The moment in Dave Eggers The Circle that this post will be focusing on appears on what should be pages 270-271 of the paperback. My digital copy is paged slightly differently, so forgive me if the page is not exact.
This moment occurs when Mae has unlawfully borrowed a kayak at night and taken it to Blue Island, further than she would be allowed to go during the day. At Blue Island, which bears no signs of prior human habitation, this passage appears:
“Then, still holding the pine’s bony trunk, she noticed, for the first time, a nest, resting in the tree’s upper boughs. She didn’t dare touch it, knowing that she would upset the equilibrium of scents and construction, but she badly wanted to see what was inside. She stood on a stone, trying to get above it, to look down into it, but she couldn’t position herself high enough to get any perspective. Could she lift it, bring it down to her to peek in? Just for a second? She could, couldn’t she, and then put it right back? No. She knew enough to know she couldn’t. If she did, she’d ruin whatever was inside.”
After this, Mae examines the natural world around her for a while and then paddles back to the beach.
This moment stands out for many reasons, the first and most obvious being Mae’s acceptance of the fact that there are some things she can’t know. It is interesting that the “tear,” Eggers’ metaphor for the feeling Mae gets when she doesn’t know something, is not mentioned here. Despite the immediate and obvious presence of something she cannot see and therefore cannot know, Mae feels at peace.
If Mae had a camera, she could see inside the nest. If the Circle was complete, the image of the inside of the nest would be easily accessible via the Internet. But at that moment, she doesn’t care.
The juxtaposition of this moment within the novel is particularly interesting. At this point, Mae is obsessed with her PartiRank and believes that her blogging about Mercer’s business is good for him regardless of what he actually wants. She is already well on her way to becoming the image-obsessed social media junkie that she develops into later in the book. At this point, Mae being able to appreciate something she cannot know—a secret that is being kept from her—does not fit with her character development.
So why? Why does this moment appear? The answer, or part of it, lies in Martin Heidigger’s The Question Concerning Technology.
“The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command.”
This passage from The Question Concerning Technology (from page 321 of Heidigger’s Basic Writings) describes the capability of modern technology to enframe nature. Enframing, in this sense, means to appropriate or to make one’s own. Throughout The Circle, it seems like the goal of the company is to do exactly that—to enframe people, the Internet, history, and nature.
The moment where Mae neglects to look at the bird’s nest is the last moment in the novel where this act of enframing everything appears to be impossible. After this, Mae is a champion of enframing, even going so far as to suggest new and growingly invasive ways to do it. The Circle believes that everything can and should be enframed, and Mae’s actions here are in direct defiance of that standpoint.
This is important because it’s one of few times in the book where Eggers’ intention is clear, not covered by metaphor or subtle warnings. It is clear that Eggers believes in not looking in the bird’s nest, because satisfying one’s curiosity is not as important as preserving the life and safety of whatever is inside. When compared to the grand, overarching metaphors of sharks and transparency, this moment is subtle and quiet. However, this does not negate its importance in portraying Eggers’ standpoint and one of the less obvious problems in The Circle—namely, the enframing of nature.