drives out to the beach. As she drives, she remembers Mercer (her old boyfriend) teaching her how to kayak. At the beach, she rents a kayak from a woman named Marion, whom Mae has known for years. She goes kayaking, savoring the feeling of being alone. Suddenly, she begins to sob. The sight of her father in so much pain is almost impossible for her to bear. She spends nearly an hour drifting on the ocean. She sees seals swimming near her boat, and she wonders if they know “how good this was, how lucky they were to have all this to themselves.” Back at home that evening, Mae eats a light dinner and then falls into a deep sleep.
Throughout the book, there are long scenes of Mae kayaking. These moments are very important for Mae because they give her the privacy and solitude she, and all human beings, need. Privacy here is shown to be restorative. Out on the sea, Mae clears her head and finds peace—it’s no coincidence that she falls into a deep sleep afterwards.
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On Monday morning, Mae throws herself into her work. Mondays are always busy, because the user requests from the weekend have piled up. Mae finds it harder to concentrate on her work, and she dips down to a 91. She sends follow-ups about her low scores, but her clients are grumpy and irritable. She receives a message from Francis inviting her to lunch.
It’s amusing that, even on a “bad day,” Mae gets a 91 out of 100—an A in most classrooms. The stakes of Mae’s Customer Experience work seem oddly low—even if Mae doesn’t perform her job well, she still, in effect, gets an A. Perhaps it’s a sign of the Circle’s commitment to likability and good public relations that it places so much emphasis on tiny differences in customer satisfaction.
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At lunch, Mae sees Francis, and she notes that he seems unusually delicate—almost as if he’s shrunk since she last saw him. Mae apologizes for the abrupt end to their conversation last week, and Francis apologizes for talking about his childhood so frankly. He adds, “I assume Annie filled in the gory stuff. She likes to tell that story.” Francis proceeds to tell Annie about ChildTrack, the program that Annie was describing the previous Friday. Not too long ago, the Danish government implanted chips in children’s wrists so that parents would know where their children are at all times. The problem with the implants was that they could be cut out of the children’s wrists fairly easily. Francis and Sabine are working on implanting chips in bone so that they’re virtually impossible to remove from the body. These chips will surely reduce child abductions by a massive amount. Mae realizes that she’s late and she needs to rush back to work.
Mae seems to find Francis highly sympathetic because he’s been through a horrible family tragedy. Oddly, however, Francis seems comfortable with the fact that Annie tells people about his tragedy. Notice, too, that Francis describes a practice that could be called unethical: forcing children to wear tracking devices (and, in fact, imbedding these devices so deep in their bodies that they have no choice but to wear them at all times). However, it doesn’t occur to Mae to think of the child-tracking project as unethical, in part because she’s so sympathetic to Francis’s personal history of child abduction. (In retrospect, it’s possible that the Circle gave Francis the tracking project for precisely this reason—Francis’s sympathetic status acts as a smokescreen for the project’s immorality.)
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For the rest of the afternoon, Mae’s aggregate score is barely a 93. Dan messages Mae to ask her to meet a Circle worker named Gina later. While she’s walking to the restroom, Mae sees a man walking through the halls; he introduces himself as Kalden. He explains that he’s worked at the Circle for a while, and he asks to see Mae’s workplace. Mae takes Kalden back to her workplace, where she lets him watch her as she works through customer requests. Kalden watches for a few minutes, asking Mae some basic questions about her job. Then, he excuses himself and says he’ll see her around. As Kalden departs, Mae thinks, “he was not a normal kind of person.”
Kalden is another mysterious character in the novel—it’s not until the final pages that we understand his purpose in the story. Kalden exemplifies a funny rule that the film critic Roger Ebert termed the “law of economy of characters.” The rule states that, in books and movies, there are no unnecessary characters—whenever there’s a character who seems to be unnecessary to the plot (like Kalden), a plot twist will reveal that character to be very important.
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As Kalden leaves, a cold-looking woman walks into the room, greets Mae, and introduces herself as Gina. She asks Mae if now would be a good time to set up her “socials.” Mae apologizes for having not done so earlier—she claims that she didn’t have any time for “extracurricular stuff.” Gina frowns and lectures Mae about how social networking isn’t extracurricular at all; it’s a vital part of working at the Circle. Mae apologizes to Gina, and Gina nods and proceeds to set up Mae’s social networking accounts. She’ll use her accounts to stay in touch with the rest of her team, and also for social participation. Gina also sets up a program called CircleSearch, which allows Mae to search for the location of anyone on the Circle campus.
This passage is an early sign that not everything is perfect at the Circle: Gina seems to be the first unpleasant Circle employee Mae has met. As Gina’s speech might suggest, the Circle places enormous emphasis on social networking participation—in fact, considering that Mae has now received a talk about her networking and no talks about her job performance, the Circle would seem to place more emphasis on social networking than on actual job performance. Also, notice that technology allows Mae to track anyone on campus—another program that seems highly unethical.
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Gina sets up a Zing account for Mae, and tells Mae that the Circle expects her to “zing” at least ten times a day. Gina explains that Mae will be receiving hundreds of online messages every day. Her Circle network will categorize these messages according to their importance. Most important will be 1) her customers, followed by 2) her coworkers, followed by 3) her online friends, broken up into her “Inner Circle” and “Outer Circle” friends. Gina claims that, although online social networking is prioritized third, it is still “just as important as other messages.” She concludes, “I hope that’s clear. Is it?” Mae nods.
In this darkly comic passage, Gina gives Mae contradictory, borderline-incomprehensible demands, and then asks if everything is clear. For example, she tells Mae to prioritize her Outer Circle third, but also to think of it as “just as important.” It’s slowly becoming apparent that the Circle is going to pressure Mae to participate in social networking, whether she likes it or not.
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Before leaving, Gina shows Mae one more thing: the Participation Rank, or “PartiRank.” All Circle employees are ranked on their number of zings, the number of people who correspond with them, the number of people who “like” their posts, etc. Gina insists that ranking isn’t important, but that “some Circles take it very seriously.” With these words, she leaves.
Gina gives more contradictory demands. The unspoken message here seems to be that PartiRank is actually very important to one’s success at the Circle. As the book goes on, it’s becoming clearer that, in spite of its utopian ideals, the Circle uses manipulation and subtle coercion to control its employees.
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In the evening, Mae stays late to look through the messages she’s receiving from her Outer and Inner Circles. She receives messages about the menus in the Circle cafeteria, about upcoming speakers, and more. Mae gets a message from an old friend who has the flu, and Mae responds by posting a song about the flu. Her post prompts a series of new threads about the band that wrote the song, which leads to further posts and threads about a city, war veterans from that city, the war in Afghanistan, medical marijuana, etc. Mae finds herself getting tired and she heads home.
This passage satirizes the chaotic jumble of the Internet in general and social networking in particular. Online, one topic always leads to another, and so on, until you’ve strayed far from your original search. Here, for example, Mae moves from showing sympathy for her friend to looking up medical marijuana. The Internet, the passage suggests, makes it difficult to focus on any single topic or to express any single emotion.
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On Tuesday, Mae’s workload is lighter, but she spends three hours looking through her Outer and Inner Circle messages. She feels lucky to be in contact with so many amazing people. Just before lunch, Mae gets a message from Dan asking her to stop by. Dan introduces Mae to Alistair, someone she’s never seen before. Without any further comments, Dan asks Mae if she’d like to start. Mae is utterly confused—suddenly, Alistair begins to cry. Dan hints, “It’s about Alistair’s Portugal brunch.” Mae has no memory of being invited to a brunch, but, wanting to end the conversation on a good note, she apologizes for not attending. Immediately, Dan smiles and says, “Let’s hug it out.” Mae and Alistair do so, “forming a tight scrum of newfound communion.” Immediately afterwards, Dan sends Mae a summary of her “glitch” with Alistair. The summary explains that Alistair held a Circle-wide brunch for all Circle employees who’d “liked” Portugal online. Mae didn’t respond to the invite, which upset Alistair greatly. The summary concludes, “Now Alistair and Mae are great friends and feel rejuvenated.”
In spite of small signs of menace, Mae continues to count herself lucky to be working at the Circle. However, it becomes clear here that Mae’s new workplace is no less belittling or coercive than her previous one. Dan’s manner is very condescending, especially the way that he tells his superiors that Mae made a “glitch.” It’s significant, too, that Dan takes Alistair’s side: instead of telling Alistair that it’s silly to be hurt that someone he has never met missed his event invite, Dan asks Mae to apologize. The Circle’s commitment to networking is so enormous that the company expects its employees to spend an absurd amount of time online, responding to invites and commenting on photos.
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Mae meets Annie for lunch. Annie tells Mae that she’s been following Mae’s “conflict resolution” with Alistair. At first, Mae is uneasy that Annie has been listening to her, but then Mae feels relieved that Mae has been with her “even if remotely.” Annie adds that she’s brought in for conflict resolutions about once a month. She explains that Mae must have been invited to the brunch automatically because Mae went to Portugal five years ago, and took pictures—pictures that are posted on her accounts online. Annie assures Mae that Alistair is a “nut” and that Mae shouldn’t worry about her conflict resolution with him. After they finish eating, Annie shows Mae the “sample room,” which is full of designer shoes, jeans, etc. Because Circle employees are style leaders, companies send products to the Circle campus every day.
The fact that Mae is initially disturbed that Annie would listen in on her conversation shows that she hasn’t been fully indoctrinated by the Circle. However, the fact that Mae later feels relieved that Annie is watching her suggests that the Circle’s employees are slowly converting her to their anti-privacy ideology. The existence of the sample room suggests the clout that Circle employees carry in the world. The prestige and perks associated with working at the Circle seem to incentivize overlooking the more bizarre and invasive aspects of company.
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Mae returns to her desk, where she’s left her phone, she and sees that Annie has already left her eleven messages. Each message is more urgent than the one before: Annie asks Mae not to repeat her comments about Alistair to Dan, asks again, then asks Mae if she’s giving her the silent treatment, etc. As soon as she sees the messages, Mae calls Annie to ask what’s wrong. Annie apologizes for being paranoid, and Mae suggests that she’s overstressed.
Though Annie previously claimed that Alistair was overly sensitive, it’s clear that Annie, too, is overly sensitive and paranoid: she can’t go more than a couple minutes without thinking that Mae is deliberately ignoring her messages.
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After work, Mae asks Francis if he wants to hang out. They get dinner in San Francisco and afterwards Mae kisses Francis. Francis thanks Mae, which she finds odd. They wander through the city, kissing and exploring the streets. As they kiss, a homeless man watches them “as an anthropologist would.”
The romance between Francis and Mae is interesting because Eggers never makes it clear what exactly Mae likes about Francis.. Also, the homeless man in this scene might symbolize the obliviousness of the tech world to the harsh realities of the “real world.” In San Francisco, for example, companies like Google have been criticized for contributing to gentrification and pushing working-class families into homelessness.
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