Part 1, Chapters 1-3 Summary

Erin Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus (2011), has been hailed by many reviewers as a worthy successor to the Harry Potter series. The story is filled with magic and mystery as well as young romance. The novel has become very popular; as Molly Driscoll with the Christian Science Monitor states, “This book is suddenly popping up wherever you go.”


The Night Circus begins with a tantalizing description of what lies ahead in the telling of this mysterious fantasy. A circus appears in a town without any warning or advertisement. It is just suddenly there, and it is nothing like a traditional circus. Everything is bicolored in blacks and whites—even the grounds on which the tents have been placed. The circus will not open until after sunset. Curious crowds line up, but there is no one in front of the tents to usher them in. In fact, the people are almost ready to go home because the circus looks vacant. But as they are about to leave, lights pop on, revealing the name of the attraction. It is called Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams.

The story then takes a closer look at the circus, this time from the inside. This is 1873 in New York. Hector Bowen, popularly known as Prospero the Enchanter, is introduced when a “package” is delivered to him with a note. The package is standing in front of him. She is a young girl, and Prospero recognizes that her eyes are very similar to his own. He concludes that she is undoubtedly his daughter. The girl’s mother has sent her to Prospero. The note attached to the girl’s coat tells of her mother’s imminent suicide. As father and daughter introduce themselves to each other, Hector notices something peculiar about his daughter, Celia. She breaks a cup without touching it. After the tea has spilled out, she apologizes and reassembles the cup, again without touching it. Hector realizes that his daughter...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 4-6 Summary

Alexander enters an orphanage. He converses with the headmistress, who brings him three children. After interviewing the first boy and girl, he sends them back. The third boy most interests him. This boy, Marco, has quick reflexes, which Alexander tests by throwing his walking cane at him without any warning. Marco also tells him that he loves to read, but the place where he is currently staying does not have many books, and he has read them all.

Alexander tells Marco to pack his things. He will be living with him from now on. Marco asks if he has a choice. Alexander asks Marco if he would rather stay there. Marco tells him no.

Marco, like Celia, is trained in magic. He lives mostly by himself because Alexander is often gone and there is no one else in the household—at least, no one Marco ever sees. His meals are brought to him, as are stacks of books. Alexander sits down with him each day for formalized lessons. He also takes Marco on trips to other European countries.

Celia’s life is somewhat different. She, like Marco, undergoes intensive training. She also travels with Hector, but their travels are dictated by where Hector is performing. As Celia grows older, Hector spends less time with her, so she often studies on her own. Hector shares one lesson with her when one of the doves he uses in his show breaks a wing. Celia asks Hector if he can fix it. He asks her if she can. Celia attempts to mend the bird’s wing through mental manipulation but is unsuccessful. When she hands the bird back to Hector, he breaks its neck. He tells Celia that the lesson she has just learned is that she has limitations.

Later Hector teaches Celia how to heal herself. In this exercise, Hector splits Celia’s fingertips, and she must mend them using only her will. She is successful.

As he matures, Marco keeps a journal in which he records the magic spells and symbols he has learned. He is nineteen now, and...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 7-9 Summary

It is 1884, and Celia is sixteen years old. Prospero the Enchanter has retired from stage performance. Instead, he hires out his daughter as a spiritual medium. Celia hates this job. But her father, Hector (Prospero), believes it is a good way for them to make money. They perform tricks and make their customers believe they are talking to loved ones who have died. Celia says the whole scheme is a hoax, and her father agrees. But Hector reminds Celia that she is preparing herself for the challenge. He has no specific details as to who the challenger is or when the contest will begin, but he insists that Celia concentrate and improve her skills. To make her study harder, her father breaks her wrist. This causes a lot of pain, and it takes Celia an hour to reconstruct her bones. Later, Celia goes to her father’s room. She sees him doing something he has never done before. He makes his hand disappear. When she asks him why he is doing this, Hector slams the door in her face.

Meanwhile, Isobel has moved in with Marco. He is teaching her simple magic tricks, which she is having trouble mastering. While they are both practicing their skills, there is a knock on the door. Marco knows instantly that the man at the door is Alexander, who adopted and is training him. In his usual unaffected manner, Alexander tells Marco that he is to apply for a position with a Mr. Lefevre. Marco should do what is necessary to ensure he gets the job. Mr. Lefevre will, in some undisclosed way, have something to do with the challenge in which Marco will be involved. Chandresh Lefevre is a theatrical producer. He is always searching for shows that are fresh, alluring, and spectacular. Marco has no trouble becoming Lefevre’s assistant.

The story jumps ahead, though no date is given. The reader is presented with a preview of the circus that Lefevre will eventually produce with Marco’s and Celia’s help. Sometime in the future, at the entrance to the circus,...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 10-11 Summary

Time jumps forward to 1897. Ten-year-old Bailey is playing Truth or Dare with his sister, Caroline. Bailey chooses a dare. Caroline dares Bailey to go to the circus, which came to town a couple of days before, and steal something to prove he got in. It is in the middle of the afternoon, and Bailey knows the circus is not yet open. He will have to break in. Bailey agrees to do it.

The gate at the entrance of the circus is locked, and there is a tall iron fence around the tents—too high for Bailey to climb. He walks around the perimeter, hoping to find a way in. At the back, he notices that the space between two of the iron bars is large enough for him to squeeze through.

Once inside, he realizes that the environment appears different to him. For instance, it is quieter. He does not even hear birds singing. He also sees that the ground has been painted white in some areas and black in others, and all the tents have strange signs. The one that reads Fearsome Beasts & Strange Creatures makes Bailey shudder. He is so absorbed by his surroundings that he nearly walks right into a young girl, who seems to be near his own age. She tells him, in a friendly voice, that he is not supposed to be there. Then she suggests that he leave before anyone else sees him, and she helps him find a way out. As soon as they make it back to the iron fence, Bailey squeezes through the space between the bars. Before he leaves, though, he tells the girl about the dare his sister has imposed. He says he needs to bring something back to prove he got in. The girl takes off a white glove she had been wearing and gives it to him. Bailey is reluctant to take something so personal and precious, but the young girl insists that she has a whole box full of gloves. They part without telling one another their names.

The story then moves back to 1885. Chandresh Lefevre is hosting a midnight dinner at his house. At this dinner, several minor characters are introduced. Ana Padva is a retired Romanian prima ballerina whom Lefevre calls Tante Padva. He has known her since childhood. Ethan Barris, an engineer and architect, has also been invited, as have Tara and Lainie Burgess. The Burgess sisters are known for their highly developed skills of observation. The last guest is Alexander, Marco’s mentor.

After dinner, Lefevre announces his reason for inviting these specially selected dinner guests. He has begun a new endeavor, he tells them, and he needs their help. He wants to create a very special circus unlike any other circus ever put together. As Lefevre explains his circus in vague terms, the guests’ creativity is stirred, and they spend the rest of the night collaborating on fantastic plans.

Part 1, Chapters 12-14 Summary

It is now 1885, and newspapers have reported that Celia’s father has died. Hector is still alive, but a failed trick has left parts of him invisible and the rest of him transparent. However, in the collection of cards of condolence, Celia finds one that is markedly different from all the others. There is no message of sympathy. There is no signature. The message simply reads, “Your move.” Celia is at a loss to make sense of the card or its message, so she takes it to her father. When Hector reads the card, he bursts out laughing.

In London, meanwhile, the midnight dinners at Chandresh Lefevre’s house continue. The principle attendees have been meeting once a month. They have come to call their gatherings the Circus Dinners because they elaborate more fully on their plans after each dinner.

At this particular dinner, an uninvited guest appears. Her name is Tsukiko, and she is a contortionist. She is extremely limber and can put her body into positions the other guests had previously considered physically impossible. Chandresh appears to know Tsukiko, though he is surprised that she is there. As Tsukiko exhibits her skills, Chandresh exclaims that Tsukiko is exactly what he has been talking about as far as the calibre of performer he wants at the circus.

The scene changes to Munich, Germany. Mr. Barris, the architect who is one of the regular participants at the Circus Dinners, is meeting with Friedrick Thiessen, a clock maker. Barris asks if Thiessen is interested in accepting a commission to create a very special piece. Thiessen, whose schedule is full with commissions from other customers who pay him for traditional cuckoo clocks, is not impressed with Mr. Barris’s offer until Barris adds that what he is looking for is something “truly outstanding,” and money is not a concern. The clock will be the centerpiece of a circus, Barris adds. The only instructions that Barris gives Thiessen are that the clock should be large, painted only in black and white, and appear dreamlike.

After a few months of design and work, the clock is complete. The first thing one would notice about this clock is that it is constantly changing colors from white to gray to black. The body of the clock is decorated with intricately carved pieces such as flowers, planets, and books with actual paper pages. There is also a silver dragon, a tiny princess in a tower, and teapots that pour into cups. Cats chase dogs and a game of chess is played on a chessboard as the clock counts out the minutes and hours.

After it is shipped to London, Thiessen receives a note of gratitude from Mr. Barris, who writes that the clock is perfect. Included in this envelope is a check with enough money that Thiessen could retire immediately if he so desired.

Part 1, Chapters 15-17 Summary

It is almost a year later. Illusionists from all over the world have come to a theater in London to audition for a position. In the midst of the applicants is a young girl. She is the only female there, and many people mistake her for a clerk, as if she were there to help in the audition. She has no props, such as cages of birds; she has no trunk; and she is not wearing a cape, as most of the other illusionists are. She pays no attention to any of the others although they are obviously staring at her. Not only is she female, she is also very young.

One by one, each illusionist is called up to the stage to perform. One by one, each is dismissed. Finally, Marco calls out number twenty-three, which is the girl’s number....

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 1-3 Summary

It is now 1886 in London, and the circus is opening tonight. Long lines formed in anticipation of the gate’s opening at sundown. Inside, at the center of the courtyard, is an iron sculpture that at midnight will be turned into a huge cauldron of fire. As the clock prepares to mark the hour, twelve fire performers surround the cauldron. They are poised with bows and arrows; the tip of each arrow has been set afire. As the clock strikes its twelve chimes, one arrow at a time is slung into the huge metal bowl. Each arrow changes the flames to a new color. The hues range from yellow to sky blue, and the last arrow transforms the flames to a brilliant white.

The crowd is stunned by the changing colors of the fire but no...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 4-5 Summary

The story jumps forward again to 1902 in Concord, Massachusetts, where Bailey is preparing to go to the circus. Although the thought of the performers in the circus tents excites him, Bailey’s primary goal is to find the red-haired girl who gave him the white glove when he was ten and snuck into the circus. He thinks he is acting silly and doubts that she would remember him. He also wonders if he would recognize her after five long years.

As Bailey wanders around the maze of tents, trying to decide which act to see, he sees a female contortionist who is performing on a small stage outside one of the tents. The most impressive part of this woman’s act is when she bends and twists her body into a small, glass case,...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 6-8 Summary

In 1889 France, Friedrick Thiessen is on holiday. Thiessen has never seen his large, animated circus clock on display. While talking to a local resident, Thiessen discovers that the circus is in town. So after dinner, Thiessen walks to the borders of the village, where he sees the black and white circus tents. Once inside the gates, Thiessen is pleased to find his clock in a prominent position and looking no worse for wear, although it is exposed to the elements. He inquires about the person who is in charge of the circus and is given the name and address of Chandresh Lefevre.

After enjoying several of the attractions, Thiessen walks by his clock once more, reflecting on how well the clock fits the circus. Once home,...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 9-10 Summary

It is 1891, and the circus has arrived in London. Tsukiko kids Celia that she spends too much time alone; she encourages the younger performer to join her at Lefevre’s home for a midnight dinner. The other guests were not expecting Celia to come, but they are delighted to share her company. Ana Padva, the Burgess sisters, and Mr. Barris are already there. Celia knows all the guests well, but she has not often met with them socially, so she feels a little out of place.

After being in their company for a few hours, Celia notes how likeable the Burgess sisters are. Their bubbly personalities are infectious. Without them present, Celia concludes, the party would be a lot less lively and entertaining. They always seem to...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 11-12 Summary

In London in 1893, Marco pays a visit to the architect, Mr. Barris. Marco is aware that Barris and Celia worked together on the circus carousel. When he first arrives at Barris’s office, he asks the architect how much Celia told him about what she does. Without fully answering, Mr. Barris smiles and says, “You’re her opponent.” Barris had not known this before, but was putting all the pieces together now. He tells Marco that while working on the carousel, Celia had told him that the illusions she creates are real, not tricks. Barris accepted this without asking any further questions, he says. Barris is not interested in magic. He merely provides the form through which the magic is engaged. Barris also informs Marco that he...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 13-14 Summary

The circus is in Prague and it is 1894. There is a sign on the circus’s front gate telling customers that the circus is closed due to inclement weather. People stare at the sign and then look up at the skies. There is not a cloud in sight. But no lights are turned on, and there is no indication that performers are getting ready for their acts, so the patrons resign themselves to returning home. An hour later, the wind and the rain start.

While the rest of the circus entertainers are enjoying an “inclement weather party,” Celia ventures off the grounds and strolls through the city until she find an alluring café. Once inside, she notices Isobel and asks to join her. As the two women drink their tea, Celia asks...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 15-17 Summary

The circus is in Spain, and the year is 1894. Poppet has had a vision she does not like. It has confused her. In the vision, Poppet sees a lot of red, as if someone has spilled several cans of red paint on the ground. She has not told Celia about her vision because she wants to wait until she better understands it. So far, even Poppet’s most confusing visions eventually make sense to her. After telling Widget about the red paint, Poppet adds that there was good news in the vision too. The vision made clear that they are about to get a visitor. Poppet has no idea who this visitor is, but the idea makes her feel happy. Then she asks her brother to tell her a story.

Widget begins his story: “Secrets have power.” He...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 18-19 Summary

Many of the circus people are in attendance at Tara’s funeral. Her sister, Laine, explains the pain she is feeling from the loss. She and Tara were so often together that they were often looked upon as one.

To the side, Isobel stands under an umbrella that she shares with the contortionist. Tsukiko asks Isobel how Tara died. Isobel answers that Tara was hit by a train. This answer does not satisfy Tsukiko; she then asks, “How did she really die?”

Isobel is surprised by what Tsukiko is insinuating. She presses Tsukiko for an explanation of her thoughts. Tsukiko wants to know if Isobel ever suffered from any kind of accident or illness since joining the circus. Isobel thinks about this, then she answers...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 20 Summary

A few months after Tara’s funeral, the circus sets up in London. Celia takes advantage of being in this location to attend one of Chandresh Lefevre’s midnight dinners. After eating and taking part in the conversations that linger well into the early morning, all the guests leave except Celia. Marco asks Celia to stay to have a drink. She accepts his invitation. This is the first time they have had an opportunity to talk with one another about their personal lives.

Celia tells Marco about her mother, who often cried over her father’s many long absences. Marco tells her that he never knew either of his parents. As she watches Marco, she notes that there is something artificial about his face. His countenance is...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 1-2 Summary

All of those involved with the circus have been invited to Chandresh Lefevre’s home in London to celebrate the circus’s thirteenth anniversary. It is 1899, and Poppet and Widget, at age the same age as the circus, are the youngest guests.

Celia arrives in a spectacular gown that changes color like a chameleon, depending on whatever color the person standing nearest her is wearing. Marco cannot take his eyes off her. After dinner, while the other guests are dancing in the ballroom, Marco grabs Celia’s hand and they escape the crowd. He tells her how much he has missed her and how sad it makes him that they cannot dance together because no one is supposed to know they are beginning a relationship together. The...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 3-5 Summary

On a day in 1900 in London, Chandresh Lefevre is drunk. He is feeling sorry for himself as he reflects on the circus. Although he had assumed that the circus was his project, he now feels as if the circus has left him behind. He has no control over it and can barely keep up with its progress. He rises from his chair and walks unsteadily across the hall to Marco’s office. He looks around, determined to find out more about what is happening with the circus.

Marco’s office is filled with file cabinets and boxes of papers, and blueprints are strewn around the floor. Chandresh looks through everything, unsure what he hopes to find. Nothing he finds answers any of his questions or resolves any of his doubts. He walks to...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 6-8 Summary

Poppet appears in the field where Bailey is watching his family's flock of sheep. It is 1902, and Bailey is caught off guard by Poppet’s presence. He has never before seen her outside of the circus. He was planning on visiting her that night at the circus and wonders why she could not wait. Poppet tells Bailey that she has something important to ask him, and she wanted to give him time to think about his answer. She asks if he would consider coming with the circus.

Poppet cannot give Bailey a precise reason for his coming with them, but she knows he is meant to be there. She has had a vision in which Bailey played an important role. That is all she knows and all she can tell him. She says that she understands how...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 9-11 Summary

It is 1902. Poppet and Widget are waiting to see if Bailey will decide to join them. As they wait, Poppet tells her brother that she had a vision about an extremely bright light that she thought was the circus’s courtyard consumed in white flames. Bailey was present in that vision, so she knows he must be with them. Because Bailey has not yet shown up, Widget suggests that they kidnap him. Poppet does not believe that would be a good idea.

This same night, Chandresh Lefevre shows up at the circus. It is Halloween, and Chandresh dons a silver mask provided by a woman at the circus’s gate. Chandresh is following a man in a gray suit who has chosen not to wear a mask. It is the first time Mr. A. H. has visited the...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 12-13 Summary

The man in the gray suit makes his way through the crowd shortly after Friedrick Thiessen dies. People in front of him step out of the way without even fully understanding that Mr. A. H. is in their midst. Only one person does not move, thus blocking his way. It is Hector, Celia’s father. Only Mr. A. H. can see him. When Hector speaks, passersby turn to look for him, but Mr. A. H. distracts their minds with a swish of his fingers, drawing their attention to the attractions around them.

Mr. A. H. tells Hector that the circus has gotten out of hand. There are too many people around. The circus was not a good venue for the challenge between Celia and Marco. But Hector disagrees. He believes the circus makes the challenge...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 1-3 Summary

The next chapter is seen through Celia’s eyes as she puts Marco into a deep sleep so she can slip away without having to say good-bye to him. She is determined to learn his magical system so she can figure out a way to make the circus independent of them; this way, they can release themselves from it and be together. She searches through Marco’s papers and takes what she thinks might help her.

As soon as she steps out of Marco’s place, she runs into her father. Hector scorns Celia for sleeping with Marco. He tells her that she is weaker than he had thought. Celia tries to ignore his accusations, but as she defends herself, she learns the true consequences of the challenge. Her father has bound her to a competition...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 4-6 Summary

It is now 1902, and the circus is in Montreal. After Celia’s performance, all the people in the audience leave except for one. Marco has come from London to see Celia. When she appears in front of him, he accuses her of running away from him. She tells him she has been busy trying to make the circus independent. Marco wants to help her. She refuses to accept his aid. She tells him what she has learned about the conditions of their challenge, which is that one of them must die. She implies that she is going to commit suicide so he can win. She cannot go on any longer. Marco is rattled by this news and begs her to let him help her find another way. But Celia will not hear of it. Then Marco tells her that she is killing him...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 7-9 Summary

While on the circus train, traveling from Boston to New York, Widget and Poppet decide to take their problem to Celia. Celia immediately senses that the twins are troubled. Poppet is the first to speak. She tells Celia that she believes that something she thought was supposed to happen did not happen. Poppet then explains about Bailey. She says that Bailey did not appear before the circus train left, though she had clearly seen that he would be with them.

Celia then senses that Poppet might still be upset about Friedrick’s death. Although Poppet did not fully understand her vision, she had seen bits and pieces of the event. Celia consoles Poppet, telling her that it was not her fault. But Poppet asks what good it does...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 10-11 Summary

It is the first of November 1902 when Bailey breaks into the circus, which is closed due to inclement weather. He smells that something has burned, and the smell makes him feel nauseous. He runs to the courtyard and sees that the fire in the cauldron has been put out. Standing in front of it is Tsukiko, the contortionist. Tsukiko recognizes Bailey and tells him that he is late. Bailey has no idea what the woman is talking about. Tsukiko says that she does not believe that “she will be able to hold on much longer.” Bailey does not know to whom Tsukiko is referring. Bailey has many questions to ask Tsukiko, such as where Poppet is and what has happened to the fire and the circus. But Tsukiko does not answer. She merely tells...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 12-14 Summary

Celia wants to scream, but she cannot open her mouth. She has not fully regained control of her body. Much of her energy is spent concentrating on Marco, holding onto him. She finds that the breaking apart portion was easier than the task of bringing them back together. She has much to balance, and she is in constant pain. Part of her wants to let everything go, but she fights to hold everything together.

Finally she brings all the pieces of herself into a solid whole. She can even feel her heart beating. Once she gets over the excitement of her accomplishment, she realizes that she is alone. She cannot find Marco.

Although Celia feels herself intact, when she looks around, she sees that every aspect of the...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Part 5, Chapters 1-3 Summary

A month after the circus has been transformed, Poppet visits Chandresh. She has come with papers for him to sign. Poppet asks that he relinquish ownership of the circus. Chandresh does so without even questioning why she has made her request.

Poppet stays with Chandresh for a few hours afterward, helping him sort through blueprints he has been given and plans for a museum he hopes to build. Poppet agrees to help Chandresh replace Marco. When Chandresh asks about Marco, Poppet explains that Marco had to go away unexpectedly and regrets that he did not properly resign. When Poppet goes to leave, she kisses Chandresh on the cheek and erases his memory of their morning’s transaction. After she is gone, Chandresh feels...

(The entire section is 445 words.)