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.
Time and Mortality Theme Icon

The circus, as a place of leisure and youthful joy, is outside the reaches of time, presenting spectators with an uninterrupted present and a sense of immortality. In The Night Circus, however, that sense of eternal present is unsettling, as it makes time seem mysterious and uncontrollable. As Isobel explains about fortune telling, “The most difficult thing to read is time.”  The novel touches on both the innate fear of death and loss, and the crippling isolation that would accompany immortality, and ultimately reminds readers that time is an uncontrollable and mysterious concept.

The Night Circus breaks with the conventions of chronological time: characters age at different rates, and connections to the circus render some people immortal, while others meet tragic and untimely deaths. Some of the organizers realize that they are not aging at a normal rate and realize that the circus has something to do with it. Mr. Barris is able to accept the situation, in part because he knows about the magic that fuels it. Nevertheless, his altered state of aging presents serious difficulties for him, as he must keep it a secret from those around him. “I move my office every few years, I hire new staff,” he explains to his friend Lainie Burgess, who is also aging slowly but does not know why. “I would tell you if I could,” he adds mysteriously. A suspicious Tara Burgess meets with Mr. Barris to discuss the issue, and he cannot tell her either; unlike Lainie, however, Tara continues to investigate, determined to understand and possibly control her sense of mortality. Tara’s investigation, however, brings her too close to the truth and leads to her swift and mysterious death in the path of an oncoming train. This tragic accident suggests that there is no questioning this glimpse of immortality without the risk of facing death itself. As strong as her magical abilities are, Celia is unable to control the morality of those around her, an issue that weighs heavily on her throughout her life. Only five when her mother committed suicide, there was little she could do to prevent it. And when Chandresh accidentally murders Herr Theissen, Celia attempts unsuccessfully to save him: “I tried. I thought I might be able to fix it.” Despite having a tremendous amount of magical ability, Celia cannot control time nor the inevitable march towards death that defines mortals who are not connected to the circus.

In contrast to the unsettling near-immortality of the circus organizers, Celia and Marco must face the possibility of death as the outcome of their competition. Once Celia and Marco begin to decipher the rules of their competition, they realize that the game only ends when one of the competitors dies. “A winner is not declared,” Hector Bowen tells Celia. “The game is played out, not stopped.” Not surprisingly, the two lovers are only interested in being together indefinitely, and this realization is devastating to them, giving them no idea how long they have together. Once they have made love for the first time, Celia “wishes she could freeze time […] stay forever in this moment […] not have to leave.” But the competition and the sense of doom is inescapable for both of them. Marco and Celia both offer to lose the competition so that the other can survive, suggesting that it is not death itself that they fear, but the lack of control over their time together. In addition, Celia is still mourning the death of Herr Theissen, for which she takes some responsibility, and would rather face her own death than lose another person she loves. Finally, Marco and Celia manage to escape both the competition and mortality, using magic to enter an alternate dimension, where they have gained a kind of immortality within the confines of the circus. Even Mr. A.H. “will admit that Miss Bowen found a very clever way out.” Marco and Celia managed this feat only by facing death itself, however—they take control of their mortality in the face of an uncontrollable sense of the future. While most of the circus members have life spans that are well outside of the normal range—Bailey, for example, joined the circus at the turn of the twentieth century, yet in the final chapter he provides an email address to visitors—there is no sense that immortality is the desired outcome for these characters. The loneliness and isolation that both Mr. A.H. and Hector Bowen feel may be attributed, in part, to the fact that they exist outside of the boundaries of typical life and death. Mr. A.H. explains that this advanced age “takes a toll on a person,” and that he is “content to accept inevitabilities, even if I have ways of putting them off.”

The Night Circus touches on many of the most basic fears associated with mortality, including the loss of loved ones and the lack of any sense of control over the future. On the other hand, while the circus provides a certain sense of leisure and escape from the passing of time, the novel also reminds readers of the crippling isolation that would accompany immortality. As Mr. A.H. notes, the goal is to “find darkness or paradise without fear,” and to accept the uncontrollable nature of time and aging.

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Time and Mortality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Night Circus related to the theme of Time and Mortality.
Part 2: Illumination Quotes

“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:

“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:

“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:

“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

“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:

“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:

“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:

“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

“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: