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Literature: The Night Circus

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The Night Circus, opening lines

In 1886 a traveling circus became a sensation. Open only at night and constructed entirely in black and white, the Cirque des Reves is almost literally a circus of dreams.

However, something strange is going on behind the scenes. Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. Alexander H— have a game. Trained from a young age, their students Celia and Marco compete in a battle of imagination and will. The scene of their battle is the Cirque, and the game affects the lives of the patrons and performers alike. The only catch to the game? The competitors don't know the rules, they don't know how to win or when they'll win, and they don't even know who their opponent is (at first). All they know is the intimate sense of familiarity they get from one another with each breathtaking addition to the circus that pushes the boundaries of reality.

It is a clever allegory for a number of heavy philsophical themes, each of which seamlessly blend in the narrative.

Published in fall of 2011, The Night Circus is Erin Morgenstern's debut novel. The novel also was adapted into a web game by Failbetter Games, the creators of Fallen London.


This book provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Hector Bowen.
    • Celia's unnamed mother is implied to be this. She called her "the devil's child" and is presumably the reason the mother committed suicide.
    • Mr. A H— is a more mild example. He is certainly neglectful, and perhaps as emotionally abusive as Hector (if not as physically abusive).
  • Above Good and Evil: Both Hector Bowen and Mr. A H— (especially in his conversation with Widget in 1903) show a great deal of amorality towards their actions. It's remarked by several characters that they may have forgotten what it means to be human anymore.
  • Absurdly High-Stakes Game: The Challenge.
  • The Ageless: Once bound to the Circus, no one but Poppet and Widget visibly ages. Also goes for the Really 700 Years Old characters like Hector, Mr. A.H-, and Tsukiko.
  • All Part of the Show: Vast components of the circus that should be physically impossible are simply accepted as being extraordinary engineering, resourcefulness and showmanship.
  • Alternate History
  • Anachronic Order: Bailey's chapters are interspersed amongst the general narrative, despite being set towards the end. The climax of the novel is when the two narratives meet.
  • An Aesop: Where to begin?! The book is expertly laced with them.
    • Stories have power ('magic' as it is stated) is presented at the very end, a lesson most tropers probably appreciate.
    • The Challenge is inevitable. Both participants had no choice in starting it. Neither of them know the rules, and at the start, there is no discernable way to "win". Sound like Real Life to anyone else?
  • Arranged Marriage: Why Isobel fled Barcelona.
  • Art Initiates Life
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Lalaine Burgess, of the Burgess sisters, who are not strictly identical twins but fraternal sisters that people regard as twins.
  • Awful Truth: The Challenge ends when one competitor dies. Which sucks in itself, but is especially painful given Marco's and Celia's infatuation with one another.
    • And if Tsukiko's story means falling in love with your competitor is normal then this sad turn of events is tragically standard.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Celia and Marco, to some degree. They're both immediately well-known for their good looks; by the middle of the novel, they're quite popular and Celia, at least, leads a rather illustrious life.
    • Though it is revealed later that Marco uses magic to make himself more attractive than he actually is.
  • Big Name Fan: invoked Friedeck Thiessen is an in story example.
  • Book Ends: "The circus arrives without warning. . ."
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Bailey's sister Caroline.
  • Broken Bird: Tsukiko.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Celia and Marco both escape the challenge... but are eternally bound to the circus as pseudo-ghosts and may or may not go insane from being immortal.
  • Boy Meets Girl: Isobel and Marco, before Marco meets Celia anyway.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Celia has a moment like this with her father, when she realizes that to win means the other must die, she tells her father that the only reason these games go on is because he and Alexander are much too cowardly to face off against each other.
  • Came Back Wrong: Hector Bowen.
  • Casts No Shadow: Mr. A. H—
  • Chekhov's Gun: Hector Bowen's failed experiment.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Tsukiko, the mysterious contortionist who auditions for the circus before it begins hiring, is the 'victor' of a previous competition between Hector and Alexander. Bailey, the young reveur, becomes Marco's replacement as keystone for the circus.
  • Circus Brat: The twins Poppet and Widget grow up in the circus. Their parents train big cats and they have their own act, with kittens.
  • Cool Big Sis: Celia becomes this to the Murray Twins, combined with Big Brother Mentor.
    • Averted by Bailey's older sister Caroline.
  • Dogged Nice Girl: Isobel to Marco.
  • Doing It for the Art: Chandresh, in-universe.
    • To clarify, the introduction of Chandresh is him throwing a knife at a review of one of his productions that describes it as "almost transcendent." He is positively furious at the word almost.
    Clearly he must be doing something wrong. If his productions are merely almost transcendent, when the possibility of true transcendence exists somewhere nearby, waiting to be attained, then there is something else that must be done.
  • Dragons Prefer Princesses: The clock includes a princess who paces as a dragon's prisoner.
  • Driven to Suicide: The challenge is a contest to see which student breaks first and can only end when one of the challengers decides to end it themselves. Tsukiko's opponent in the last challenge ended it when she burned herself with her own magic.
    • Also, Celia is first delivered to her father after her mother kills herself. When Celia considers ending the challenge herself, she tells Marco that she was always more her mother's daughter.
  • Due to the Dead: Celia gets many condolence letters and flower because of Hector Bowen's death.
    • Tara Burgess's funeral has many mourners and many flowers
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
  • Ensemble Cast: Very nearly every single character gets to be the viewpoint character for at least one scene. Marco and Celia are the main characters, but not by much.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Many of the characters are introduced in a way that makes it immediately clear what they are like. Most notable are Celia, Hector, Mr. A. H-, Chandresh, and Tsukiko's.
  • Fainting Seer: Poppet, especially when Bailey comes into the picture.
  • A Fate Worse Than Death: Hector's attempt at permanently dodging death results in him being trapped forever as an insubstantial ghost-thing. It's never quite explained.
  • First Name Basis: Celia Bowen and Herr Thiessen, once they meet.
  • Foreshadowing: This exchange.
    Mr. A. H—: She has remarkable control for one so young, but such a temper is always an unfortunate variable. It can lead to impulsive behavior.
    • When Marco tells Isobel about how he first met Celia, she pulls out a Tarot card "L'Amoreux" (The Lovers) - a man between two women.
  • Fortune Teller: Isobel. Celia pretends to do this in her youth as a way to make money. Poppet replaces Isobel at some point according to the second-person circus-description sections.
  • For Want of a Nail: It's made clear that things wouldn't have turned out the way they did if other things had not happened.
  • Framing Device: Widget is the narrator, which makes perfect sense in-universe since his ability allows him to "read" people and their pasts. He has a very extensive knowledge of what happened, and relays it to Mr. A. H— in the form of the book we, the audence, are reading. All the details of magic that are glossed over are can be attributed to holes in Widget's own understanding.
  • Geas: Celia and Marco are bound using rings. If they try to leave the field of play and mean it, they experience unendurable pain.
    Celia: We do not feel the bars unless we press against them.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Widget and Poppet.
  • Hermetic Mage: Marco.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Bailey for Poppet.
  • Hidden Depths: Many of the characters appear one dimensional at first, but reveal more of their personalities as the novel progresses.
  • Honorary Aunt: Tante Padva
  • Hopeless Suitor: Isobel once Marco meets Celia. Possibly Herr Friedrick Thiessen, since it's implied that he has feelings for Celia, to the point where everyone assumes he's the one she's involved with.
  • Ironic Stage Name: Hector Bowen is the exact opposite of his stage name's namesake, Prospero the Magician. Whereas Prospero was was a loving father who willingly gave up his magic at the end of his story, Hector is both physically and emotionally abusive to Celia and is consumed by his magic.
  • It Always Rains at Funerals: Tara Burgess's funeral.
  • It Was a Gift: Poppet's glove to Bailey
  • Just a Stupid Accent: Tsukiko has problems with conjugating the verbs, yet she drops expressions like "social obligation" as if it's no big deal.
  • Kitsune: On the carousel
  • Knight in Shining Armor: The Knight of Swords.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Marco can erase memories, and is forced to repeatedly do this to Chandresh so that he doesn't find out what's really going on with the circus. It has a very negative effect on his mental stability, which leads to him murdering Heir Theissen, and in the end he never recovers his memories, although it's implied that him no longer being involved with the circus will be good for him.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Tsukiko, at least regarding her opponent.
  • Love Triangle: Celia, Marco, and Isobel.
  • Magical Realism: Is to magic what The Time Traveler's Wife is to Time Travel. It even has a plug by Audrey Niffenegger on the back.
  • Magitek: Most of the tents in the circus consist of magic charms overlaying simplistic clockwork toys.
    • The trope is invoked by Mr. Barris, the engineer, working in collaboration with the Circus's two magicians to create works that should be physically impossible, but by the very flamboyant nature of the Circus such architectural extravagance is accepted by the general public and it goes unnoticed.
  • Mad Magician's Beautiful Daughter: Celia to Hector
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Hector and Celia.
  • Magically Binding Contract: At the end of the story, Bailey is bound to the circus by Marco's ring.
    • Not to mention Marco and Celia in The Challenge.
  • Make a Wish: At the Wishing Tree.
  • The Matchmaker: Hector Bowen tells Mr. A. H- that he should have been this.
  • Meaningful Name: Tsukiko's name means Moon Child. While her opponents name meant Sunflower or Facing the sun, depending on what kanji are used to write it. Considering Tsukiko stated her element was water, and Hinata's was fire...
    • Averted by Celia. Hector/Prospero wishes to give her a meaningful name (mainly Miranda) but she refuses to go by anything but Celia.
  • Narrator All Along: Widget
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In one night, Celia invites Alexander to the circus to decide a victor for the Challenge, Marco tells Isobel that he loves Celia, and Isobel removes the tempering spell she had placed on the circus. These things combined lead to the death of Herr Thiessen.
  • No Name Given: Mr. A.H- aka The Man in the Grey Suit, who makes it clear that he finds names to be unimportant. He is named Alexander but it's immediately revealed to be a false name.
    • It's also stated that Isobel is not Isobel's real name and it's hinted that Marco might not be his real name either.
  • Older Than They Look: The Ageless characters.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Poppet and Widget's real names are Penelope and Winston but this is only mentioned a couple of times.
  • Order Versus Chaos: The point of the challenge between Mr. A.H- and Hector. The challenge is set-up as a competition between A.H-'s style of Hermetic Magic against Hector's style of Stage Magic.
  • Our Gryphons Are Different: Celia uses them as figures on the carousel.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Celia and the other circus performers can move about the circus, unrecognized, by donning colored clothes. It's justified for Celia since she specifically demonstrates the power to divert people's attention so that they don't notice her.
  • Parental Abandonment: Celia is placed in Hector's custody after her mother commits suicide. Marco is living in an orphanage when we first meet him and doesn't seem to remember his parents; he deems Alexander the closest thing to family he has.
  • Parlor Games: If Bailey hadn't picked Dare in his game of Truth or Dare with his friends/sister, well... the consequences would be substantial.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Mr. A. H- and Hector are implied to be centuries if not thousands of years old, to the point where they're barely human. Tsukiko meanwhile mentions her own game ended eighty-four years ago, meaning she herself is extremely old too.
  • Redheaded Heroes: Widget and Poppet.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Herr Thiessen, whose death doubles as a potential Tearjerker
  • Shout-Out: Friedrick Thiessen's article about Le Cirque des Ręves is translated into English and published in London under the title "Nights at the Circus".
    • Hector's stage name and character is one for The Tempest. He even tries to rename Celia to Miranda to shout out even more but she refuses to go along with it.
  • Sink or Swim Mentor: Mr. A.H-.
  • Stage Magician: Many of the main characters.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Subverted in that Celia figures out a way for her and Marco to end the game and be together by duplicating the spell that caused her father to become insubstantial.
    • Tsukiko and her opponent count though.
  • Tagalong Kid: The Murray Twins
  • Take a Third Option: Celia and Marco regarding The Challenge, though the author leaves it to us whether or not this will turn out for the better...
  • Tarot Troubles: Some of the readings Isobel gives to Celia may qualify.
  • Team Mom: Tante Padva.
  • Telepathy: Generally all the magical characters have some bizarre perception of the world that is never fully explained, but it allows them to pick up on weird things like whether someone is using an alias. Widget's in particular is very accurate and powerful.
  • Think Twins: The Murray twins.
  • Thirteen Is Unlucky: But they celebrate the anniversary anyway.
  • ĄThree Amigos!: Bailey, Poppet, and Widget.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer, book jacket, and promo material all advertise that Celia and Marco get together, making it a Foregone Conclusion that the latter will break up with Isobel. All this despite that Celia and Marco don't properly meet until halfway through the book.
  • Training from Hell: This is how Celia is taught to refine and control her magic.
    • Specifically, her father repeatedly slashes her fingers open in order to force her to learn healing magic.
    • Not to mention he kills a bird right in front of her when she says she's uncomfortable trying to 'fix it'. Keep in mind Celia is maybe six years old when this happens.
    • Or when he breaks her wrist for annoying him with questions about The Challenge, uses it as an excuse to make her practice healing more, and then admonishes her for crying.
  • The Unchosen One: Bailey.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: The manager knows that Celia is meant for Prospero by the eyes, which are a perfect image.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: The twins were born on the night the circus opened.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Probably everyone.
  • A Wizard Did It: Many of the magical effects created by the two magicians are truly incredible, but the nuts and bolts workings of them are never explained or even really hinted at.
  • Weirdness Censor: How illusionists such as Celia and Hector are able to pass their magic off as tricks.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Hector Bowen. Mr. H— also argues to Widget that someday Celia and Marco might regret what they did.
  • Woman Scorned: Isobel.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Averted, until Isobel decides to remove the "tempering" spell on the Circus


The game provides examples of:

The Native RivalPages Needing an Entry PimpNintendo Acres
The New York TrilogyLit FicNorwegian Wood
NationAlternate History LiteratureNorthwest Front
The Nexus SeriesLiterature of the 2010sNight of the Living Trekkies
The Night Angel TrilogyFantasy LiteratureNight Huntress

alternative title(s): The Night Circus
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