Calling the Rêveurs: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

Caylie Jordan

Year: Senior

Major: English and Psychology

Hometown: Colleyville, TX


     One day, in the midst of completing homework and preparing for the many exams that come with the mad rush of a college semester, I managed to somehow pull myself away from my desk in need of a break. As a perpetual lover of the written word, “taking a break” typically consists of hopping in the car and going to the nearest shopping center, going through the all-too familiar process of mentally convincing myself that I deserve a trip to the bookstore—conveniently ignoring the To Be Read pile of books that to this day continues to take up more floor space in my house. As always, I somehow found some form of excuse to let myself cross over the threshold of Barnes & Noble, letting myself take in the scent of fresh paper and overpriced coffee. As usual, I let myself wander the shelves, glancing over the enticing titles that line the shelves and display tables. As I pass by one table, however, a flash of bright red catches my eye, and I found myself stopping. On one of the tables sat a book depicting a circus tent, but instead of the bright colors that I immediately associate with the word “circus,” this image is all black-and-white. Running my fingers over the glossy silhouettes of a man in a bowler hat and a woman surrounded by ravens, I found myself skimming over elegant lettering: Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus.

     Initially published in July of 2011, The Night Circus, set in Victorian London, this narrative follows the travels of Le Cirque des Rêves, a mysterious circus opened only at night. As patrons wander the grounds, delighted to happen upon the tents of acrobats and fortune-tellers, main characters Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair must face playing a part in a much larger event. Both magicians, they are bound to a competition where nothing is certain. Aside from the event that looms around them, the circus and those involved within it are even more of a mystery, from the elusive Mr. A.H, to the ambitious magician Hector Bowen, to the enigmatic contortionist Tsukiko. Readers will experience a sprawling narrative that reaches across time and distance as all characters in play prepare for an event of which no one knows the outcome. Writing this intriguing narrative as what was her debut novel is Erin Morgenstern, American multimedia artist and fantasy writing. After studying theater and studio art at Smith College in Massachusetts, Morgenstern eventually went on to begin writing what would become The Night Circus.

     With the many intricate complexities that come together to form Morgenstern’s work, one of the strongest aspects of the novel by far is the sense of atmosphere that she creates, with Morgenstern’s writing style contributing towards the immersive quality of the narrative. From descriptions such as: “There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon,” and “[a] juggler tosses globes of black and white and silver high into the air, where they seem to hover before falling again into his hands, his attentive spectators applauding,” the vivid description in lines such as these are only a few examples of how the writing in this book truly serves to pull the reader into the circus (Morgenstern 197). Not only is the writing descriptive, however, but the sentence structures vary enough to where the reader feels as if the images smoothly transition from one to the other, almost as if in a movie scene.

     In terms of the visual nature of the novel’s writing and how it ties back to Morgenstern herself, a 2016 interview with Penguin Random House UK has the author revealing that she “tend[s] to think in pictures […] figur[ing] out the story in images before [she] find[s] the right words,” and with her background in theater and working on scriptwriting during college, there is the possibility that this influenced the very visual nature of Morgenstern’s writing throughout this narrative as a whole, as the sentence structure and imagery allows the reader to imagine a unique sense of pacing and immersion not often seen in written work (Morgenstern, “On The Night Circus).

     Intriguing as well in terms of the idea of immersion throughout this text is the fact that Morgenstern also engages with the second person perspective in her narrative as well, referring to the reader with the use of “you” at some points throughout the book. In making these references, the reader becomes a part of the story itself, having the opportunity to insert him or herself into the circus and to be in the places that the other characters interact in and manipulate. In this way, the reader becomes a part of the magical world that Morgenstern creates. With the reference to characters in The Night Circus as well, the way in which the author structures the      narrative in such a way that the reader is immediately able to identify the perspective from which he or she is reading. When at the story through the eyes of a character named Mr. Barris, for example, he is an architect helping to construct the general layout and some of the attractions in the circus, a man that immediately comes off as more reserved, yet observant, his profession requiring that he be very methodical in every aspect of his life. Thus, in his narrative, the elements he focuses upon around him typically involve the ordered ticking of the clock or the scratch of a pencil on paper. His reserved nature also means that he is a character that many of the others turn to as a confidant, making his portions of the narrative very enlightening at certain points throughout the book.

     Alternatively, if a reader were to read from the character Bailey Clarke, he is an outsider to the circus, not familiar with the inner workings of the team behind the events and people involved with the circus. Thus, his perspective gives the reader more information about what an insider to the circus might find to be more minute details to the circus as a whole, as Bailey is the one character more likely to explore aspects of the circus he is curious about. To avoid saying too much about the deeper roles that these characters play in the plot as the novel continues, it will be enough to mention that with every character’s perspective comes a different part of the mystery from different points in time, allowing the reader to piece the story together. By having these distinct characters, all with their own backgrounds, motivations, and way of looking at the world around them, I never found myself bored when the perspective shifted. Everyone had something to share, which made for a very strong narrative structure overall.

     With the idea of different characters and the different perspectives they offer towards the world around them, this leads me into a brief discussion of the novel’s worldbuilding as a whole. As evident throughout the several previous mentions throughout this review, the major setting in this book is a circus, and with this setting comes the presence of magic. What I found fascinating about the way that Morgenstern structures her worldbuilding is that she really takes the idea of “what you see is what you believe” to another level. Though the characters are mentioned to have powers such illusions or fortune-telling, there are often moments in which the characters themselves start to doubt whether the feats of magic that they know to be real are actually real, and in this sense, gives the book another layer of mystery—is what we see real, or do we just wish it could be, so we believe the magic is real? The reader is always left somewhat wondering, but this leads to the greater potential of the book itself, embracing the “What if?”

     Given the great potential behind the questions left when the story is over, one criticism I did have by the end of the book concerned some of the finer details of the origin story behind the magic system and how the precedent for the major conflict in the novel began. I feel that with every conflict in a novel, there is always the question of why the main antagonists are the way that they are. Though the reader gets a clear sense of the antagonist’s motivations and the end consequences at the end of the novel, I found that there were some elements surrounding the formation of the circus and some of the magic system that left me somewhat unsatisfied with the ending. Though there is something to be said about maintaining the mystery of the circus, I do think there is a fine line between mystery and lacking detail in the world building as a whole.

     As a whole, I found that there was a line in the novel that truly captures the essence of the book as a whole: “We add our own stories, each visitor, each visit, each night spent at the circus. I suppose there will never be a lack of things to say, of stories to be told and shared,” which is quote describing the different people who love the circus so much that, even if they do not work for the circus, they come together as a group of people to follow the circus around the globe (Morgenstern 296), These people call themselves “les Rêveurs,” or the dreamers. With this quote, The Night Circus becomes a story about being a dreamer, about coming together with other people to celebrate something loved, bringing your own ideas, hopes, and what a person loves most into the world with the desire to make the impossible, possible. Whether is a person is a dreamer by escaping through the books piled on her floor, or taking a moment to step away from the hectic mess that is everyday life, being a dreamer means taking the time, and giving yourself that chance to think about what could be, which I think is what the circus and the people within it stand for in this novel-proving that anything is possible, a calling to the Rêveurs.


Works Cited

Morgenstern, Erin. “Author Erin Morgenstern on The Night Circus.” Interview by Penguin

     Random House UK. Penguin Random House UK, 18 October 2016,

     a-with-erin-morgenstern-the-night-circus/. Accessed 9 February 2020.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus. 2011. Anchor Books, 2012.