One week has passed since Mercer’s death. Since that time, Mae’s number of watchers has held steady—around 28 million. In the past week, Annie has “collapsed.” Mae meets with Bailey in his library, thinking that she needs to be strong and calm for the benefit of her watchers.
One week after Mercer’s death, it’s clear that nothing has changed: people have gotten over whatever feelings of guilt they may have had and they have returned to watching everything all the time. Meanwhile, Annie has collapsed—it’s a sign of how distant she and Mae have become that Mae barely thinks about her. Instead of expressing her emotions in a psychologically healthy way, Mae represses them for the edification of her watchers.
In the library, Bailey explains that Mae was trying to help “a very disturbed, antisocial young man.” He compares Mae to a doctor trying to help a sick patient who jumps out the window anyway. Bailey concludes that Mae “can hardly be blamed.” Mae thinks back to the funeral service for Mercer, during which she barely spoke to her parents. Bailey points out that Mercer wouldn’t have died if he’d been “in a self-driving vehicle.” Furthermore, Mercer must have been depressed because he was living in an isolated cabin in the woods. He concludes, “we’ve lost one of the world’s many, many people, which reminds us of both life’s preciousness and its abundance.” Mae nods. She remembers feeling a “tear” deep inside her after Mercer’s death—the tear of “not knowing.” She smiles: Bailey’s advice has calmed her.
Bailey offers more sophistry to explain why Mercer’s death isn’t Mae’s fault (even though it seems clear that she harassed Mercer into suicide). The passage also mentions, almost parenthetically, that Mae is barely talking to her parents. For all intents and purposes, Bailey and the other executives have become her parents. Bailey’s speech—hinging on the insight that life is precious but abundant—illustrates the contradiction at the heart of the Circle: the company professes to value human connections, but because there are so many such connections, each one is disposable.
Bailey asks Mae how Annie is doing, and Mae replies, “the same.” Then, Bailey walks Mae out of the library, saying that she and her watchers “could use some distraction.” They walk to the aquarium, where Stenton has combined all the animals he took from the Marianas trench into one tank (he’s fired Georgia due to “philosophical differences” and replaced her with a marine biologist who’s willing to feed unusual foods to Stenton’s sea creatures). By the tank, Bailey and Mae see Stenton surveying his work.
Here, we return to the aquarium, one of the key symbols of the novel. Notice that Stenton has fired Georgia, even though she’s an expert at feeding sharks and other marine life, and replaced her with a more obedient assistant. Stenton’s ambition is boundless—and he won’t listen to anyone who disagrees with him.
Stenton greets Mae and says, “I don’t think you’ve met Ty yet, have you, Mae?” Mae turns and gasps: Kalden is standing in front of her. Bailey and Stenton smile, thinking that Mae is star-struck. Mae pieces together what’s been happening: Ty has aged greatly in the past few years. The videos he sends in must have been recorded a long time ago. The other two Wise Men must not realize that Ty is pretending to be a nobody named Kalden. Kalden says nothing to Mae, but looks at her intently.
Here, Roger Ebert’s law of unnecessary characters comes back into play: we learn that Kalden, who seemed largely superfluous to the plot of the novel, is actually Ty Gospodinov, a very important character. The implication would seem to be that Ty, as Kalden, has become disillusioned with the Circle, and is trying to dismantle it with Mae’s help.
With the Three Wise Men assembled together, Mae’s watchers grow to 51 million. Following script, Mae explains that Stenton has assembled three majestic animals together in the aquarium: a shark, an octopus, and a seahorse. This is the first time, she continues, that the three animals are sharing the same space. Although Mae proceeds with her script, she feels almost nauseous—she can’t believe that Kalden is Ty.
At the beginning of the novel, we learned that the Three Wise Men—Ty (symbolize by the seahorse), Stenton (symbolized by the shark), and Bailey (symbolized by the octopus)—were supposed to balance each other out. Here, in symbolic terms, Eggers “tests” such a proposition: what happens when you put an octopus and a seahorse in a tank with a hungry shark?
Bailey points to the octopus, which is about to be introduced to the tank, and he notes that the octopus is “malleable and infinitely adaptable.” Before the octopus, however, the marine biologist introduces a group of seahorses into the tank. Mae notices that the “father” of the other seahorses doesn’t swim around the tank—instead, he hides himself away in the corner. Bailey laughs and says, “That is one shy fish.”
The passage clarifies the symbolic connection between Bailey and octopus. Like the octopus, Bailey is smooth and charismatic—he can use his persuasive powers to weather any PR setback. Ty, on the other hand, resembles the seahorse: ironically, even though he fathered an entire generation of social networkers, he’s very shy.
Next, the marine biologist introduces the octopus into the tank. The octopus floats around the tank, touching the seaweed and coral, wanting to know all, touch all.” Finally, the marine biologist prepares to introduce the shark into the tank. First, the biologist throws tuna fish into the water, “in case the shark is still hungry.” Bailey beams and says, “A peaceable kingdom.” He nods to the marine biologist, and the marine biologist lowers the shark into the tank. Mae has a suspicion that something horrible is going to happen. The shark swims around the tank, gobbling up tuna. Bailey says that he’d be worried, except that he trusts Stenton, “a man who knows what he’s doing.”
The passage is darkly comical: even though it’s obvious to readers that the shark is going to eat everything in its path, Bailey naively continues to believe that the shark will be able to get along with the seahorse and octopus. Bailey’s naiveté reflects his naiveté about the Circle itself: he seems to sincerely believe that when the Circle connects everyone on the planet, the world will become a utopia. However, he’s placed his trust in a dangerous man: the greedy, deceitful Tom Stenton.
The shark swims toward the octopus and tears it apart. Bailey whimpers in sadness, but Stenton looks at the shark with “a mixture of fascination and pride.” Next, the shark eats the seahorse, followed by its thousands of babies. Then it eats the seaweed, the coral, and the anemones, until it’s the only thing left in the tank. Ty says, “that was about what I imagined would happen.” Quickly, while nobody is looking, he grabs Mae’s hand and places something in it; then, he walks away. Stenton nods and says, both to Mae and to her hundred million watchers, ‘until next time.” Some of the watchers are terrified—others are “in awe and wanting more of the same.”
Like the shark, Stenton is ruthless, and doesn’t care how many people he has to hurt to get his way. In symbolic terms, the passage suggests that Stenton won’t stop until he uses the Circle’s vast power to benefit himself, at everyone else’s expense. Stenton seems unsurprised that the shark eats everything in the tank. Just like a ruthless dictator, he seems to be using the shark tank to communicate a message to the world: that he’s dangerous. Now that the Circle’s power is almost complete, he doesn’t have to hide in the shadows—he’s ready to claim the throne. Even more disturbingly, the passage suggests that some of Mae’s watchers enjoy Stenton’s ruthlessness and want more of it. This is a reminder that totalitarian regimes sometimes come about because of popular support.
In the bathroom, Mae turns her lens toward the door and carefully looks down at the note Ty slipped her. Ty insists on meeting Mae soon: all she has to do is say, “I’m going back,” at which time Ty will kill her visual and audio feed for a full half-hour. The note further explains that Mae’s life is “teetering on the precipice.” Mae is reluctant to turn off her feed, but she decides that she needs to understand how Ty has “pulled this off.” She says, “I’m going back,” and immediately, her camera turns off. Following Ty’s directions, she walks downstairs, to the red sculpture where she and Ty had sex for the first time.
Mae’s motivations are unclear. She tells herself that she’ll turn off her feed purely for the sake of understanding how Ty pulled this off. However, it’s possible that, on some level, Mae senses that Ty is right about the Circle. This is the climax of the novel, and it hinges on one question: will Mae join with Ty against the Circle, or not?
Mae finds Ty by the red sculpture, and when she sees him she feels repulsed. She accuses him of lying about his identity. Ty tries to explain: he’s always been an “average-looking guy,” and after his hair went grey, all he had to do was lose his glasses in order to become Kalden. Mae asks Ty why his hair went grey, and he replies, “The fucking shark that eats the world.” He says that Bailey and Stenton know he goes by another name, and adds, “I’m not technically allowed to leave campus. As long as I’m here, they’re happy.”
This passage clarifies how Ty managed to disguise himself as Kalden without anyone noticing (he’s average looking and has grey hair). It also makes the symbolic connection between Tom Stenton and shark overwhelmingly clear. Stenton is the shark: brutal, amoral, and relentless. Ty recognizes that Stenton needs to be stopped before it’s too late.
Ty begs Mae to use her influence to fight against Completion. He created the idea of the Circle, but he never intended for it to become so powerful, or for Circle membership to be mandatory. Mae shoots back, “If you don’t believe in all this … go to the woods.” Ty points out that there will be no way to escape the Circle—parents will install chips in their children when they’re born, and when the children turn 18, the chips won’t be removed. People will be tracked and monitored from cradle to grave. The Circle will control the world’s information, meaning that they’ll have virtually unlimited power. Mae protests that governments will be able to keep the Circle from abusing its power, but Ty point out that transparent politicians won’t be able to do anything—if they do, the Circle will ruin their reputations. He asks, “What do you think happened to Williamson?”
Ty paints a terrifying picture of life under the Circle. Children will be watched and monitored from the day they’re born until the day they die. The Circle will use its monopoly on information to manipulate people into obeying them, and destroy the career of anyone who tries to oppose it. It’s telling that, even after Ty has sketched out his dystopian vision, Mae has no rejoinder except that the government will keep people safe. She’s become so accustomed to thinking of the Circle as a benevolent, utopian organization that she can barely wrap her head around the idea that the Circle might be dangerous.
Ty explains that Eamon Bailey genuinely believes that life will be “perfect” when the Circle is closed and “every soul is connected.” But Stenton has no such illusions—his only goal is to monetize the Circle and use it for his own “ruthless capitalistic ambition.” Mae argues that life will be perfect when there’s no more crime or deception, but Ty shakes his head and gives Mae a piece of paper. The paper contains a speech about “The Rights of Humans in the Digital Age” that argues that not all human activities can be measured, that humans must have the right to privacy, and that humans must have the right to disappear.” Ty begs Mae to read the speech to her watchers. Afterwards, Ty will begin to take apart the Circle. As Ty explains this, Mae imagines thousands of Circle employees losing their jobs.
Throughout the novel, Eamon Bailey has been an ambiguous character—it was never clear if he believed his own nonsense or not. However, Ty’s explanations (and, symbolically speaking, the fact that Bailey expected that the shark would be able to get along with the seahorse and the octopus) suggest that Bailey sincerely believes that the Circle will create a utopia. Stenton, however, has no such illusions: he wants to use the Circle for his own benefit and nothing else. Mae has one chance to tell the world about the dangers of the Circle: here, she has to make the choice to support Ty or support the Circle.
Ty promises Mae that once he has taken down the Circle the two of them can sail around the world, hike mountains, and “vanish.” Mae thinks about sailing in 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 “reminiscing about island fires.” Suddenly, Mae realizes what she has to do. She tells Ty, “I see everything clearly now.”
The passage ends with a cliffhanger: will Mae denounce the Circle, or will she rat out Ty to the other two Wise Men? As the book has already suggested, the elderly couple that Mae encountered earlier is a kind of Rorschach Test for a person’s views on surveillance. (If the elderly couple’s life seems idyllic, you probably value the right to privacy and anonymity; if the elderly couple’s life seems dull, you probably have no interest in life before social networking, and are likely to support the Circle’s plans.) It’s not clear what Mae thinks about the elderly couple, and thus, it’s not clear what she’s going to do next.