The Night Circus

by

Erin Morgenstern

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Freedom and Agency Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Rivalry and Competition Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Family, Community, and Belonging Theme Icon
Time and Mortality Theme Icon
Magic and Illusion Theme Icon
Freedom and Agency Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Night Circus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Freedom and Agency Theme Icon

Traditionally, the circus has enjoyed a reputation of freedom, as the performers were not bound by location or permanent family connections, and spectators could escape from the banality of their daily lives to the wonders of magic and spectacle. Yet, as the author notes in an epigraph from the novel, the word circus itself is derived “from the Greek kirkos meaning circle, or ring,” a shape that is designed to enclose or contain. The Night Circus plays on this tension between freedom and imprisonment, as most of the characters find escape and liberty in the circus, while others—Celia in particular—are trapped within the confines of the space and the competition it houses. Just as the circus provides a family structure for many of the performers who would be marginalized in their own societies, it offers a sense of freedom from outside cultural restraints and judgments.

Tsukiko the contortionist, for example, arrives at Chandresh’s home at midnight without warning, offering no explanation of where she has come from or why. Once she has performed for the organizers of Le Cirque des Rêves, Chandresh announces, “This is the precise flavor that the circus should be […] This is kismet, her coming here tonight.” Much later on in the novel, Tsukiko reveals that she once participated in a previous competition between Mr. A.H. and Hector Bowen, and that her opponent “is now a pillar of ash standing in a field in Kyoto.” As the victor, Tsukiko was set free into the world, and has found her place within the circus.

Many of the other members of the circus, like Widget and Poppet, find complete freedom of expression in Le Cirque des Rêves, using the venue to demonstrate their creativity and unique gifts without fear of rejection. Born into the circus, both Widget and Poppet have supernatural powers that they would likely need to suppress in the outside world, yet Widget is given his own tent “as a place to practice putting down his stories.” Later on, once Celia and Marco exit the competition and are no longer responsible for the circus itself, the twins are given complete creative control over it. Their magical abilities are of value, giving them the confidence and liberty to make creative, bold choices. For Bailey, a young boy living in Concord, Massachusetts at the turn of the twentieth century, the circus is a fantasy and a possible escape the expectations of his unsatisfying home life. He first glimpsed Le Cirque des Rêves at the age of five, but “he was not allowed to visit the circus. His parents deemed him too young, so he could only stare from afar, enchanted” by the spectacle. When the circus returns five years later, Bailey defies the posted sign threatening exsanguination to sneak in during the day, hoping to explore the secrets of the circus. When he stumbles upon Poppet, she somehow already knows his name and even gives him one of her gloves as a memento of his adventure. From this moment on, the circus becomes a constant for Bailey, each visit an opportunity to explore a new, liberating world. By contrast, at home in Concord, Bailey’s future is in the hands of his father, who demands that he take over the family farm, and his grandmother, who has decided that he will attend Harvard University. Bailey is not enthusiastic about either choice; Harvard “seems to him to be the option that holds the most mystery, the most possibility,” but he is also aware that he has little choice in the matter. He recognizes that he has a responsibility to his family, “repeating the word he has begun to hate.” More than the sense of responsibility, it is the lack of agency that upsets Bailey. Bailey runs away to the circus in the middle of the night, leaving a note for his parents and saying a quick goodbye to his sister. As he leaves, he recalls that “when he was very small his mother once said she wished happiness and adventure for him. If this does not count as adventure, he is not sure what does.” Le Cirque des Rêves offers him the freedom, agency, and possibility that neither Harvard or the family farm could offer.

In contrast to the freedom and adventure that the circus offers to the other members, for Celia and Marco, it is a place of imprisonment and isolation as long as they are forced into competition. Celia lacks agency throughout the beginning of the novel, arriving like a discarded package at the theater where her father is performing. She has no choice about her future and, once she is involved in the competition, she doesn’t even understand the rules of the game she is meant to play. Her imprisonment is symbolized by the ring that Mr. A.H. gives her, which creates a permanent burn in the skin of her finger. Marco’s matching scar on his finger signifies that he, too, spent his youth in one form of confinement or another, rescued from the orphanage only to take on a form of indentured servitude as Mr. A.H.’s magic student. When Marco asks Mr. A.H. why he did it, he responds, “I thought it preferable to the life you might have had otherwise, regardless of the consequences.” Despite this reasonable answer from his teacher, Marco resents being forced in to the competition.  While they are bound to the competition and its home base in Le Cirque des Rêves, Marco and Celia enjoy relative freedom to interpret their roles in the game. In spite of their guardians’ disapproval, Celia and Marco take the liberty of collaborating, which brings them closer together rather than fueling any sort of rivalry. Their love gives them a glimpse of freedom, but when they discuss the possibility of running away together, the scars on their fingers burn painfully, reminding them they have no choice in this matter. “I thought I would ask you to run away with me and I meant it,” explains Celia, “The very moment I convinced myself that we could manage it, I was in so much pain I could barely stand.” Any sense of freedom Celia and Marco have within the circus is, like so much of Le Cirque des Rêves, an illusion. Their only hope to escape the prison of a magical duel to the death is to lock themselves deeper within the circus, in a state of semi-death, semi-immortality that will render the competition a stalemate. When Widget explains this state to Mr. A.H., she describes it as marvelous, to which he responds, “You think being imprisoned marvelous?” He does not understand that even though they are physically trapped inside the confines of the circus, they have escaped the domineering reach of their guardians and taken their destinies into their own hands; as such, this is the greatest amount of freedom that either Celia or Marco have had in their entire lives.

Located outside of city limits, Le Cirque des Rêves presumes to offer audiences a temporary reprieve from their daily lives; more importantly, for the performers it is a permanent refuge from an oppressive outside world. And while they rarely leave the physical space of the circus, these characters find a sense of freedom that they might not otherwise have. For Celia and Marco to achieve that same sense of freedom, however, they must undertake a quest that threatens to destroy them both, risking their very lives to escape the binding placed upon them by their guardians, decades earlier. The fact that Celia and Marco are more than willing to make this exchange for even a minor taste of liberty underscores the importance of freedom and self-determination in The Night Circus.

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Freedom and Agency ThemeTracker

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Freedom and Agency Quotes in The Night Circus

Below you will find the important quotes in The Night Circus related to the theme of Freedom and Agency.
Part 1: Primordium Quotes

“You would wager your own child?”

“She won’t lose.”

Related Characters: Alexander / Mr. A.H. (speaker), Hector Bowen / Prospero the Enchanter (speaker), Celia Bowen
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

“You will be coming to study with me […].”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Do you wish to remain here?”

“No.”

“Very well.”

Related Characters: Marco Alisdair (speaker), Alexander / Mr. A.H. (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

“What am I bound to?”

“An obligation you already had, and a person you will not meet for some time.”

Related Characters: Marco Alisdair (speaker), Alexander / Mr. A.H. (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rings
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

“I owe you my deepest gratitude, Miss…?”

“Martin. Isobel Martin.”

“Marco, Marco Alisdair.”

Related Characters: Marco Alisdair (speaker), Isobel Martin (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

“[…] with whom have you studied?”

“With my father, Hector Bowen. Though perhaps he is better known as Prospero the Enchanter.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Marco Alisdair (speaker), Hector Bowen / Prospero the Enchanter
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

“Follow your dreams, Bailey. Be they Harvard or something else entirely.”

Related Characters: Bailey Clarke
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Illumination Quotes

“I’m not certain I understand the rules.”

“You don’t need to understand the rules. You need to follow them. As I said, your work has been sufficient.”

Related Characters: Marco Alisdair (speaker), Alexander / Mr. A.H. (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

“Working with others will only drag you down. These people are not your friends, they are inconsequential. And one of them is your opponent, don’t forget that.”

Related Characters: Hector Bowen / Prospero the Enchanter (speaker), Celia Bowen
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

“Do you like the circus, Bailey?”

“It’s like no place I’ve ever been […] Not that I’ve been many places. But I think the circus is wonderful. I like it very much.”

“That would help.”

“Help with what?”

Related Characters: Isobel Martin (speaker), Bailey Clarke (speaker)
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

“I spent the first several years of my life watching my mother pine for him, steadfastly. Loving and longing far beyond the time when he had lost what little interest in her he ever held. Until one day when I was five years old and she took her own life. When I was old enough to understand, I promised myself I would not suffer so for anyone. It will take a great deal more than that charming smile of yours to seduce me.”

Page Number: 275
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Intersections Quotes

“Thirteen years with barely a word and now you wish to speak with me?”

Related Characters: Marco Alisdair (speaker), Celia Bowen, Alexander / Mr. A.H.
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:

“I cannot leave. I am not allowed. I must remain here, and I must continue with this nonsense, as you so aptly put it. You are going to return to your drinking and your parties and you will not even remember that we had this conversation.”

Related Characters: Marco Alisdair (speaker), Chandresh Lefevre
Related Symbols: The Bonfire
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

“If you ever need anything from me, I would like you to ask. I am tired of everyone keeping their secrets so well that they get other people killed. We are all involved in your game, and it seems we are not as easily repaired as teacups.”

Related Characters: Lainie Burgess (speaker), Celia Bowen, Tara Burgess
Page Number: 340
Explanation and Analysis:

“Are you looking for this? It was made by a ring when I was fourteen. It said something in Latin, but I don’t know what it was.”

Esse quam videri. To be, rather than to seem. It’s the Bowen family motto. My father was very fond of engraving it on things. I’m not entirely sure he appreciated the irony.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Marco Alisdair (speaker), Hector Bowen / Prospero the Enchanter
Related Symbols: Rings
Page Number: 348
Explanation and Analysis:

“You’re joking.”

“I’m not, I swear I’m not. I wanted to wait until I was sure it was the right thing to ask, the right thing to do, and I’m sure now. It’s important.”

“What do you mean? Important how?”

“I know you’re supposed to come with us. I know that part for certain.”

Related Characters: Poppet Murray (speaker), Bailey Clarke (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bonfire
Page Number: 356
Explanation and Analysis:

“Staying here won’t make me happy. It will make you happy because you are insipid and boring, and an insipid, boring life is enough for you. It’s not enough for me. It will never be enough for me. So I’m leaving.”

Related Characters: Bailey Clarke (speaker)
Page Number: 380
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4: Incendiary Quotes

“You are willing to sacrifice me for this. To let me destroy myself just so you can attempt to prove a point. You tied me to this game knowing the stakes, and you let me think it was nothing but a simple challenge of skill.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Hector Bowen / Prospero the Enchanter
Page Number: 397-398
Explanation and Analysis:

“Do you love him?”

“I do.”

“Do you believe he loves you? Love is fickle and fleeting. It is rarely a solid foundation for decisions to be made upon, in any game.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Tsukiko (speaker), Marco Alisdair
Page Number: 406
Explanation and Analysis:

“Our instructors do not understand how it is. To be bound to someone in such a way. They are too old, too out of touch with their emotions. They no longer remember what it is to live and breathe within the world. They think it simple to pit any two people against each other. It is never simple. The other person becomes how you define your life, how you define yourself.”

Page Number: 458
Explanation and Analysis:

“But I’m not […] special. Not in the way they are. I’m not anyone important.”

“I know. You’re not destined or chosen, I wish I could tell you that you were if that would make it easier, but it’s not true. You’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Bailey Clarke (speaker), Widget Murray, Poppet Murray
Related Symbols: The Bonfire
Page Number: 478-479
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 5: Divination Quotes

“I’m not going to give you your memory back. I don’t know if I could even if I tried, though Widge could probably manage it. At this point, I don’t think you need that weight on you. I think looking forward will be better than looking back.”

Related Symbols: The Bonfire
Page Number: 498
Explanation and Analysis:

“You think being imprisoned marvelous?”

“It’s a matter of perspective. They have each other. They are confined within a space that is remarkable, one that can, and will, grow and change around them.”

Related Characters: Alexander / Mr. A.H. (speaker), Widget Murray (speaker), Celia Bowen, Marco Alisdair
Page Number: 502
Explanation and Analysis:

“You’d be better off letting the whole endeavor fade away into myth and oblivion. All empires fall eventually. It is the way of things. Perhaps it is time to let this one go.”

“I’m afraid I’m unwilling to do that.”

Related Characters: Alexander / Mr. A.H. (speaker), Widget Murray (speaker)
Page Number: 506
Explanation and Analysis: