Our main character is named Meh. Wait, we mean she's named Maybe. Wait, she's actually named Mae.
We got a little confused because Mae doesn't give us a whole lot to work with. The truth is, if we had to compare The Circle's Mae Holland to any one object, element, or substance in the known universe, we'd say she's most like putty. If you don't think that sounds like a ringing endorsement of Mae's character…well, you're right.
Like a lot of privileged, "motivated" young people who want to do good but never quite learn to think for themselves because they're too busy looking for approval from authority figures, Mae is a blank slate just waiting to be written on.
Dave Eggers has been known to give us unreliable narrators and unsympathetic protagonists in his novels and short stories, and The Circle's Maebelline Renner Holland is a definite addition to the second group. Although you may start out by assuming that we readers should be on Mae's side, there will come a point—and it may not be the very same point for everyone—when you'll start to realize that Mae's perspective is deeply, dangerously flawed. If you're still rooting for her by the end of the novel—well, you may need to reevaluate some stuff.
By giving us reasons to like Mae at first but then gradually revealing how unsympathetic she really is as a protagonist (and as a human being), The Circle does two important things.
First, it gives a major shout-out to the long literary tradition of narrators whose unreliability is revealed gradually within their narratives. (For example, think of the narrators in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," or, more recently, Herman Koch's The Dinner.) Even though Mae isn't The Circle's narrator, our confidence in her wears thinner and thinner in just the same way that we would gradually come to be on our guard with an unreliable narrator.
(Plus, The Circle's actual narrator often speaks through Mae's own perspective, so her worldview actually has quite a lot to do with how the story is told.)
Second, by getting us on Mae's team and then gradually revealing how dangerously misguided she is, The Circle amps up its warnings about the future dystopia awaiting us if we don't seriously reevaluate our relation to technology and the tech industry. The truth is that Mae isn't so different from many of us, and lots of us might easily make the same kinds of mistakes—or have our thinking perverted just as easily—if we were in her position.
The dystopian world of The Circle isn't all that outlandish or unrealistic, and so, by showing us how an average, college-educated young woman like Mae could embrace its terrors so willingly, the novel demonstrates just how easily any of us might take our societies down the same road.
We've already told you that Mae Holland's name evokes the word "meh" for us, but it has more complex meanings, too. To give you a taste of them, we're going to turn to mega smartypants Margaret Atwood, who reviewed The Circle for The New York Review of Books and shared some insights on the choices that Dave Eggers makes throughout the novel.
After noting that Mae's full name is Maebelline, for example, "a name that closely resembles that of a brand of mascara, thus hinting at masks and acting," Atwood says the following about "MaeDay," the handle that Mae's coworker Gina creates for her when she sets up her social accounts at the Circle:
There is no real war holiday called MaeDay, but "Mayday"—from the French m'aidez—is a venerable distress signal. May Day was once a pagan springtime celebration, but was adopted in the nineteenth century as a workers' holiday. It was then appropriated for military parades during Stalinism, a period noted for its hyperactive secret police, and satirized in Orwell's 1984, a work that is echoed more than once in The Circle. Maebelline, Zing-christened as MaeDay: a makeup accessory, a distress signal, a totalitarian power-show. The reader feels a pricking of the thumbs. (source)
To quote Atwood herself once more: "Clever Mr. Eggers."
Mae is 24 years old and a relatively recent graduate from Carleton U when The Circle begins. After working for a year and a half at a ho-hum job at a utilities company in her barely populated hometown, Mae caves and asks her best friend from college—the go-getting junior executive Annie Allerton—to help her land a job at the Circle. Annie does her a solid, and soon Mae has left Longfield, California, behind to find greener pastures on the Circle's main campus in San Vincenzo, a fictional city in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Although The Circle is way more preoccupied with Mae's social media presentation than it is with her physical self, what little we do know about her outward appearance is suggestive. Mae has a "wide mouth," "thin lips," "olive skin," "black hair," "brown eyes," and "high cheekbones"—cheekbones that used to make her look a little bit severe but have a less striking effect now that she's older, curvier, and a little bit softer looking on the whole (1.1.26).
Why does this matter?
This snapshot of Mae does a little something we here at Shmoop—along with everyone else in the literature biz—like to call foreshadowing. After learning that Mae used to be kind of severe looking but has since grown softer, we see Mae repeat that pattern again with her internal characteristics. As she settles into work at her quasi-utopian place of employment, Mae gets steadily "softer" and more malleable as she lets her existing values, beliefs, and sense of right and wrong be replaced by the ideas that hold sway among the Circle's devotees.
We know, we know: everyone goes through changes in life. But trust us on this one, Shmoopers—the changes that Mae undergoes in The Circle are way more than run of the mill. And, you know, they're not good changes.
It's also worth noting that Mae studied art history, marketing, and psychology at Carleton U (1.1.6) and that her undergraduate education doesn't seem to have equipped her with any clear perspectives on…oh, say…social history, human rights, civic rights, capitalism, democratic government, or, frankly, common decency.
If that sounds harsh, just you wait—we're only getting started. When it comes right down to it, it's not hard to imagine what John Oliver would have to say about Mae if Last Week Tonight ever did a segment on The Circle. We're willing to bet that it'd go something like this:
"You are THE WORST, Mae Holland. You are literally THE. WORST. Literally."
Remember when we said that Mae is a lot like putty?
We weren't kidding around. Mae is so malleable that it doesn't take much for her coworkers and employees at the Circle to convince her that she has no right to privacy, solitude, or an inner life of her own.
It's not a surprise, really. Mae really believes that the Circle is basically the most important place on the planet, so we can see why she might try to please the powers that be and give in and do what they say is good. That doesn't really make it any better, though.
How does it all happen? Well, within two weeks of working at the Circle, Mae is given a major talking to because she failed to respond to an invitation to a fellow Circler's party. Although Mae thinks it's a little weird that her coworker was so distressed by her unresponsiveness, she apologizes and frets over the confrontation. That same day, Mae is baffled when her friend Annie freaks out after Mae doesn't respond to repeated texts right away. Later, Mae is scolded for not spending enough time on social media and for spending more time visiting her parents in Longfield than attending activities on campus.
People at the Circle are fixated on having constant validation from one another. Anyone who isn't constantly attending parties or themed events, following and "smiling" at coworkers' posts on social media, and sharing their own ideas, activities, and photos online is rebuked for their "non-participation in the classic sense" (1.12.37).
When Mae is called out for her online inactivity in the early chapters of the novel, she doesn't even think of making a stand and staking a claim to her own free time and privacy. Instead, she simply assumes that the others must be right, and that she should be working harder to devote more of her dwindling spare time to her mandatory social life at the Circle.
The meekness with which Mae sacrifices more and more of her time, energy, and brain space to the Circle is bad enough, but things get even worse as the novel progresses. Mae is outraged when Francis Garaventa—a coworker she's sort of dating—makes a spectacle of their relationship at a major company presentation. She's even more outraged when Francis later records a video of their sexual activity without her consent and then uploads it into a shared company cloud where the video might easily be accessed by thousands of people.
Mae has a right to be outraged by Francis' actions, and The Circle's readers will likely be outraged on her behalf. But sadly, rather than hold on to her outrage and resist the cultural climate that excuses actions like Francis', Mae conforms to that climate instead.
By the end of the novel, things have come full circle (pun most definitely intended). In just the same way that Francis once exposed and made a spectacle of her, Mae exposes and makes a spectacle of her ex-boyfriend Mercer Medeiros. Not only that, but through the ignorance, selfishness, self-righteousness, and extraordinary callousness that have been nurtured by the supposedly utopian culture of the Circle, Mae engineers the tragedy that leads to Mercer's death.
Oh, and did we mention that her actions also force her parents into hiding?
Ugh. Talk about lessons left unlearned.
We know, we know. A more generous interpretation of Mae might be that she is a tragic victim of the manipulative, peer-pressure-y, cultish culture at the Circle, and that she can't be held responsible for her own wrongdoings once she's fallen hook, line, and sinker for the Circle's vision of a "better" world.
There's definitely room for a reading like that, and Shmoop isn't one to shut down divergent opinions about literature. Unless you think that The Hunger Games is actually an allegorical recreation of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen…in which case, you're on your own.
We'll admit that it's possible to read Mae less harshly than we do—but we think that would kind of be missing the point. If Mae is just a victim, if she can't be held responsible for her own terrible choices, then who in the novel can be held responsible?
There's no single Machiavellian mastermind pulling the strings in The Circle. As the novel makes clear, the dystopian world that its characters inhabit has been created by the willing participation of hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people just like Mae. Sure, they may not have realized what they were getting themselves into, but does that mean that they shouldn't share the blame for failing to think things through?
We'll let you chew on that one for a while.