Love is one of the most enduring themes in art, mostly because it is a theme with nearly endless possibilities for nuance. One of my professors once told me that everything that can ever be said or written about love, has already been said and written, usually by someone noted for his or her artistic ability. This certainly explains why the list of cliches associated with love is expansive. There is the tired old cliche about love changing the world, but what most people don’t think about is that the change is not always positive. Love is often viewed as a force for good, but it can also be the driving force behind evil.
And it is love, both for good and evil, that is behind Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus. Two wizards (though they never call themselves such) set into motion a competition of sorts between the two of them. They do not, however, compete against each other in actual fact; instead they select representatives to compete for them. For the illusionist who calls himself Prospero the Enchanter (real name Hector Bowen, if that’s really even his true name), it is his daughter Celia, who has a natural talent for magic. For the man calling himself Alexander (he goes by no other name), it is an orphan who eventually names himself Marco Alisdair. By binding the two chosen competitors to each other via enchanted rings, Prospero and Alexander ensure that, eventually, their two protégés will meet and compete on the chosen playing field.
The choice of playing field, however, is what really makes this story: it is the Night Circus of the title. While the creation of the Night Circus might appear to be a serendipitous sort of thing, it becomes clear to the reader that there is some strange, subtle influence that leads to its creation. After all, it is no mere coincidence that Marco, Alexander’s representative, is the right-hand man of the circus’s owner. Nor is it coincidence that Celia is later hired to be the circus’s star illusionist. No, it is quite clear to the reader that everything has been, to a certain degree, set up.
It is also clear to the reader (though not to the characters, obviously) that the Night Circus isn’t an ordinary circus. Something seems just a little off-kilter about it, though off-kilter in a good way. The food tastes a little too good, the rides are a little too fantastic, the entertainments a little too perfect. This is no surprise: Marco and Celia are starting to use it as the playing field it was meant to be, but instead of competing to win, they are competing to impress – and, in Marco’s case, court – each other. But this is no easy romance, and it is one that eventually leads to heartbreak – and disaster.
It’s amazing how much can hang on so little. There is a lovely moment in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers where D’Artagnan, upon learning the Duke of Buckingham’s reasons for risking everything in his attempt to romance Queen Anne, muses that the fate of nations often hangs upon fragile threads. The fate of the Night Circus is no different. All it takes for the illusion of perfection to unravel is for one heartbroken woman to undo a few knots of ribbon. While it is true perfection such as has been achieved by the Night Circus cannot really last, it is rather amazing – and troubling – that all it takes to take it apart is one broken heart.
Equally troubling is how difficult it is to undo the results of some decisions. People speak of the butterfly effect, how small actions often lead to larger events of greater consequence. If all it took to unravel the Night Circus was the unknotting of a ribbon, fixing it again takes far more than just re-knotting said ribbon. It takes a good few years – and lives – to get the Night Circus back on its feet. Marco and Celia both sacrifice something great, and Prospero and Alexander both learn a valuable lesson, though this may have come far too late, given how many have lives have been destroyed or ruined by their contest. And while it would be all right if only the two contestants and their representatives were harmed in this game, in fact other people die and get hurt.
Love can change the world, and it certainly does for Marco and Celia. While that shift in their worlds is indeed glorious and many-splendored (to use another cliche) it does the people around them far more harm than they intended. Love, as a matter of fact, is incredibly selfish. Marco and Celia might notice to a certain extent what is going on around them, but they are too caught up in each other to really give a care for what their actions do to the rest of the world. Marco, in particular, is guilty of this. In his attempts to secure Celia’s affections, he sets in motion a series of events that leads eventually to the collapse of the Circus. His is a classic case of overconfidence: if he had not been so assured that all his schemes were perfect, the situation might not have been so bad.
Normally I am not so dismissive of the main characters, but I don’t feel all that drawn to them. I suppose it’s because I find them interesting, to a degree, but not enough to really get emotionally invested in them. For instance, I find myself drawn to Celia as a character, but am not emotionally invested enough in her to feel sorry for her in the latter one-third of the book, or to feel happy for her when she does get what she wants, so to speak. I have similar issues with Marco: he is interesting, but not enough to make me invest in him emotionally.
In truth, it is the minor characters who intrigue me more than the leads. Prospero and Alexander are more interesting than their protégés, mostly because there are parallels (suggested within the novel itself) that they are like Merlin and Nimue: Prospero learned magic from Alexander, and then proceeded to use it against his former teacher, leading to a possibly centuries-long conflict that reaches its culmination in the game between Celia and Marco. And while they are not very likable, they are, at least interesting enough to hold my attention.
Another intriguing character is the Japanese contortionist, Tsukiko. She begins as an utterly enigmatic character in the beginning, seemingly knowledgeable of things that only Celia and Marco are supposed to know. It turns out she has a very good reason for this: she is Alexander’s former student, and the winner, sort of, of the last game. Tsukiko’s story about her past has to be one of the saddest in the entire novel, both because of how matter-of-factly Tsukiko tells it, as well as its tragic end. Tsukiko’s story is a highlight for me because it illustrates exactly how badly things can go when one thinks love will solve everything. Tsukiko makes it clear to Celia that love in fact complicates matters, makes everything less certain, which is the very last thing one wants in a contest. Then again Tsukiko knows that what is going on between Celia and Marco is no longer a contest, but she tries to warn Celia of the consequences of her actions, if only for the sake of the other people involved in the circus.
Two of the people who are most affected by the events in the circus – likely because they are a part of it in more ways than one – are Poppet and Widget, twins born at the precise moment the circus opens. Their story becomes more important towards the end of the novel, and it is, by far, more interesting than Celia and Marco’s story – mostly because it is they who set about fixing the mess made by their elders. Most of it is Poppet’s doing, but there is an interesting conversation between Widget and Alexander that makes one of the most beautiful cases for the importance of storytelling that I have ever encountered. What Poppet and Widget and their friend Bailey do, despite everything that has come before, adds a hopeful, albeit bittersweet, conclusion to the entire novel: beginning in bright, almost manic hopefulness, and then crashing down into darkness before rising again to a more subdued dawn.
And that, I think, is what I like about The Night Circus: the fact that it shows love as a force for both good and ill, and hope as always being tempered by previous sadness and loss. Though the circus itself is predominantly black and white, the way it treats life and love can hardly be called that – and that is something I can readily appreciate.