Updated: Sep 16
By Erin Morgenstern
(This may contain spoilers, but the book did come out in 2011. So this is probably like, all the things kid me didn’t quite understand but felt and now put into words.)
The Night Circus is a horror story.
Okay, maybe not incredibly such. It’s definitely fantastical at best and thrilling at… also best, but I think that’s the real beauty of this story and how it’s woven. There’s so many genres that this book skates through that the technical aspects feel just as much a part of the story as the story itself. And by technical aspects I mean the words themselves, how the book is written, how the chapters are laid out, all down to the occasional black splash pages and the striped interiors.
Everything is purposeful.
But you’re not quite aware of it until it’s 'too late'. Sort of. Like any story, you’re given the foundation- you’re given what you need to keep moving forward. At first, it was a little odd to me, personally, that there was never truly an anchoring character or place that the reader could firmly ‘connect’ to, but then the more I read through the more it became clear that you yourself are the audience. Yes, the audience as in the reader, but also the audience of the circus. Of course the snippets about the different circus performances give this idea, but in the early pages the reader is looking through the lens of a patron experiencing the whimsical nature of the Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams). You know just as much as someone visiting the circus for the first time would (grant it with a more omniscient view since you’re also reading along) It’s fun, it’s mystifying, it’s an experience worth coming back to.
And so you do (or in this case, you keep reading). But then you become more than a “first time visitor”. With time, you become a “rêveur” or a patron following this mysterious circus because it’s never in one place too long.
The circus appears at midnight -appears without warning- and disappears with the sun.
And rêveurs are the ones that have a stronger attachment to it than most. They've spent more time there than most. So they follow trying to chase after that dreamscape feeling they got from experiencing the circus for themselves. It becomes a vacation for some, an obsession for others.
While a rêveur may not truly understand the depth of the magic that’s being created when it comes to The Circus of Dreams, they’re willing to believe that it is magic rather than typical sleight of hand -and not because everything is unexplainably perfect, but because they don’t want to know the truth. They don’t have a need to. Ignorance is bliss, essentially.
So it’s incredibly jarring when you become what is essentially a rêveur that learns the truth. You fall somewhere between the clockmaker, Herr Thiessen, and the architect, Ethan Barris. Both knowing that there’s something more to this circus, to different degrees, but not necessarily by choice of their own. And there’s a saying, “The truth is scary” and for this book, it’s true. It may not be the jumpscare or the thing bumping in the night like you’d typically think. It’s the realization that despite how beautiful it is, magic does have consequences. Everything that ever happened and that will happen has a purpose. And each thing has a consequence.
There’s a piece of dialogue that resonates because the perception of it can be read multiple ways:
“You’re not destined or chosen, I wish I could tell you that you were…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.”
On one hand, this is a complete subversion of the ‘Chosen One’ trope. You don’t have to be destined or special to make a change in someone’s life. You can do it because you want to and because you have a choice. But on another hand, this could be taken as an accident. Or as a fate being forcibly changed without consent or knowledge. The moment this character got entangled and enraptured with the magic of the world, more specifically the circus, their choices all ended up being for the circus, no matter what they picked. It could be viewed as a “forced chosen one” trope and that’s what makes it interesting.
The fact that nothing is ever in black and white (except the Circus’ aesthetic) creates space for questioning and exploration and possibilities and sometimes answers. The soft magic system creates an open world of possibility even though we’re confined by the circus’ story. Every character that’s given a spotlight has something interesting about them, even if it’s taken for granted in the moment.
And I know I speak about it vaguely and with an air of mystery, but that’s the vibe The Night Circus creates. It’s a haze of nothing truly being solidly in your grasp until the very end. Once you think you’re sure of something, that you’ve seen it all, there’s something new that happens, whether good or bad. And because you can’t define it, it makes you want to press on to get some answers.
Like I said, maybe The Night Circus in one perspective is a horror story. Maybe from another perspective it's a romance or a mystery-- but at least we know it's for sure a fantasy.
There's also an entire aspect of how time is the one thing no person or no magic can control but that's for someone else to analyze.
Shrugs. It’s a pretty good book if you ask me.
- Akira B.