The Night Circus

by

Erin Morgenstern

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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.
Magic and Illusion Theme Icon

Le Cirque des Rêves differs from the typical circus show that presents spectacle and audience deception as lighthearted entertainment; instead, this circus is infused with actual magic, challenging spectators to question their perceptions of what is real. As a point of pride, the magician Mr. A.H. makes a strong distinction between magic, which is an art to him, and illusion, which he sees as meaningless and deceptive. In The Night Circus, however, circus spectators simply delight in the mystery of the show before them, choosing to have faith in something they cannot explain or fully understand. The real magic that binds and protects the circus family is founded in that same faith, giving the magicians a sense of control in a world that might otherwise seem cruel and arbitrary.

Spectators come to Le Cirque des Rêves seeking illusion and deception, and whether or not they recognize the magic for what it is, they are captivated by a world that defies logic and extends their sense of what is possible. With its maze of tents and uncharted path through different cities and towns around the world, Le Cirque des Rêves is unreadable and mysterious to spectators, imbuing it with magic from the outset. The novel begins with a pronouncement: “The circus arrives without warning.” There is no explanation, no advertisement or pamphlet to present its origin, meaning, or format. This establishes a sense of anticipation (which is, of course, the subtitle of the novel’s prologue)—something that is its own kind of magic, in that it calls on spectators to engage with and imagine something they have yet to see.

Hector Bowen and Mr. A.H. have been trained in magic, a kind of supernatural summoning of energy to manipulate objects, events, and perceptions; yet Hector, who performed under the name Prospero the Enchanter, must disguise his magic as illusion, letting his audience believe they are simply being deceived by sleight of hand. This was a contentious point between them, as the Mr. A.H. described the mix of magic and illusion as “frivolous,” while Hector defended himself, explaining that his spectators “line up to be mystified […] I can mystify them easier than most.” In his mind, audiences would prefer to believe they are being tricked by an illusionist than be confronted with a truly supernatural power beyond their control and comprehension. Yet whether or not the audience is able to grasp the depth of what they are seeing, they come to see something they do not have access to in their daily lives. When Mr. A.H. discusses the value of magic with Widget, who has recently taken charge of the circus, he wonders about the purpose it serves. Throughout their conversation, the old magician seems to recognize the value of magic, or illusion, or the combination of the two. When Widget explains that he uses magic to tell stories, Mr. A.H. notes, that there is “magic in that […] You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose.” The end result of magic, then, is to offer a sense of wonder and possibility absent from their regular lives.

Magic grants not only a sense of hope, but also of protection from an unpredictable world. From the inside of the circus, there is the less visible but equally important protective magic that Isobel and Marco use to keep those associated with the circus alive, healthy, and in balance. This internal magic helps to offer the members of the circus a sense of control and safety. Isobel the fortune-teller casts a protective spell on the circus, hoping “to keep the circus balanced. To prevent two conflicting sides from causing damage to each other or their surroundings.” When she leaves the circus, however, she reverses her spell, shifting the equilibrium of the circus and destroying the illusory sense of safety and security the performers previously felt. This sets in motion a series of events that ends in the death of the clockmaker Herr Theissen, one of the original rêveurs and one of Celia Bowen’s closest friends. Marco has also placed the circus and its associates under a spell: he uses a notebook filled with “endless pages of glyphs and symbols, ringed in text ripped from other sources, affixed to one another and inscribed over and over.” This notebook is his magical safeguard for the circus, another copy of which he has placed in the central bonfire, forging his magic by fire. When Bailey is instructed to re-light the bonfire in order to bring the circus back to life, he must also work on pure faith, not knowing whether or not his thoughts and actions are enough. He repeats what he has learned from Celia, instructions “about focus and intent that he does not entirely understand,” and impulsively throws the entire contents of his pockets into the fire, hoping that something he does will work. His success, however, is a testament to the power of belief, and the value of faith outside of the burden of proof.

By the end of The Night Circus, Mr. A.H. recognizes that there “are many kinds of magic, after all.” The members of the circus and their audiences are united in the desire to believe in something beyond their immediate comprehension. This illusion provides a sense of wonder and creativity, giving believers hope in the possibilities in the universe, and empowering them to take risks to make great things happen.

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Magic and Illusion ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Magic and Illusion appears in each chapter of The Night Circus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Magic and Illusion Quotes in The Night Circus

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

“You might be interesting.”

Related Characters: Hector Bowen / Prospero the Enchanter (speaker), Celia Bowen
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

“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:

“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:

“My new game, as you so appropriately call it, is a circus.”

“A circus? How marvelous!”

“Like a carnival?”

“More than a carnival, more than a circus, really, like no circus anyone has ever seen.”

Related Characters: Chandresh Lefevre (speaker), Ethan Barris (speaker), Lainie Burgess (speaker)
Page Number: 76
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:
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:

“How much do you know?”

“How much do I know about what?”

“How much has Miss Bowen told you?”

“You’re her opponent. I never would have guessed.”

Related Characters: Marco Alisdair (speaker), Ethan Barris (speaker), Celia Bowen
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

“There is a great deal more going on than we are privy to, of that I’m quite sure. I tried to talk to Chandresh, but it was like we were speaking two different languages. I do not like sitting idly by when something clearly isn’t right.”

Related Characters: Tara Burgess (speaker), Chandresh Lefevre, Ethan Barris
Page Number: 197
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:

“We are fish in a bowl, dear. Very carefully monitored fish. Watched from all angles. If one of us floats to the top, it was not accidental. And if it was an accident, I worry that the watchers are not as careful as they should be.”

Related Characters: Tsukiko (speaker), Isobel Martin, Tara Burgess
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Intersections Quotes

“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:

“She will win. Do not try to avoid the fact that she is a stronger player than yours and has always been.”

Page Number: 383
Explanation and Analysis:

“I tried. I thought I might be able to fix it. I’ve known him so long. That maybe it would be like setting a clock to make it tick again. I knew exactly what was wrong but I couldn’t make it right. He was so familiar but it… it didn’t work.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Marco Alisdair, Friedrick Thiessen
Page Number: 385
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4: Incendiary Quotes

“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:

“You told me love was fickle and fleeting.”

“I lied. I thought it might be easier if you doubted him. And I gave you a year to find a way for the circus to continue without you. You have not. I am stepping in.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Tsukiko (speaker), Marco Alisdair
Page Number: 461
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: