Magic, Mystery, Love and Clockwork—The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a verbal scrapbook that brings to life a fantastical story of love and destiny so unlike every other romance novel out there.
It is a book that I would easily rate with an 8.5/10.
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
Prospero the Enchanter puts his long-lost daughter Celia Bowen into a game against Mr. Alexander H’s student, an orphan named Marco Alisdair. With no known reasons and no known rules, the game is set in a circus that comes unannounced and appears only at night, owned by a rich young man, Monsieur Chandresh Lafavré. Le Cirque des Rêves is the chessboard and everyone is just another piece.
What started out as a humble NaNoWriMo submission ended up as a bestselling debut novel for Erin Morgenstern, jumpstarting her career.
I dislike how often The Night Circus is compared to Harry Potter for the simple reason that it isn’t similar to it in any way. The Night Circus is a Shakespearean tragedy set in a small dome of fantasy travelling in the real world in the dark. It is a story of the Hunger Games, with Love is Our Resistance playing in the background. It is not a story, but a poem in paragraph form.
Wine is bottled poetry.
He wonders if the poem of the circus could ever be bottled.
The usual downside that most reviewers have pointed out about The Night Circus is that it was too slowly paced, or All-Word-No-Plot, or that it was “the most boring circus ever.” They’ve even compared it to Twilight. The difference, of course, that most people did not see was that it was the entire bottle of poetry, of every piece of imagery that was necessary, not only to make it magical, but to actively portray and paint a picture of the love shared by Celia and Marco. When one reads about the circus, about the design of the clock, or how the statues move at such a glacial pace, one could barely notice, every carefully laced detail should be read to interpret Celia and Marco’s love story. They are the circus. They were destined to be together in this way, in a way so magical and so eternal and so artistically bizarre. Every one of their tents was a love letter: The Ice Garden, the Carousel, The Labyrinth, and the Wishing Tree where each wish gets lit up by someone else’s. Compared to real circuses, yes, they do seem slow and boring. But it’s poetry, and you’re never supposed to take words for what they seem to mean at first.
Even the sex scene was so quietly, artfully, poetically portrayed.
Trapped in silence, Marco traces apologies and adorations across Celia’s body with his tongue.
Though I have to admit, it’s not your usual popular romance story, with the witty comebacks from the charismatic young lover who tries to charm his way through a million rejections, just to get her to smile and probably rethink that offer. It barely even touches on the romance, and takes half a dozen forevers before Celia and Marco even meet. And when they do, it’s all the I Love You’s and the I Can’t Live Without You’s stock dialogues, like the badly written Legend of Korra season finale. Even though I think TNC is trying to be poetic and symbolic, but it could try to be a bit more natural and creative. In this way, what TNC really lacks isn’t plot, but character development. We look too deeply into the circus, all the tents and the cinnamon things and the spiced chocolate, but we see the characters too subdued, too quiet, that after some 400 pages in a journey with these characters, you’ll feel as if you’ve barely known them at all.
But Erin Morgenstern knows how to keep you flipping through those pages, regardless. It didn’t need to be fast-paced, witty and action packed to be interesting. Every single issue was shrouded in mystery, and our main characters don’t even know what they’re in until somewhere towards the end. And it will mostly be what gets you to continue reading: to try to uncover the mystery, when in fact, every flip of the page just adds another layer of it.
Another creative bit about the writing, after all the colorfully interwoven imagery, is the description of the attractions in the circus, used to separate chapters. Using second voice, it seems as if the reader himself steps into the scene. And, like good poetry, the ending was written to resonate with the beginning. Everything just seemed so polished and well-structured, that you can feel the amount of time and effort Morgenstern poured into the creation of this piece.
The artistry of the book covers is no exception. The covers come in black, gray and white with a hint of red.
Before The Night Circus even hit the market, the lucky critics who received advanced copies (like Reveurs getting free admission or something) had this stack of beautiful silver things to enjoy.
The US version showed a view of the tents of the circus with the clock above it, being held in what seems to be Tsukiko’s hand. The hardbound version is lovely, but having this transferred to paperback doesn’t seem as nice at all. Printed by Anchor Books, an imprint of RandomHouse.
The UK print from Vintage Books, another imprint of RH, looks much more elegant, especially in hardbound. The dust jacket is in black, with white silhouettes of Marco and Celia, which was also used for the online game.
The book itself is in red, with a golden clock face painted on the inside.
Look at the red ribbon bookmark and the black edged pages! Book publishing as an art form–it’s definitely a good reason to buy this version as a sort of collector’s item.
The inside cover has a pattern of top hats and bowler hats.
I found a Spanish Release cover, but I’m uncertain on whether or not it is the official one. Most of the other translations are the same cover as the UK release but change the title.
Rejected cover by Jessica Hische, perhaps because it was in black and gold–and there was no gold in Le Cirque des Reves.
The Night Circus is so visually indulgent that an artist just can’t help but make something inspired by it. Here are some notable works I’ve found.
Laura Walter has a fan-made cover in a deep shade of teal.
Upcoming Film Adaptation
Summit has already claimed the rights to the movie production of this book, and I hope they won’t mess it up the same way they did Twilight. Although, there seems to be a good thing about having David Heyman as the producer, since he also produced the Harry Potter films. Writer for the screen adaptation is Moira Buffini who previously wrote for films like Jane Eyre and Byzantium. There has no official date as of yet, and no cast either, so the film can be predicted to be out by mid-2013 or early 2014.
The book is just so visual despite the fact that the circus comes in Black and White, and I think it would be perfect as a movie. Costume designs, props and set would be perfect if we could get the team of people from the 2004 Phantom of the Opera, ala Masquerade, or Moulin Rouge on board.
What I want to hear: Music
It would be incredible to have Erin Morgenstern’s personal writing playlist as an inspiration for the film’s OST, just as Summit was able to do for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. It would be perfect to have at least one Florence + The Machine track in there, hopefully a new one, or perhaps Spectrum. And then Andrew Bird as well as Smashing Pumpkins. Other than the music from her personal soundtrack, a bit of Muse would do some good, especially something similar to Starlight or The Resistance. (Starlight because of the sound, Resistance because of the message resonating with the film.) And Birdy. And Coldplay. And Fun. And Panic! At The Disco. These last two choices seem out of balance with the rest of the track, but when I ask myself, “what music sounds like an old French circus?” then nothing would match it better than some PATD.
Who I want to see: Cast
I have no one in mind for the cast, to be honest, except maybe Lucy Liu for Tsukiko, but that was still a no for me. I definitely want to see Chloe Moretz in red hair for Poppet. Mila Kunis would make a great Isobel. But other than that, my thoughts on casting are really useless. I’d love to know who you guys think should play it though. I do think that it’d be great to have Cirque du Soleil be in the movie.
Here is a comprehensive list of the characters and themes of the novel. Do not read them until you’ve finished the entire book. Also to note, a good number of the themes or the personalities of the characters are my own thoughts and observations. They’re not necessarily what Erin herself intended.
Celia is the daughter of the world-renowned magician. After her mother died, she is given to her father who uses her as a representative in the game because of her “natural talent”, inherited from her father. During her childhood, she was thought to be strange, or a child of the devil, as she would tend to break things around her without touching them whenever she was upset. She was taught to heal herself, remake things she broke, and do illusions and magic tricks. She worked as an illusionist at the Circus, and wrote letters to the Revéur Herr Thiessen. She collaborated with the engineer Mr. Barris in creating the enchanted Carousel. She also made a vertical labyrinth of clouds, and took it upon herself to train the Murray twins. She acts very mature and motherly towards them.
Celia dislikes being treated like a child, or having to follow orders and rules that she don’t understand. She continues to struggle to gain independence, to break free from every bond she’s had, represented by the ring that was embedded into her skin. At some point, she mutters to herself, “I’m already married,” declaring her unwanted engagement with a seemingly pointless game. She compared herself to Shakespeare’s Hamlet once, saying that she was haunted by her father’s ghost. And she has plenty of Shakespeare in her stack of books in the tent.
Her style of magic makes use of illusions and redirecting energy from places, something that seems natural and inherited. Her usual acts in the circus as the illusionist include the usual dove tricks, changing the colors of her dress, destroying watches and re-making them, etc.
Her character ends up as a very self-protective one, often finding herself not allowing Marco to love her. She tries to be in control of things, and tries to push away the people—especially Marco—who take away that control.
Marco starts off as an orphan, taken by Mr. Alexander H. to represent him in the game. Marco Alisdair is not his real name, but one he used growing up, revealed only once he met Isobel. His magic is part of his studies for years, unlike Celia who was born a natural talent. His style of magic makes use of a lot of alchemic symbols and formulas which he keeps in notebooks with drawings of trees. He does not perform in the circus itself, but works for Chandresh Lefèvre, the main proprietor. Marco keeps the accounts and records, etc., and makes certain that the dinners and parties and events are organized. His contribution to the circus is the bonfire, which actually acts as a protector, shielding the people in the circus, so they won’t be overpowered by the magic and would eventually go insane. Likewise, the protector also seems to prohibit the main people in the circus from aging. He also created the Ice Garden, Celia’s favorite tent.
Personally, Marco’s favorite tent was the wishing tree.
His romantic pursuits are often without Alexander’s permission. His decisions on love seem impulsive and rushed. His usual way of courtship is by creating fantastical illusions and recreating the surroundings, which is what he did the first time he kissed Isobel in the rain, and what he continued to do for Celia. He never told Isobel that he loved her, but he never held back on telling Celia.
Hector Bowen (Prospero the Enchanter)
Prospero the Enchanter was a well-known magician, a student of Mr. Alexander. He challenged him in the belief that magic cannot be learned but a special talent accessible only be a rare few. This challenge between them two was what started the centuries of games. At some point, people believed that Hector Bowen had died, but in truth, he was suspended in a state of life with no physical body in a failed attempt at gaining immortality.
Esse Quam Videri is the Bowen family motto, which means, “To be, rather than to seem.” According to Celia, Hector was “very fond of engraving it on things.”
Mr. Alexander H.
Mr. A.H—as he is often referred to in the book is the teacher of Hector Bowen, Marco Alisdair and Tsukiko. He always wears grey clothes and does not have a shadow, which was noticed only by Celia in the first chapter, and by Widget in the last. Celia also notes that it’s as if Alexander isn’t his real name, as if “it doesn’t fit.” Mr. AH—believes that magic can be learned, that it is all around and for everyone, but only very few people make an effort to notice it. He warns Marco during the game to stay away from Celia, knowing the objective of the game and that the end result would only hurt Marco, as it did Tsukiko. Also unlike Hector, Alexander openly appreciates the value of death, a sentiment he only expresses with Widget in the last chapter. Although he is very old, he admits that he will eventually die and does not intend on seeking immortality.
[Immortality] is a terrible thing to seek. It is not seeking anything, but avoiding the unavoidable.
Alexander also believes in the power of stories, and makes a deal with Widget that the game will end and the Circus will be passed over to the hands of Bailey Clarke.
Winston Aidan Murray (Widget)
Widget was born October 13, 1886, six minutes before midnight. He has striking red hair, always wears a black suit, and carries a white kitten with him. Other than his kitten act with his sister, Widget also has his own tent called Bedtime Stories which houses various bottles that release stories when uncorked.
He has a natural psychic talent of knowing people’s past, and is tutored by Celia to develop his magical powers. His talent is attributed to the fact that he was born on the same night as the opening of the circus, and perhaps was affected by the enchanted bonfire lit by Marco. His favorite treat at the circus are the cinnamon things.
Widget, as revealed later on, is apparently the narrator of the entire novel.
Penelope Aislin Murray (Poppet)
Poppet was born October 14, 1886, seven minutes after midnight (thirteen minutes apart from her twin brother). Like Widget, she has striking red hair. She wears white dresses made of scraps of different fabric, and has a black kitten. The Murray’s parents run the Big Cats attraction. Poppet ends up as Bailey Clarke’s love interest, as well as the reason he comes to join the circus. Opposite her brother, Poppet has the power of foresight, and sees blurry images of the future. She also has the ability to read the stars.
Isobel is a reader of Cartomancy, Tarot Cards. She first appears as an unnamed wanderer, and ends up kissing Marco in the rain. Through the years, she tries to aid Marco to win the game, but ends up finding out that there is nothing she could do to hold things together. Her relationship with Marco ends up as a very one-sided love story. No matter how you put it, the only way to really describe it is that Marco cheated on her. Other than Tarot Cards, Isobel also makes use of charms.
Tsukiko is a Japanese contortionist who performs at the Circus. She first appeared at the Midnight Dinners. Tsukiko becomes the main inspiration of the circus. She reveals herself later on to be one of Mr. Alexander’s student, and the one who previously won the game, or, in her words, “survived” it. She was in love with her competitor Hinata who lit a pillar of flame and stepped into it, to burn herself and let Tsukiko win. (This also means that Tsukiko is a lesbian.) On October 31, 1902, she claims to have won the game that ended “eighty-three years, six months, and twenty-one days ago. It was a cherry-blossom day.” Approximately, that would be April 20, 1819.
Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre
Owner of Le Cirque des Rêves, Chandresh is a wealthy man of great ambition. His life spanned from August 3, 1847 to February 15, 1932, dying finally at the age of 85. He was 39 when the circus first opened. His character has this keen sense of beauty and a burning love for the arts. He has a lingering restlessness whenever he does not have work to do, which, other than the burden of the magical circus, caused his emotional and psychological unrest less than a decade after the opening of the circus. In that said moment of instability, he attempts to kill Alexander with a silver knife, but misses. Instead, Herr Thiessen gets stabbed. After he hands the circus over to Bailey, he creates a museum with Poppet.
Often referred to as Tante Padva or Mme. Padva, she is a retired Russian prima ballerina. She acts almost like a mother to Chandresh and the Burgess sisters. She loves fashion most of all, and appoints Lainie Burgess as the heiress to her business.
Lainie & Tara Burgess
The Burgess Sisters Lainie and Tara are socialites who love secrets and stories. They feel uncomfortable being apart from each other, one of them acting as the eyes, the other the ears during social events, making them a complete set. Tara ends up committing suicide by jumping in front of a train, after being heavily affected by the overpowering magical influences of the circus, just as she realizes the grand scheme. Lainie, however, ends up inheriting Ana Padva’s business, as Padva claims her to be reliable and responsible. Also, Lainie is the love interest of Ethan Barris, but initially refuses his proposal. Her argument was based on the fear that she was only chosen because Tara was already dead, making the choice not completely Mr. Barris’s, but just a matter of consequence.
Mr. Barris is the engineer and architect that built the circus. Aside from Isobel, he was the first among the original conspirators to know about the game, and how the circus was being used as a stage. He seems to be always busy, but he has a reserved and secretive character. He does not take sides.
Bailey Alden Clarke
Bailey is just a son of a humble apple farmer who ends up as the main proprietor of Le Cirques des Reves. When the circus visits Concord, Massachusetts in September of 1897 but is closed due to inclement weather, Bailey gets dared by his sister Caroline and her friends Millie and the Mackenzie brothers to check it out. There he meets Poppet, who lets him keep her glove as a souvenir. He keeps it in the hollow part of his favorite tree, for years until he sees the circus again in 1902. He finds himself in a dilemma between choosing Harvard, by recommendation of his grandmother, or staying to take over the family farm, by the strict decision of his parents. When Poppet returns for him, she asks him to join the circus as if though his presence were essential for the preservation of it. Later on, Celia and Marco are trapped in the half-matter state of the circus and can no longer keep it operating under their own power, so they ask Bailey to take over.
Assuming that the internet became available in 1990’s or 2000’s, then the ending would hint that Bailey and the rest of the circus continued to live past a hundred years.
Friedrick Stefan Thiessen
Herr Thiessen (September 9, 1846-November 1, 1901) is a German clockmaker from Munich who creates the iconic timepiece that is displayed at the circus. After his first visit to the circus at Dresden, he develops overwhelming feelings about the magical performances and starts to write about them. Patrons of the circus see his articles on the news, and start writing to him. They begin to create a network of fans of the circus called the Reveurs(daydreamers). He had a great fondness for Celia and was often assumed to have a romantic relationship with her. He died by getting stabbed with a silver knife by Chandresh who was in a time of mental instability, trying to kill Alexander who dodged the attack. His and Chandresh’s names are engraved on a metal plate installed on the great clock in their memory.
Victor meets Bailey on his way to New York and is the first to introduce him to the Reveurs. He offers Bailey to stay at one of the rooms at the Parker House, and even gives him a book of clippings and circus memorabilia. He is stubborn and does not accept rejections for his offers of kindness.
Victor’s sister who chooses out Bailey’s deep grey suit and puts a rose in his lapel. She seems very supportive of Victor and often finishes his sentence.
Elizabeth seems to have a hidden romantic relationship with Victor. She makes red scarves all the time for the Reveurs and gives on to Bailey as a gift.
We lead strange lives and chase our dreams from place to place. —Elizabeth, on being a Reveur.
Analysis of Themes & Ideas
What’s in a Name?
In the first part, when Celia meets Mr. Alexander H., she asks her father if it was his real name, saying that it’s as if it doesn’t fit. Likewise, when Hector first meets his daughter, he says that it was a shame she wasn’t named Miranda. And after various attempts at calling Celia as “Miranda” it never catches on. Later on, calling the Murray twins as Poppet and Widget, the narration includes that “the nicknames stick as all nicknames do.”
So what is in a name? Does not a rose called by any other name smell just as sweet? Well it would, but if you called it a daisy, it wouldn’t feel like a daisy. It would still be a rose. The thing is, names have their own definitions—not the type like those in baby name books. Words mean what they are meant to represent, and names mean the person they are meant to identify. To use a name for a person that isn’t their name would be defying their own sense of identity, in some way.
“Why did you call that man Alexander?” Celia asks.
“That’s a silly question.”
“It’s not his name.”
“Now, how might you know that?” Hector asks his daughter, lifting her chin to face him and weighing the look in her dark eyes with his own.
Celia stares back at him, unsure how to explain. She plays over in her mind the impression of the man in his grey suit with his pale eyes and harsh features, trying to figure out why the name does not fit on him properly.
“It’s not a real name,” she says. “Not one that he’s carried with him always. It’s one he wears like his hat. So he can take it off if he wants. Like Prospero is for you.”
Destiny, Dreams, Defiance
Tarot Cards, premonition and foresight, the rings, the game, the circus, the umbrella, the bottle, the glove, the fire, the silver knife, the blood, Harvard and Apple Farms—there are so many things in The Night Circus that none of the characters could be in control of. In fact, the game wasn’t one that you play, but one you survive. Marco and Celia aren’t even players in this game, just two kings on the opposite sides of a chess board, while Hector and Alexander move them around, knocking other pieces over like worthless pawns.
She has gathered that the man in the grey suit whom her father called Alexander also has a student, and there will be some sort of game.
“Like chess?” she asks once.
“No,” her father says. “Not like chess.”
And maybe, even, that’s why the entire circus is in black and white—because it’s a chessboard. No matter how they try to end the game, they couldn’t. They could try to win or to lose for the sake of the other, but there was no way to end it. Their love for each other was the resistance that they put up, their last act of defiance. It’s the same way that Romeo and Juliet died for each other, or even how Peeta and Katniss took those berries at the end of the games.
But then, there’s Bailey. He was supposed to either go to Harvard or take over the family farm. One of those was his predefined destiny. It’s a nice thing to think that Bailey tried to go against destiny by running off with the Circus. But then, Poppet saw it happen first, that Bailey should come over to the circus so that it would continue to survive. If so, then wouldn’t joining the circus be part of Bailey’s destiny? Is there really ever an escape for it?
In the same way, Celia tried to not get Bailey involved—but he still did. And she also tried to not fall for Marco, but she still did. It was something out of her control, like her emotions and her powers. And at the end of the day, if you really think about it, nobody escaped their destiny. It’s as if defiance and rebellion are just heroic illusions, when in fact, nobody ever really gets away.
Perhaps, even, love is just another way of giving up your freedom, like when Marco and Celia bind themselves forever into the soul of the circus, or when Bailey takes the contract and stays. It’s as if the only way to truly rebel from life is to dream. Art is the purest form of defiance, it’s the escapement, the maximization of the true sense of freedom.
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. – Oscar Wilde, 1888.
The book narrates back and forth from the beginning of Celia and Marco’s game in 1873, jumping to Bailey in 1897, and takes them together until both parts of the story meet at 1902. This, and the fact that the narration was in past tense, only meant that there was already a defined past and future, and there was no way of changing it. Peculiarly enough, Widget started telling the story in 1902 to Mr. AH–, but was able to write at the end of a time with internet, even though he wouldn’t have known about that in 1902.
“I am saying that you had a chance,” Isobel says. “A chance to be with her. A chance for everything to resolve itself in a favorable manner. I almost wanted that for you, truly, in spite of everything. I still want you to be happy. And the possibility was there.” She gives him a small, sad smile as she slides her hand into her pocket. “But the timing isn’t right.”
But likewise, it showed that destiny could be—or could have been—quite flimsy, flexible. An outcome of some event could be changed by the smallest factors, or in Isobel’s terms, the timing.
Kiko, please,” Celia says. “I need more time.”Tsukiko shakes her head.“I told you before,” she says, “time is not something I can control.
The concept of immortality and how Hector tried to obtain it is briefly discussed directly, but in all truth, I think it’s what the entire thing was about. Celia and Marco being forever part of the circus, with their souls intertwined with its existence is their piece of immortality. And Widget’s account of the circus is the preservation of everything—Herr Thiessen lives, and so does Chandresh, and likewise every person in that circus.
Oddly enough, as the years progress, the people in the circus never seem to age. By 1902, Marco and Celia would have been at age 34 or so. And Bailey, who was born around 1886, same with the twins, lived long enough to reach the time of internet, as shown when “you” receive Bailey’s business card with the website name and his email. That would mean they all lived past a hundred years. This might mean that the circus continues to pro-long and preserve their lives, making Celia and Marco, and everyone in the circus, in their own way, immortal.
The whole of Les Cirque des Reves is formed by a series of circles. Perhaps it is tribute to the origin of the word “circus,” deriving from the Greek kirkos meaning circle. (…) They are set within circular paths, contained within a circular fence. Looping and continuous. – Herr Friedrick Thiessen, 1892.
So is the narration, and Marco and Celia’s rings. Everything is like an orobouros and everything continues in circular motion, on and on, again and again, looping into forever, like a clock that never stops ticking.