The Night Circus

Rivalry and Competition Theme Analysis

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

At the center of The Night Circus is the competition between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who must outperform each another with increasingly complex forms of magic until one of them dies. They do not fully understand the boundaries of this game, however, because they are only pawns, forced into competition by their teachers, Hector Bowen and Mr. A.H. Both of these aging magicians—who are not only teachers but also surrogate guardians for Celia and Marco—show little affection for their young wards and have seemingly rejected emotional vulnerability in favor of the single-minded path of victory over their centuries-long rivalry. When Celia and Marco fall in love and rebel against the cruel and isolating rules of the competition, Hector and Mr. A.H. have the opportunity to grasp the value of genuine human connection, yet neither is able to make a meaningful change. Intense rivalry and competition, the novel thus suggests, are fueled by selfishness and blindness to others’ needs—and, as such, inevitably lead to isolation.

Both Hector Bowen and Mr. A.H. show distain for those outside of the world of magic, which makes it difficult for them to develop real social or emotional connections to others. While Hector simply takes advantage of his audiences by passing off his magic as illusion for money, Mr. A.H. truly shows disdain for people who don’t know that real magic exists: “what’s worse is that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them […] to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence.” And rather than allow their powerful knowledge and skills to unite them, they have developed a rivalry to determine who is the best magician and teacher. It is unclear exactly how long this competition has gone on, but the men refer to previous challenges, with Hector noting proudly that “the overall record leans” in his favor, while Mr. A.H. recalls that seven of Hector’s past competitors have forfeited the game. Tsukiko, the circus contortionist, reveals to Marco that she was the previous victor, finishing the competition “eighty-three years, six months, and twenty-one days ago,” in a duel that lasted thirty-seven years.

This competition between the magicians is played out by proxy, as they pit their apprentices against one another rather than battling each other directly. The stakes of the game are high: the magicians compete to the death, and the victor is simply the magician left standing. The fact that this particular competition pits their children—Celia, who is Hector’s daughter by blood, and Marco, who is adopted by Mr. A. H.—against one another makes it all the more disturbing; this underscores how much this rivalry has warped the elder magicians’ ability to meaningfully care for or empathize with anyone else, no matter how close they are to them. Celia points out the magicians’ cowardice, charging that her father and Mr. A.H. “fight by proxy because you are too cowardly to challenge each other directly. Afraid you will fail and have nothing to blame except yourselves.” The apprentices are puppets, allowing the magicians to show off their skills and earn bragging rights without actually taking any risk upon themselves. Again, competition is a mark of selfishness and fear of genuine engagement with the world.

Hector and Mr. A. H. each train their children/apprentices to eschew emotional connection, isolating them on purpose and perpetuating the loneliness and marginalization that they have experienced in their own lives. Celia is the child of Hector’s brief relationship with a woman whom he subsequently ignored and shunned until she committed suicide. When Celia then arrives at the theater where Hector is performing with a suicide note from her mother attached to her coat, Hector is unmoved. Instead, he only takes an interest in his daughter when he recognizes her innate magical abilities, seeing an opportunity to use his own child to win one more round against Mr. A.H. Hector’s training of Celia borders on abuse, as he slices her fingers and breaks her wrist with a paperweight in order to help her learn to use magic to heal herself. Once the competition is underway, Hector keeps an eye on Celia and often intervenes to berate her for any form of collaboration with anyone else in the circus, which only exacerbates her sense of isolation and pushes her to into a relationship with Marco. Similarly, Mr. A.H.’s apprentice is his child through adoption: he hand-picks Marco from an orphanage yet places him in almost complete isolation throughout his youth, only taking him out to attend magic shows. Mr. A.H.’s main role in Marco’s adult life is to interfere in the relationship that develops between the two competitors. He interrupts a conversation between Celia and his apprentice, to which Marco responds, “Thirteen years with barely a word and now you wish to speak with me?” Mr. A.H.’s sole objective in his relationship with Marco is to win this round of competition, even if it means sacrificing the happiness and even the life of his adopted child.

The world of magic imposes a life of solitude and secrets on its members: they must hide their true selves from the world to avoid exposing their supernatural and often terrifying powers. The rivalry between Hector Bowen and Mr. A.H. is a direct result of that imposed solitude, as each man is unaccustomed to emotional attachments, and must find solace in the company of another magician. However, rather than form a genuine friendship, each chooses to protect himself emotionally through the antagonistic nature of competition. They fight one another out of fear, not pride—they do not feel confident enough to confront one another, and they fear that a direct battle would end in the loss of each man’s only friend and companion in the world.

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Night Circus related to the theme of Rivalry and Competition.
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:
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“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:
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“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:
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“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:
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“[…] 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:
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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:
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“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:
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“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:
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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:
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“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:
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“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
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“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
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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:
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“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:
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“You said there was a rule about interference.”

“Interfering with you or your opponent. I can interfere with anyone else as much as I please.”

“Your interfering got Friedrick killed!”

“There are other clockmakers in the world.”

Related Characters: Celia Bowen (speaker), Hector Bowen / Prospero the Enchanter (speaker), Friedrick Thiessen
Page Number: 426
Explanation and Analysis:
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“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:
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“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:
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Part 5: Divination Quotes

“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:
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