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Great Circle: Summary and Ending Explained

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Great Circle, written by Maggie Shipstead in 2021, is a novel that tells the stories of two characters in different time periods.

One part focuses on Marian Graves, a brave female pilot attempting a challenging flight over the North and South Poles in the 1950s. The other part follows Hadley Baxter, a modern-day actor trying to create a film about Marian’s life.

Summary | Ending Explained

Great Circle Summary

In 1950, Marian Graves, a female aviator, tries to fly a plane over both the North and South Poles. Unfortunately, her journey ends in a crash during the final leg. In 2014, Hadley Baxter, a young actor, faces challenges after a controversial photo. Despite this, she gets the opportunity to portray Marian in a film based on the limited information available about Marian’s life.

Back in 1927, Marian and her twin brother, Jamie, face a tough childhood after their father, Captain Addison Graves, is disgraced and their mother dies by suicide. Addison goes to prison, and the twins are raised by their alcoholic uncle, Wallace.

When Addison is released, he can’t face his children and disappears. Marian and Jamie befriend a local boy, Caleb Bitterroot. Although Marian and Caleb have a close connection, it never turns romantic, as both are fiercely independent. Inspired by an airshow, Marian pursues her dream of becoming a pilot, defying societal norms for women by dressing as a boy and working for a bootlegger to fund her flying lessons.

As a teenager, Marian meets a local gangster named Barclay Macqueen. Despite her young age, Macqueen becomes obsessed with Marian and arranges for a pilot named Trout Marx to teach her how to fly. Macqueen hopes that Marian will fall in love with him as he becomes her financial supporter. Although Marian learns to fly, she resents owing Macqueen.

When Trout dies, Marian decides to repay him by becoming a smuggler. Meanwhile, Jamie leaves for Seattle and falls in love with Sarah. However, her wealthy father disapproves of Jamie’s vegetarianism, and Jamie eventually leaves Seattle. Hadley, preparing for her role as Marian, develops a romantic interest in the film’s producer, Redwood Feiffer.

In 1931, after facing threats, Marian reluctantly agrees to marry Macqueen. The marriage is unhappy, marked by Macqueen’s abuse and his desire for Marian to have a child, which she refuses. Marian occasionally communicates with Caleb, her link to the outside world.

Tired of the abuse, she escapes in a plane, hides in Canada and Alaska, adopts a new identity, and becomes a professional pilot. She exposes Macqueen’s crimes to the American government, leading to his arrest. Shortly after his release, Macqueen is killed by an unknown gunman.

Marian rebuilds her life in Alaska, while Jamie battles alcoholism in Montana. He becomes a sought-after painter, and Wallace seeks help for his alcoholism before passing away in a hospice. Caleb visits Marian sporadically, and they rekindle their romance without fully committing. During World War II, Marian serves as a pilot in England, where she meets and falls in love with Ruth, who is married to a gay man named Eddie. Their unconventional marriage masks their true sexual orientations.

After a brief reconnection with the now-married Sarah, Jamie works as an artist for the military, traveling the world to paint the war until his ship sinks, leading to his death. Distraught over her brother’s loss, Marian rejects Ruth and returns to Caleb. Ruth dies shortly afterward, and Marian struggles with guilt for the rest of her life. Hadley progresses with filming Marian’s story, gradually discovering inaccuracies in her initial portrayal of Marian’s life.

After World War II, Marian secures sponsorship for a global flight. She selects Eddie as her copilot, and in 1949, they attempt to circumnavigate the globe, passing over both poles. In the final stage, they land in Antarctica. Eddie, doubtful of their survival, chooses to stay behind. Marian continues alone, but her plane develops a leak. Intentionally crashing the plane, she allows the world to believe she perished. She then travels to New Zealand, assuming a new identity.

Years later, Hadley learns the truth about Marian’s survival when she visits Caleb’s adopted son. Caleb had secretly visited Marian multiple times. Marian eventually passes away from old age.

Great Circle Ending Explained

Eddie’s death stands out as a quiet tragedy in the novel. Being a gay man in a prejudiced society, his life is marked by tragic irony. Ironically, the happiest period of Eddie’s life occurred during his time in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, where he could love a man without societal harassment. However, the post-war world proves less accepting, and Eddie, realizing he won’t be accepted for himself in the United States, chooses to stay behind in Antarctica.

Rather than compromise his identity, he opts for a lonely and honest death. Unfortunately, Eddie fades into obscurity, his true self erased by movie portrayals that overlook his sexuality. The tragedy lies in Eddie never being allowed to exist as himself, whether alive or dead.

In contrast, Marian survives after leaving Antarctica. Choosing a new life in New Zealand, she crashes her plane, assumes a new identity, lives as a man for a while, and never flies again. Despite disappearing from public knowledge, Marian’s fate is a victory, not a tragedy.

Marian takes control of her life, making decisions on her terms, free from an abusive husband or societal pressure. By allowing the world to believe in her tragic demise, Marian achieves the contented life she always desired—one of agency and peaceful existence.

As the novel concludes, Hadley discovers the truth about Marian. Instead of revealing it to everyone or altering the film portrayal, Hadley decides to keep Marian’s secret. Recognizing the complexity of portraying a life on screen, Hadley respects Marian’s wish for anonymity.

Although Hadley’s film may not entirely capture Marian’s character, Hadley understands what was important to Marian. By safeguarding Marian’s secret, Hadley gives her the peace she desired, showing respect for Marian’s decision to retreat into anonymity.

Happy reading! ❤️