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The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern
Paperback : 516 pages
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The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.
Q&A with Author Erin Morgenstern
Q. This is a lovely and unique story. Why a circus? How did this story first come to you—through a character, a plotline, an emotion?
A. The story came as a location created out of desperation. I was working on a different story altogether, one that was becoming progressively more and more boring because nothing was happening. I needed something exciting to happen and I couldn't figure out how to do it with the locations I had so I sent the characters to the circus. That circus was immediately much more interesting and eventually I abandoned that other story and its characters entirely and focused on the circus instead. What eventually became The Night Circus started from exploring that spontaneously-created location, figuring out who created it and who performed in it and what its story was.
Q. What was your inspiration for some of the amazing acts in this circus?
A. Some of them were traditional circus acts or attractions made a bit more unique, like the acrobats performing directly overhead or the carousel that doesn't simply go in circles. The Cloud Maze is a play on a climbing maze I hazily recall from childhood visits to the Boston Children's Museum. Other tents were created based on color, or lack thereof. I had a lot of dark tents and wanted something lighter and white, the Ice Garden developed from that relatively simple starting point.
Q. Do you have a favorite character?
A. It's impossible to pick a true favorite, though Poppet & Widget are very dear to my heart as they're the first of the characters to turn up in my imagination. They're also just plain fun, both individually and as a pair.
Q. What was the most challenging aspect of developing this story?
A. It didn't have a plot for a very long time. Really, my biggest challenge was finding the actual story within all the atmosphere. I had the place and the characters and the feel of the book long before it had a proper story structure to tie everything together. The novel went through a great many revisions before it figured out what it wanted to be, I tried things that didn't work and then things that sort of worked and replaced old ideas with new ones until I got it right.
Q. Is there an emotion that you had to spend a lot of time with that made you uncomfortable?
A. I'm an emotional sort of person in general and I have a vivid imagination, so I feel the whole spectrum of emotion strongly when I write. It's something I'm used to, though, so nothing in particular made me uncomfortable. There is a lot of frustration felt by various characters, which is not the nicest emotion to be spending a lot of time with, but it helps to drive characters to actions which bring different emotions along.
Q. Tell me about your writing life. Do you have any rituals?
A. I binge write. I think it's because I started seriously writing by participating in National Novel Writing Month, an online-based challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I don't have as tight a time limit anymore but I still write in long marathon sessions and then I won't write for a while, I'm not a write-every-day writer. I go back and forth between input phases where I'm reading a lot or trying to get out and explore the world a bit and soak up inspirations and then I'll get back into output mode and write and write and write.
I don't have any particular rituals, I sometimes like to write in longhand when I'm searching for ideas but I do the vast majority by typing, I can't always keep up with my thoughts longhand. I'm not a coffeeshop writer because I feel obliged to order more coffee and then I end up over-caffeinated.
Q. What's the one true thing you learned from your characters in this novel?
A. I think it's something that I knew already but explored more with these characters, that nothing is as simple as black or white, good or evil. There are all those shades of grey and everyone acts from a place that they see as right and true. (Though they are allowed to change their minds.)
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion Questions1. The novel opens with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “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.” How is this sentiment explored in The Night Circus? Who in the novel is a dreamer? And what is their punishment for being so?
2. The novel frequently changes narrative perspective. How does this transition shape your reading of the novel and your connection to the characters and the circus? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story from varied perspectives?
3. The narrative also follows a non-linear sequence—shifting at times from present to past. How effective was this method in regards to revealing conflict in the novel?
4. There are a number of allusions to Shakespeare throughout the text: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and As You Like It. Explain these references—how does each play reveal itself in the novel?
5. What role does time play in the novel? From Friedrick Thiessen’s clock, to the delayed aging of the circus developers, to the birth of the twins—is time manipulated or fated at the circus?
6. “Chandresh relishes reactions. Genuine reactions, not mere polite applause. He often values the reactions over the show itself. A show without an audience is nothing, after all. In the response of the audience, that is where the power of performance lives.” How does this statement apply to both Le Cirque des Rêves and the competition? Which audience is more valuable: one that is complicit or one that is unknowing?
7. Chandresh is portrayed as a brilliant and creative perfectionist at the beginning of the novel, yet he slowly unravels as the competition matures. Is Chandresh merely a puppet of the competition—solely used for his ability to provide a venue for the competition—or do his contributions run deeper?
8. Marco asserts that Alexander H. is a father figure to him (though his paternal instincts aren’t readily noticeable). In what ways does Alexander provide for Marco and in what ways has he failed him?
9. Celia emphasizes that keeping the circus controlled is a matter of “balance.” And Marco suggests that the competition is not a chess game, but rather, a balancing of scales. However, both the circus and the competition get disordered at times—leaving both physical and emotional casualties in their wake. Is the circus ever really in “balance,” or is it a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the next?
10. From the outside, the circus is full of enchantments and delights, but behind the scenes, the delicate push and pull of the competition results in some sinister events: i.e. Tara Burgess and Friedrick Thiessen’s deaths. How much is the competition at fault for these losses and how much is it the individual’s doing?
11. How do you view the morality of the circus in regards to the performers and developers being unknowing pawns in Celia and Marco’s competition? Do Celia and Marco owe an explanation to their peers about their unwitting involvement?
12. Friedrick Thiessen asserts that he thinks of himself “not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to the circus.” He is a voice for those unable to attend the circus and suggests that the circus is bigger than itself. What role do the rêveurs play in keeping the spirit of the circus alive outside of the confines of the circus tents?
13. What is Hector’s role in determining the final fate of the competition? He lectures Celia about remaining independent and not interfering with her partner, but ultimately, Hector largely influences the outcome of the competition. Explain this influence.
14. Poppet and Widget are especially affected by the lighting of the bonfire. How crucial are their “specialties” to the ongoing success of the circus?
15. Isobel is a silent, yet integral, partner in both the circus and the competition. She has an ally in Tsukiko, but seemingly no one else, especially not Marco. How much does Marco’s underestimation of Isobel affect the outcome of the competition?
16. How does Isobel serve as a foil to Celia? Who, if anyone, fills that role for Marco?
17. Tsukiko is aware of Isobel’s “tempering of the circus” from the outset and when Isobel worries that it is having no effect, Tsukiko suggests: “perhaps it is controlling the chaos within more than the chaos without.” What, and whose, chaos is Tsukiko alluding to here?
18. Mr. Barris, Friedrick Thiessen, Mme. Padva, and even Bailey are aware that the circus has made a profound, inexplicable, change in their lives, but they each choose not to explore the depth of these changes. Friedrick Thiessen confirms that, “I prefer to remain unenlightened, to better appreciate the dark.” Do you agree with this standpoint? What inherent dangers accompany a purposeful ignorance? What dangers present themselves when ignorance is not chosen? Is one choice better/safer than the other or are they equally fraught?
19. Celia tells Bailey that he is “not destined or chosen” to be the next proprietor of the circus. He is simply “in the right place at the right time…and care[s] enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.” In this situation, is that “enough?” Can the responsibility of maintaining the circus be trusted to just anyone, or unlike Celia suggests, is Bailey truly special?
20. At the closing of the novel, we are left to believe that the circus is still traveling—Bailey’s business card provides an email address as his contact information. How do you think the circus would fare over time? Would the circus need to evolve to suit each generation or is it distinctive enough to transcend time?
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