The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

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In The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, how is the quoted Oscar Wilde statement relevant, and to which characters does it apply?

"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world"

—Oscar Wilde

Quick answer:

The quote is representative of the dreamer, and the punishment is the fact that they are no longer able to see their dreams come to life. Celia embodies this character type.

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The idea of a dreamer is embodied in this quote by Wilde. The point is that these individuals, dreamers, see by an entirely different perspective. They are guided not by the typical things everyone sees in their days, but by the exact opposite. Here, the idea of moonlight is representative of the imagination—they are guided by their dreams and imaginations instead of by daily life. The "punishment" is interesting in this, because, to most, it would seem a blessing—you get the benefit of seeing things before others and observing wonderful things (dawn is typically beautiful), but for the dreamer, it means that what they have been imagining and dreaming is now over. They see the future before others, but when it comes to pass, they are no longer imagining things.

Celia is a perfect example in this book of a dreamer. She sees the much bigger picture of the circus and the events inside it—trying to better her own life and end the suffering associated with the competition, instead of just using it for temporary gain like everyone around her.

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The character that I immediately thought of for that quote is Bailey Clarke. More than any other character, I would describe him as a dreamer. There is an entire group of people that obsessively follow around the circus in this story, but they are mainly nameless and faceless people. It is Bailey that gives readers an emotional and logical grounding to this obsession with the circus. His interactions with Poppet and Widget only deepen his need to be near the circus. Unfortunately, Bailey is confronted with the reality that his family would like him to take over the farm or attend Harvard. Bailey wants nothing to do with either. He dreams of a life with the circus, yet the reality of each dawning day is that he will likely never be able to be a part of the circus. Fortunately for Bailey and the circus, he lets his dreams pull him to chase the circus down across the world, and that is what puts him in a position to take over the eternal care of the circus and the members of it.

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Wilde's quote speaks to the elusive quality intrinsic to imagination. The individual who possesses it in the purest of forms sees that which is not there. They constantly stand at the precipice of envisioning something that others cannot see and become alienated as a result of it.  This condition or quality speaks to the entire creation of "The Night Circus."  It is a setting in which the circus activates "ethereal enigmas" and represents a world of conditionality.  As evident in acts such as the illusionist and the fortune teller, Wilde's notion of how "the dreamer" envisions a world "by moonlight" and transforms what is into what can be. At an early point in the narrative, Prospero suggests that "People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.” This speaks to how the circus functions.  It constructs a vision out of imagination. Given how the Night Circus operates while others sleep, the entire concept is representative of seeing "the dawn before the rest of the world."

Celia is another example of a character that could embody Wilde's quote.  She finds her "way by moonlight" in seeking to better understand the conditions of the competition.  She understands how it comes to an end, when so many others, notably Prospero and Mr. A.H, perpetuate the competition with no end in sight.  Celia embodies Wilde's quote in her actions of saving Marco.  Celia's act is a transformative one, as it changes both into spirits.  At the same time, she recognizes the end of the traditionally antagonistic condition of the circus, something that she sees "by moonlight."  Her living as a ghostly spirit is a logical consequence of seeing "the dawn before the rest of the world."  The quality of imagination and alienation to which Wilde speaks is something that Celia embodies in her function throughout the novel.

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