The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

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Motifs and symbolic objects in The Night Circus


Key motifs and symbolic objects in The Night Circus include the black-and-white color scheme representing the duality of magic, clocks symbolizing the passage of time and the manipulation of reality, and the circus itself as a symbol of wonder and illusion. These elements contribute to the novel's enchanting atmosphere and underscore the themes of competition, love, and destiny.

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What are some motifs in The Night Circus?

Time is an oft-repeated motif in The Night Circus. Le cirque des reves is a nocturnal circus, which immediately informs the reader that their typical conception of time will be challenged. And indeed, it is: time is a flexible variable within both the story and its structure. The story itself is told out of order, beginning with “you” visiting the circus in the modern day before moving to the nineteenth century. Even the climax of the story is told out of order: Marco arrives in New York only to find the aftermath of a disaster, which the narrative must backtrack to reveal. The unreliability of time is mentioned often by Tsukiko, a former competitor herself, and by Celia’s father, who comments that he is able to remember her mother better even though Celia spent years with her. Isobel remarks upon the unreliability of time as she leaves Marco, telling him that they only met because her train was delayed—it was an accident, not fated. Herr Thiessen’s dreamlike clock also emphasizes the central role of time, and it is perhaps symbolic that the clockmaker dies: order falling victim to chaos. Even when time is linear in the story, it serves to highlight an oddity: for example, that the inhabitants of the circus do not age. Time is undermined once again at the close of the story by a sentence that harks back to the beginning, creating an ouroboros of a tale: “The circus arrives without warning.”

Color, and lack thereof, is a motif throughout the book. The use of color appears to delineate the circus from the outside world: the circus is famously bedecked in only black and white, while the outside world (Chandresh Lefevre’s house, for example) is decadent with color. Such a strict separation is not upheld, of course. With time, the interiors of the train in which the circus travels are revealed to be vibrant, their thirteenth anniversary party lush with color; for their part, visitors to the circus dress in black and white with a bit of red, an outfit that visually symbolizes both their kinship with the circus and their separation from it.

Another theme comes to light in the proxy battle between Hector Bowen and Alexander: order versus chaos. This contrast takes many forms, which is highlighted to the reader in their methods of instruction. Alexander, in his grey suits and cane, is meticulous; he directs Marco to learn from books, museums, theory. Celia’s father, in contrast, emphasizes practical learning. His methods are often cruel—slicing her fingers open and breaking her wrist to teach Celia how to heal herself, killing a bird to teach her that she can’t fix everything—but effective. Ultimately the two methods provide different results—physical manipulation versus illusion—but are still proven to be equal, at least in terms of results: neither Hector or Alexander can claim superiority. But while the effects of order and chaos appear to be similar, the aftereffects are anything but. While Alexander ends his story sipping wine and enjoying a story, Hector haunts the shadows, consigned to a half-life.

A final motif is that of dreams. Dreaming is emphasized throughout the story: the name of the circus translates to “the circus of dreams,” and those drawn to it call themselves dreamers. The nocturnal nature of the circus lends itself to the dreamlike quality. Given this, one might surmise that dreaming has a pleasant connotation within The Night Circus, and yet dreams are understood to be disturbing as well: Tara Burgess speaks repeatedly of being unable to tell between reality and a dream, a concern that ultimately leads to her death. The blurring of reality and dreams is emphasized once more at the conclusion of the story, in which the second person narrator cannot decide if the circus or the world around him is the dream.
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What objects symbolize themes in The Night Circus?

I would say the bonfire is a fairly simple bit of symbolism from the novel.  The bonfire travels with the circus and remains lit at all times.  It is lit during performances.  It is lit when the circus is on break, and it remains lit while the circus travels from location to location.  Perhaps it is the circus's "life force"?  I like to think of it as similar to the heart of a human being.  As long as a person's heart continues to beat, blood and all of the nutrients that it carries will continue to be delivered to the intended locations.  That person will live (yes, I know there are other ways to die with a healthy heart).  In the same way, the night circus will continue to thrive as long as that fire keeps burning.  

"The bonfire never goes out. The flames never falter.

Even when the circus moves it is not extinguished, moved intact from location to location. Smoldering the entire length of each train journey, safely contained in its iron cauldron.

It has burned steadily since the ceremonious lighting on opening night."

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