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Last Updated on October 9, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1878

The Night Circus, published in 2011, is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel. It spent seven weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List and has been near-universally praised by critics for its vibrant imagery and rich prose. Fantasy fans have hailed the novel as a worthy successor to Harry Potter, and it has drawn comparisons to the works of Neil Gaiman. 

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The Night Circus is primarily told through a non-linear third-person present narration, with shifting focal characters. However, it also incorporates second-person narration, which guides readers through the myriad exhibits at the circus and infuses a sense of wonder into the setting. Additionally, it contains epistolary elements, such as excerpts from Friedrick Thiessen’s articles about the circus. These help develop an outside perspective on the circus, inviting readers to participate in the narrative as spectators of Celia and Marco’s competition. 

Set against a lush 19th-century backdrop, the novel tells the story of Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, two magicians who were raised by their respective teachers to compete in a mysterious competition. Thus, Le Cirque des Reves, or The Circus of Dreams, is born. Traveling across the country and attracting dedicated fans wherever it goes, the circus is filled with colorful characters and wondrous feats of magical engineering. However, as Marco and Celia grow closer, the stakes of the competition are revealed to be higher than either of them could have predicted. The story becomes a race against time to see whether Marco and Celia can save the circus—and themselves. 

Plot Summary

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus opens at an indeterminate point in time with the phrase, “The circus arrives without warning.” A second-person narration, which is reprised throughout the novel, invites readers to become spectators at the mysterious “Circus of Dreams,” which travels around the world and only opens at night. The narration then shifts to third-person as, in 1873, Hector Bowen, known by the stage name Prospero the Enchanter, meets his five-year-old daughter Celia for the first time. Hector is initially dismissive, but after watching Celia break a teacup without touching it, he declares that she could prove interesting.

Eight months later, Celia is introduced to a man in a grey suit. Hector and the man in the grey suit negotiate a mysterious wager that will pit Celia against an as-of-yet undecided challenger who will be trained by the man in the grey suit. Once the negotiations are complete, the man puts a ring on Celia’s finger, which burns into her skin. After departing, the man in the grey suit goes to an orphanage and selects a young boy as his apprentice. 

Marco, the man in the grey suit’s apprentice, and Celia both receive magic lessons as they grow up. Marco’s lessons involve reading and studying, and he is largely left alone. Celia’s lessons are more hands-on, and Hector goes so far as to cut open her fingertips in order to force her to learn how to heal herself. 

In 1884, Marco, at age 19, is given more freedom and moves to the city. One day, he loses a notebook full of symbols and glyphs, which Isobel Martin finds. Marco tracks Isobel down in order to reclaim his notebook, and the two end up dating. Marco begins teaching her magic. 

In 1897, ten-year-old Bailey is dared by his sister to break into the Night Circus and bring something back to show that he was really there. He successfully sneaks in and meets a young red-haired girl, who gives him her glove so that he can satisfy the dare.

In 1885, Chandresh Lefevre hosts a party. The guests include Ana Padva, a retired ballerina, Ethan Barris, an architect, Lainie and Tara Burgess, actresses and dancers, and the man in the grey suit, going by Mr. A. H. It is also revealed that Marco is working as Chandresh’s assistant. Chandresh discloses that he has invited his guests together to plan an exciting new project: a circus unlike “anyone has ever seen.” 

Progress towards the actualization of the circus continues with the recruitment of a mysterious contortionist named Tsukiko. Mr. Barris also commissions a unique, dreamlike clock from Friedrick Thiessen. 

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In 1886, Chandresh holds auditions for illusionists. Celia amazes everyone with her performance, and she is contracted immediately. Marco realizes that she is his competitor and grows nervous after seeing how talented she is. Marco concludes that the circus will be the arena for the competition. After realizing that he will be unable to keep track of Celia from London, Isobel agrees to join the circus as a fortune teller and report back to him. 

A few months later, the circus is set to open for the first time. However, prior to the actual opening, red-headed fraternal twins named Poppet and Widget are born. Meanwhile, Marco devises a strategy to connect himself to the circus, even though he remains based in London, by magically tethering himself to a bonfire. 

Over the next few years, Celia and Marco continue to manipulate the circus with magic. However, they both grow tired of the uncertain rules of the competition and attempt to ask their respective teachers for clarity. Both Mr. A.H. and Hector are evasive. 

In 1890, while Celia is chaperoning Poppet and Widget around the circus, she discovers that the twins are magically gifted. Widget can read people’s pasts and Poppet can see the future. Celia decides to train them. 

In 1894, Tara Burgess and Ethan Barriss discuss their mutual concerns over what the circus is doing to them. They notice that they have stopped aging and fear that the circus is more than it appears. Meanwhile, Celia discovers that Marco is her opponent after accidentally taking his umbrella. 

In 1902, Bailey, visiting the circus for the second time, wanders into Isobel’s tent and has his fortune read. She predicts that he has an important task to do and then gleans that he is looking for Poppet, who turns out to be the red-haired girl who gave him her glove years ago. 

In 1895, Tara Burgess seeks out Mr. A. H., hoping to find answers. He reassures her by claiming that the circus is completely ordinary. After their conversation, she distractedly steps in front of an oncoming train. At Tara’s funeral, Tsukiko points out to Isobel that none of the performers have left, been injured, or suffered any kind of misfortune since the circus began, making Tara’s death suspicious. Meanwhile, Celia strikes up a friendship with Friedrick Thiessen, the clockmaker-turned-circus-fanatic, whom she has been exchanging letters with after seeing one of the articles he wrote about the circus. 

In 1896, after one of Chandresh’s midnight dinners, Marco and Celia speak in private for the first time. Both of them have stopped viewing the circus as a competition and have instead begun thinking of it as an exhibition, with each admitting to being impressed by the skill of the other. 

In 1899, the circus celebrates its thirteenth anniversary with a party at Chandresh’s residence. Celia and Marco are now romantically involved, but they must keep it a secret. Mr. A. H. arrives and scolds Marco, telling him that being in love with Celia will only make the competition harder for both of them. 

During one of Marco’s visits to the circus, Celia confides in him that her father is not truly dead. Instead, he was rendered transparent as a consequence of trying—and failing—to remove himself from the physical world. Marco asks Celia if she could successfully do what her father attempted to do, and she says that she might be able to—but only if she had the right anchor. They consider running away together, but Celia reveals that it would be physically impossible. 

On October 30th, 1902, the circus’s last planned day in Bailey’s hometown, Poppet asks Bailey to run away and join the circus. He tells her he will consider it. However, just as he decides to go through with it, the circus leaves. He sets out with other devoted circus followers to find the circus again with the hopes of joining it. 

Back in 1901, as the circus celebrates All Hallow’s Eve, Marco tells Isobel that he loves Celia. The same night, Chandresh and Mr. A. H. visit the circus. As Mr. A. H. speaks with Friedrick Thiessen, a heartbroken Isobel breaks a balancing charm she had made, causing a momentary disruption in the circus. During the disruption, Chandresh throws a knife at Mr. A.H.’s back, but Mr. A. H. dodges, and the knife instead kills Thiessen. Celia is distraught. 

After Thiessen’s death, Celia shows up at Marco’s apartment. They sleep together, and after Marco falls asleep, Celia steals one of his books in the hopes of learning a way to make the circus function more independently, since the strain of maintaining it is beginning to wear on her. Hector confronts her after she leaves, accusing her of being weak. He informs her that the only way to end the competition is for one of the competitors to die, and he reveals that Tsukiko is the winner of the previous competition. Celia then confronts Tsukiko, who confirms what Hector said. She refuses to help Celia make the circus independent, but she agrees to step in if Celia is no longer able to manage the operation of the circus herself. 

Over the next few months, Celia begins teaching herself Marco’s methods. Marco visits the circus and confronts her about avoiding him. She then reveals to him that the competition only ends with one of them dying and says that she plans to kill herself after making the circus independent. 

On October 31st, 1902, Poppet tells Celia that she is worried about Bailey’s absence, since she believes he was meant to join the circus. Meanwhile, Isobel confronts Marco, and after telling him that she forgives him and Celia, she blows black powder into his face and he vanishes, waking up at the circus. Tsukiko greets him and then proceeds to tell the story of her own competition. She intends to seal Marco within the bonfire so that the competition can end. However, Celia intervenes and removes herself and Marco from the physical world using the circus as her anchor, succeeding where her father had failed. 

A few hours later, Bailey finally arrives at the circus. Tsukiko leads him to a tent, where a ghostly Celia and Marco, now removed from the physical world and tethered to the circus, request that Bailey commit to becoming the circus caretaker along with Poppet and Widget. He agrees, unable to envision a different future for himself. 

One month later, Poppet visits Chandresh and asks him sign over ownership of the circus, which he agrees to easily. Widget visits Mr. A.H. and requests that he relinquish his control over the circus and the competition. He agrees, commenting that Celia and Marco are clever to have found a way out of the competition without dying. However, in return for his agreement, he asks Widget to demonstrate his storytelling skills, and Widget begins by saying, “The circus arrives without warning…” 

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