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Literature / The Night Circus

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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 Rêves is almost literally a circus of dreams.

However, something strange is going on behind the scenes. Hector Bowen, better known as "Prospero the Enchanter", and Mr. A. 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 philosophical 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:

  • 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.
  • Abusive Parents:
    • Hector Bowen. He starts with physical abuse, cutting up her fingers to teach her self-healing and casually smashing her wrist in the middle of the lesson to teach her "concentration". Then after he becomes a ghost and can't hurt her anymore, he begins focusing more on emotional abuse, harassing her whenever she dares to form any social connections and ensuring that she never feels good enough for him.
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    • Celia's unnamed mother is implied to be this. She called her "the devil's child" and presumably committed suicide because of her.
    • Mr. A. H— is a more mild example. He is certainly neglectful, and perhaps as emotionally abusive as Hector (if not as physically abusive).
  • An Aesop: 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 discernible way to "win". Sound like Real Life to anyone else?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Lainie Burgess, of the Burgess sisters, who are not strictly identical twins but fraternal sisters that people regard as twins.
  • Arranged Marriage: Why Isobel fled Barcelona.
  • Ascended Fanboy:
    • In-Universe, Friedrick Thiessen is an inverted example. He does a contract job for the circus (building the clock) without knowing what the job is for. Sometime later, he discovers the circus almost by accident and becomes infatuated with it.
    • Bailey plays this straight. He is obsessed with the circus from his first visit, and eventually becomes its caretaker.
  • Asian Fox Spirit: A white, multi-tailed fox is one of the animals on Celia's carousel.
  • 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, 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.
  • 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.
  • Book Ends: "The circus arrives without warning. . ."
  • Boy Meets Girl: Isobel and Marco...before Marco meets Celia, anyway.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Bailey's sister Caroline.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: After learning that to win means the other must die, Celia tells her father the only reason these games go on is that he and Alexander are much too cowardly to face off against each other directly.
  • Came Back Wrong: Hector Bowen.
  • Casts No Shadow: Mr. A. H— and Marco.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The story that Widget tells Poppet about a wizard trapped in a tree. Also, Hector Bowen's failed experiment. More literally, Chandresh's ability with throwing knives.
  • 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 Mr. A. H—.
    • Bailey, who discovers the circus at a young age and becomes a rêveur without knowing it, becomes Celia'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. As they grow up, they develop their own individual acts.
  • Circus of Fear: Averted. The Cirque des Rêves has a Dark Is Not Evil theme, and it's intended to bring people joy despite the serious and mysterious mood of the circus. Inverted later on. The interference of Hector and Mr. A. H— makes the circus more dangerous, but mostly for the performers.
  • Circus of Magic: The book is set in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) features such wonders and "ethereal enigmas" as a blooming garden made all of ice, acrobats soaring without a net, and a vertical cloud maze where patrons who get lost simply step off and float gently to the floor. The circus serves a darker purpose beyond entertainment and profit. Two powerful magicians, Prospero the Enchanter and the enigmatic Mr. A. H—, groom their young proteges, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, to proxy their rivalry with the exhibits as a stage.
  • Cool Big Sis:
  • Costume Porn:
    • Celia has a few outfits that fit this trope, especially once her career as a performing illusionist with the Circus gets started in earnest.
    • Several of the other circus performers, even small side characters, get gorgeous, intricately described costumes. Perhaps most notable is the Paramour, a "living statue" exhibit of a woman whose dress is constructed entirely out of love letters.
    • Mme. Padva and Tsukiko have their share of this trope as well. Justified, since the former is a fashion-conscious ex-prima ballerina who literally becomes the Circus's costume designer, and the latter is a performer both inside and out of the circus.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Downplayed with the circus itself. The circus' color scheme includes both black and white. However, it only opens at night, and it is still intended to be more serious and elegant than other circuses. Definitely not the type of circus to have loud brass band music or bright colors everywhere. Despite this, the circus was still fully intended to be good and bring people joy. The circus' employees are all good people for the most part. It's only the interference of the magicians Hector and Mr. A. H— that ruins the circus.
  • Dashingly Dapper Derby: Any time Marco ventures outside, he is wearing a dashing bowler from a line of seemingly identical hats that were in his flat when he moved in. Isobel looks for a bowler whenever she is expecting him.
  • Do Well, But Not Perfect: Hector and Celia use their magic powers to entertain the masses, though in different ways (Hector as a solo stage magician, Celia as a circus performer.) They both use their magic to create amazing, otherwordly sights, but they always make sure the magic appears just a little flawed, so that audiences won't be too convinced that it's real.
  • Doing It for the Art: Chandresh, in-universe. His introduction has 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.
    • 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 flowers after Hector Bowen's "death".
    • Tara Burgess's funeral has many mourners and flowers.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In the end, Celia and Marco finally find a way to be with each other and escape the competition that has dominated them for most of their lives, and Bailey gets to find his own purpose in life by becoming the proprietor of the circus he's loved since he was a child.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Food Porn: The descriptions of the food at the party Celia attends.
  • 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: Bailey goes on to become instrumental to the plot, but the only reason he gets involved in the first place is because he picks "dare" during a game of truth or dare with his sister and her friends.
  • 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 audience, are reading. All the details of magic that are glossed over can be attributed to holes in Widget's own understanding.
  • Geas: Celia and Marco are bound to the Challenge using rings. If they make a serious attempt at leaving the field of play, they will experience unendurable pain.
    Celia: We do not feel the bars unless we press against them.
  • Grayscale of Evil: Inverted. The Cirque des Rêves is intentionally set up so that almost everything in the circus is colored either black or white, but the circus is benevolent, and it is intended to bring joy and wonder to people around the world.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Widget and Poppet.
  • Healing Factor: Celia is extremely good at healing her own wounds with magic but seems unable to heal anyone else. She tries desperately to heal Herr Thiessen after he's mortally wounded, but isn't able to do it, and he dies in front of her.
  • Hermetic Magic: Marco and Mr. A. H— study magic, and keep it secret from ordinary people.
  • 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 to Marco, once he 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 Nickname: Hector Bowen is the exact opposite of his stage name's namesake, Prospero the Magician. Whereas Prospero was a loving father who willingly gave up his magic at the end of his story, Hector is physically and emotionally abusive to Celia and becomes 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.
  • 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 Herr Thiessen, 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.
  • Loophole Abuse: Double-subverted when it comes to ending the Challenge. Celia duplicates her father's spell to take herself and Marco out of the Challenge without either of them having to kill themselves. But when Widget speaks with Alexander at the end, he declares that the Challenge hasn't been properly completed and thus technically has not concluded. After he and Widget negotiate, he agrees to formally declare the Challenge a stalemate.
  • Love Triangle:
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Averted. It's left ambiguous how the characters perform magic, leaving it with an air of mystique.
  • 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.
  • Magically-Binding Contract:
    • Marco and Celia are bound to the Challenge by their rings.
    • At the end of the story, Bailey is bound (with his express, informed consent) to the circus by Marco, using the ring Celia gave him.
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Hector and Celia have real magic powers, and use them to entertain people. Hector takes on the role of a traditional stage magician, while Celia works with Mr. Barris, the circus' engineer, to construct magical rides and other attractions.
  • Magitek: Most of the tents in the circus consist of magic charms overlaying simplistic clockwork toys.
    • Invoked by Mr. Barris, the engineer, working in collaboration with the Circus' two magicians to create works that should be physically impossible. By the very flamboyant nature of the Circus, such architectural extravagance is accepted by the general public and goes unnoticed.
  • Make a Wish: At the Wishing Tree.
  • Masquerade: Only a select few people know that magic is real, and can use it. Much conflict comes from the non-magical circus performers learning the truth, although nearly everyone outside the circus is kept in the dark.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Tsukiko's name means "Moon Child". Her opponent Hinata's name meant "Sunflower" or "Facing the sun", depending on what kanji are used to write it. Considering Tsukiko's element was water and Hinata's was fire...
    • Defied by Celia. Hector/Prospero wishes to give her a meaningful name (mainly Miranda), but she refuses to go by anything but Celia.
  • Murder by Mistake: Late in the book, Chandresh attempts to stab Mr. A. H—, but A. H— steps out of the way at the last second, allowing Friedrick, who A. H— was talking to, to take the blade for him. Friedrick dies of his wound.
  • Narrator All Along: One of the last chapters reveals that the entire novel is a story Widget is telling to Alexander.
  • 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—, a.k.a. The Man in the Grey Suit, who makes it clear that he finds names to be unimportant. He is often referred to as Alexander, but it's revealed to be a false name very soon after he's introduced.
    • Isobel's name is false; when she first tells it to Marco, he is immediately able to tell that she's lying. While he does end up coaxing her real name out of her so that she can be added to the circus book, it's never revealed to the reader.
    • The full name that Marco goes by, Marco Alisdair, is mentioned to be a blend of his given name and Alexander's name; we never learn what his original name was, because his instructor makes a deliberate point of not asking what it is.
  • Non-Ironic Clown:
    • Defied in the circus itself. While planning the circus, Chandresh specifically states "no clowns" because he feels they would clash with the elegant tone of the rest of the circus.
    • Played straight, however, with the circus' clock. Instead of a cuckoo bird, the clock has a mechanical figurine of a juggler in harlequin attire. Herr Thiessen, the clock's designer, didn't get the "no clowns" memo, but everyone at the circus seems to approve of the clock anyway.
  • Noodle Incident: Apparently, the Burgess sisters were once librarians, and it somehow went horribly wrong.
    "Once they were librarians, but that is a subject they will only discuss if heavily intoxicated."
  • Older Than They Look: Nearly all of the characters bound to the circus are The Ageless as a result. It eventually starts to be a problem for the ones who can't simply disappear into the circus, like Ethan and the Burgess sisters, and it's implied to be part of the reason why Mme. Padva decides to cease her own involvement with the circus in the end.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Poppet and Widget exclusively go by their nicknames because they aren't very fond of their respective legal names, Penelope and Winston.
  • Order Versus Chaos: The point of the challenge between Mr. A. H— and Hector. It 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.
  • Pet the Dog: Though Mr. A. H— doesn't care one bit about wagering the lives of his students in a dangerous game, he does ask Hector to strongly consider whether he is really willing to risk his own child in such a game. He also pays Celia what is probably the first compliment she's ever had.
    • In a weird way, he also considers adopting Marco and placing him in the Challenge this. When Marco learns the truth about how the game has to end for either him or Celia, he angrily confronts Alexander and asks why he would do such a thing to him. Alexander's response is that he thought Marco would have a better life if he was set free from the orphanage, regardless of the consequences of the Challenge.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Mr. A. H— and Hector are implied to be centuries if not millennia old, to the point where they're barely human anymore. Tsukiko meanwhile mentions her own game ended eighty-four years ago, meaning she herself is extremely old too.
  • Runaway Fiancé: Isobel fled Barcelona to avoid an arranged marriage.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Herr Thiessen.
  • Scenery Porn: Pretty much every description of the circus.
  • Secret-Keeper: Mr. Barris, the circus engineer, is separately recruited by both Celia and Marco for help with certain exhibits in the circus and thus knows that they're both using real magic. He is given a vague outline of the Challenge by Celia and thus knows more about it than anyone who isn't directly involved in it, but helps out both sides and never reveals anything about one participant to the other. Problems arise when Tara starts asking questions about what's really going on with the circus, because Mr. Barris knows at least some of the answers but isn't at liberty to reveal them, and she can immediately tell that he knows more than he's letting on.
  • Ship Tease: A bit between Bailey and Poppet.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Friedrick Thiessen's article about Le Cirque des Rêves 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.
  • Sibling Team: Lainie and Tara Burgess. Then subverted when Tara is killed by a train. Also deconstructed in a sense: Lainie notes that she was better with individual details while Tara was better at seeing the scope, but because of this, Lainie herself didn't notice that anything was amiss about the circus, while Tara did notice but couldn't pinpoint anything specific other than a vague but urgent sense that something is going on behind the scenes. Neither of them were able to figure out the truth because they didn't have each other to fall back on, and in Tara's case, it ended up leading to her death.
  • Sink or Swim Mentor: Mr. A. H— trains Marco for an hour a day for ten years, then sets him loose in the world.
  • Slobs vs. Snobs: The conflict between Hector and Mr. A. H— is illustrated by their personalities. Hector is the Slob, having a more informal attitude, using vulgar language, and having a messy and disorganized living space. He's also more prone to shocking and violent actions, like cutting Celia's fingers to teach her to heal herself. Mr. A.H— is the snob, being cold, aloof, and apathetic to the point of being haughty. However, he values education and culture, unlike Hector.
  • Stage Magician: Many of the main characters. Mr. Barris, the engineer, notes that he is an inversion of this trope. Instead of making fake magic look real, he conspires with Celia to make her circus attractions, which really are magical, look like they were assembled by a normal human being.
  • 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.
    • Played straight with Tsukiko and her opponent.
  • Tagalong Kid: The Murray Twins, although they end up growing out of it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 13 Is Unlucky: But they celebrate the anniversary anyway.
  • ¡Three 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 by her father to refine and control her magic:
    • He repeatedly slashes her fingers open to force her to learn healing magic.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: The manager knows that Celia is meant for Prospero by her eyes, which look exactly like his.
  • The Unchosen One: Bailey. Celia even lampshades it by saying that she wishes she could tell him he was chosen or destined, but in the end, he's just in the right place at the right time.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: The twins were born on the night the circus opened.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Probably everyone.
  • 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. A. H— argues to Widget that someday Celia and Marco might regret what they did.
  • 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.
  • Woman Scorned: Isobel, after Marco finally admits to her that he loves Celia. She destroys a protective spell in anger, and almost immediately, Herr Thiessen dies.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Averted, until Isobel decides to remove the "tempering" spell on the Circus.

The game provides examples of: