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The Art and Importance of Telling A Story: The Night Circus Analysis

Updated on June 18, 2016

Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus | Source

The Power of Stories

Spoiler Notice: If you have not read the Night Circus and you don't want to read any spoilers stop right here. This article will contain numerous spoilers, it is intended to be read by people who have finished reading this book.

Artists are creators. They can create films, music, paintings, and stories that can be used to inspire countless others. They also beg the question, how is a great work of art created?

A number of non-fiction books have been written on the subject of creating art, but it gets a lot more interesting when the artist tries to answer that question by inserting his or her ideas into the work of art. Works of art discussing the creation of art have been done a number of times before under different guises, think back to Eight and Half and Inception in film or The Tempest by William Shakespeare for plays.

In the above mentioned films and play, the filmmaker or playwright created characters within those stories that represented the role of creator(s) or artist(s). These inserted creator/artist characters and their ideas influenced the outcome of the story you are engaging with, which is a lot like they way a storyteller controls a story. Subsequently, what is being showcased by doing this is what qualities and ideas the creators of those films and that play think are needed to make their art forms great. The viewer of these stories in turn learns directly from the artist, how the work of art is created through the story, and they learn what qualities of art are valued by the creating artist themselves.

In the films Eight and Half and Inception we see what artistic qualities are important to Nolan and Fellini, and how they think these qualities make great films. Shakespeare inserts himself into The Tempest via Prospero to showcase the importance of the writer's role in creating a play, and to showcase the writer's right to do as he pleases with every element of the story.

Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, like Shakespeare, wants to show readers how a writer can control a story, and what qualities she values in storytelling. Inspired by Shakespeare, she inserts five metaphorical Prospero's into her story to display qualities she believes are important to telling stories. With these five characters, she shows how each controls the fates of every other character in the story, much like a storyteller, or Prospero does in The Tempest.

Subsequently we see three broad ideas that Morgenstern's believes are important in regards to storytelling. These three ideas are:

1. She believes dreams and magic are central to telling fictionalized stories.

2. She believes balancing and blurring opposing thematic ideas are essential to building up conflict and resolution.

3. She believes in the tremendous importance stories have for people and societies.

The physical Night Circus itself may come to represent dreams, but in the book each of its exhibits, tents, characters, color schemes, and items are part of the work of art that we know as the story, and that is what the book has come to represent itself: the art of telling a story.

Shakespeare's Influence

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(IV.i.148–158) Shakespeare The Tempest, and pg. 489 The Night Circus (softcover)

The Night Circus on many levels is a retelling of The Tempest. The basic premise of The Tempest is that a magician and the former king of Milan, Prospero and his daughter Miranda were usurped by his brother Antonio, and escaped to an island where they have been living the past twelve years.

The play opens with a divine vision by Prospero telling him his treacherous brother and other conspirators involved in overthrowing him are sailing near the island. Prospero summons a huge storm that shipwrecks the conspirators onto the island Prospero and his daughter are living on.

The rest of the play, at least as it relates to The Night Circus, revolves around Prospero manipulating the shipwreck survivors along with the original inhabitants on the island. Nearly everything plot wise that happens in The Tempest is being manipulated or controlled by Prospero. Prospero even tells the audience when its time to clap at the end of the play. It is widely believed that Prospero is a metaphorical version of Shakespeare. He represents the role of storyteller in this play by controlling all aspects of the story, for good or evil, and he is even to a certain degree controlling his audience.

Morgenstern directly acknowledges the influence of the Tempest on her story by including the quote at the top of this section in The Night Circus at the beginning of the Divination section. She also names one of her characters Prospero (the enchanter) who like Shakespeare's Prospero is also known for creating illusions and using magic.

Although Morgenstern establishes a fitting tribute to Shakespeare, she also immediately and symbolically shows that her story will contain a great many differences. In The Tempest, Prospero's daughter Miranda is, for the most part, very submissive to her father's demands. In The Night Circus, Morgenstern introduces us to Prospero the Enchanter's daughter Celia at the beginning of the book. When Prospero the Enchanter tells Celia that he is going to change her name to Miranda, she stops responding to him, thus establishing her as a rebel. By symbolically refusing the name of Miranda, Prospero's submissive daughter from The Tempest, the reader can determine that Celia is not going to be submissive, she will do what she wants. It also distinguishes The Night Circus as a separate entity from The Tempest, while simultaneously acknowledging its influence.

The way Morgenstern does incorporate elements of The Tempest into The Night Circus is by inserting characters that function as metaphorical Prospero's throughout the book. These metaphorical Prospero's that exist in The Night Circus are like Prospero from The Tempest in a couple of ways: they virtually control all of the other characters and plot elements in the book, and they allow Morgenstern to showcase what goes into and what is needed from the artist to create a great story.

The five metaphorical Prospero's in The Night Circus are Celia, Marco, Alexander, Prospero the Enchanter, and Widget. Their level of control over the story functions on three levels, with first level Prospero's being controlled by the second level Prospero's, and finally the third level Prospero who is technically controlling everyone.

Celia and Marco

Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair are the two primary characters that Morgenstern uses to showcase balancing opposing thematic ideas. They are also both metaphorical Prospero's, too, functioning on the first level.


As Prospero

Celia and Marco are both essential to the running of the Night Circus. Without them the circus cannot sustain itself. They control all of the other characters that work in the circus, and they are responsible for keeping the audience continually engaged with it, much like the writer of a story and Shakespeare's Prospero.

Morgenstern shows Marco's control over the other characters by primarily having him control Chandresh and Isobel. Marco controls Chandresh primarily through a trusting relationship, but eventually as Chandresh becomes less trustful of Marco, he is forced into using magic to keep Chandresh under control. Isobel is controlled through her feelings for Marco. She loves Marco, although he doesn't reciprocate, but at the same time he never tells her he is not interested, at least not until late into the novel when he is exposed for loving Celia.

Celia controls the twins Poppet and Widget, and she controls Herr Friedrick Thiessen. The twins obediently do everything that Celia tells them, and in exchange they are taught how to do magic. It's this promise that keeps the twins in line and ultimately saves the circus. Thiessen is controlled more or less by the creation of the circus itself, but his regular correspondence with Celia keeps him engaged and gives him advanced notice of where the circus will be going next, fueling him to continuously follow it.

Both Celia and Marco control the remaining characters together directly and indirectly. Ethan Barris is controlled by Marco and Celia since he knows about the competition and collaborates with both of them on making circus exhibits. Barris in turn controls Tara (for awhile) and Lanie Burgess. Ana Padva is controlled by Chandresh who is controlled by Marco, and Bailey falls under the control of both the circus and the twins which is controlled by Celia.

Furthermore, both Celia and Marco act as Prospero's by controlling audiences. By adding magic to the circus it keeps encouraging people to keep visiting. Marco's designs for the circus, and Celia's performances as an illusionist are directly engaging with audiences, keeping them enraptured in the magic of the circus, or from the reader's perspective, the magic of the story.


Artistic Beliefs

Celia, Marco, and the characters they control are also primarily used by the author to showcase what Morgenstern believes is necessary to tell a story. The circus and the novel itself frequently come to represent stories and art itself. She frequently uses these characters to show a balancing and blurring of opposing thematic ideas. The need for balance in The Night Circus is represented by balancing opposing forces, which Morgenstern does with some of the following dualities: innate talent vs learned talent, past vs. future, choices vs. destiny, and dreams vs. reality.

Innate talent (Celia) vs. learned talent (Marco) is represented by how Marco and Celia learn how to do magic. Each has its own merits, and its weaknesses. The circus, where both characters apply their talent, becomes more and more unsteady as the book progresses. It's not until the end when both Celia and Marco become symbiotic with the circus that a balance is reached between innate and learned talent. As a result the circus is now stabilized or metaphorically speaking the circus/story cannot exist without a balance between these two types of talent.

The past vs. the future shows up in a lot of different ways throughout book. The idea is symbolically represented by Widget who can see the past, and Poppet who can see the future. It is also done through the story telling. The story starts in the past with Celia and Marco and jumps to the future with Bailey, Poppet, and Widget. It concludes/reaches its climax in the present, suggesting both elements of past and future are needed to understand the present and to tell a great story, as Morgenstern uses both past and future storytelling aspects to tell her story.

Choices vs. destiny also shows up numerous times throughout the story. It seems like destiny when Marco and Celia fall in love due to their unique abilities and life experiences, but at the same time they also choose love over destroying one another over a contest. It seems like destiny when Marco and Celia become a part of the circus at the end of the story, much like the wizard in Widget's story earlier in the book, yet both Marco and Celia choose to merge with the circus in order to save it. Bailey seems destined to save the circus, especially after his tarot card reading, but ultimately he chooses to join the circus because that is his dream. Ultimately Morgenstern is saying yes destiny was inevitable, but it was the choices made by the characters that ultimately led to those destinies.

Dreams vs. reality is played at throughout the story, and it isn't until the very end of the book that this question is put straight to the reader, "You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream." The ambiguous ending of the book has you wondering whether or not the circus was real or just another made up story being told by Widget. Is it a dream or is it real?


In regards to what goes into storytelling, these dualities innate vs. learned talent, past vs. future, choices vs. destiny, and dreams vs. reality all come to a balance at the end of the story, and are all essential to the telling of The Night Circus. Balancing contrasting ideas is what Morgenstern believes goes into telling a great story.

Prospero the Enchanter and Alexander

Prospero the Enchanter and Alexander act as metaphorical Prospero's as well. They control both Celia and Marco, at least until the end of the story, and they personally represent ideas that Morgenstern believes can have negative consequences for art. (The exception to that statement is in the epilogue where Alexander contributes some positive ideas to telling a story).


As Prospero (Shakespeare)


Prospero the Enchanter and Alexander act as another level of Shakespeare's Prospero by controlling the two characters that are primarily controlling the rest of the story, Celia and Marco. Controlling Celia and Marco gives Alexander and Prospero the Enchanter control over the outcome of the story, or in other words they function as metaphorical Prospero's that are controlling Celia and Marco, the other metaphorical Prospero's.

In addition to this Alexander and Prospero the Enchanter instruct Celia and Marco in magic, which without, there would be no Night Circus, and thus there would be no story. They also keep characters that try to escape The Night Circus (Tara Burgess) from escaping, and they provide helpful information to their students, which ultimately manipulates the outcome of the story. It is also presumed that Alexander is controlling Tsukiko, his former student that is now apart of the circus as well.


What Shouldn't Go Into The Creative Process


Morgenstern uses Alexander and Prospero the Enchanter to showcase the two things she believes should be avoided in creating artwork: lack of empathy and competition.

Throughout the novel Alexander and Prospero the Enchanter demonstrate a complete lack of empathy for their students Marco and Celia. As a result, despite having the same abilities, or perhaps even superior abilities when compared to the abilities of their students, we never see Prospero the Enchanter and Alexander presently creating anything as remarkable as the circus directly. Alexander uses his magic only to keep the people operating the circus in line. Prospero the Enchanter is able to create remarkable illusions at the beginning of the novel, but after he begins to turn himself invisible, he is never seen creating those remarkable illusions again.

The lack of creativity by Prospero the Enchanter and Alexander is due to their lack of empathy. They stopped caring about what it meant to be human, and as a result the only thing they are able to create is a competition between their students to determine which way of learning magic is superior. It appears they can no longer use magic in creative ways, which is essential to creating art and storytelling. The lack of empathy by these two characters serves as a warning and a reminder that empathy is essential to the creation of stories and art.

Competition is the other idea that Morgenstern believes is hostile to the creation of art. Throughout the novel Prospero the Enchanter and Alexander keep forcing the idea of competition on Marco and Celia, there can only be one competitor left standing. Morgenstern displays competition throughout the novel as something that bears negative consequences, by threatening the love between Marco and Celia, and by unnaturally consuming all of the performers associated with the circus. The circus as a result of the competition also becomes more and more unstable.

Morgenstern believes that collaboration, not competition, is essential when creating art. Almost every time a dispute arises between Marco and Celia and their respective instructors regarding the nature of their competition both argue for collaboration instead. The positive results of collaboration are strongly enforced throughout the novel as well. Marco and Celia collaborate with each other, they collaborate with Ethan, Chandresh, and Herr Thiessen. The projects of the circus that are created through collaboration are always improvements on the original ideas that were created by just one individual. The idea of the circus itself was originally a collaborative idea between Chandresh and the guests at one of his midnight dinner parties. Collaboration ultimately allows people to build on the ideas of others, often resulting in a better overall idea.

Widget

Widget is the final Prospero, and, arguably, in many ways the only true metaphorical Prospero of the entire story. Morgenstern uses a conversation between Widget and Alexander at the end of the story to insert some deeper philosophical ideas on storytelling in The Night Circus and to discuss the importance of stories in general.


As Prospero


Widget is the true metaphorical Prospero, because, although its ambiguous, he is the character who the reader is led to believe has been telling the entire story that is The Night Circus. Because he is telling the entire story, he is controlling every element of the story including the four above mentioned metaphorical Prospero's, arguably making him the only Prospero of the entire story.


Story Telling Philosophy


At the end of The Night Circus Widget meets with Alexander under the pretext to discuss ending the competition and securing the rights to continue using the circus. What they end up discussing is the importance of stories, and their role in society as well the importance of dreams and magic.

Another duality/balancing act is presented at the end of the novel, and that is the idea of good vs. evil. Here Alexander tells Widget that good vs. evil is all a matter of perspective, and that most things in the real world are a blur, or a balance between two contrasting ideas. It's interesting to note that during this epilogue, that readers are now being given a positive perspective on the character of Alexander, which further reinforces the idea that there is no true good or evil and again stresses the importance of balancing opposing ideas.

Dreams and magic are presented at the end of story as catalysts for telling stories. They are essential, in Morgenstern's opinion to the telling of stories. Magic in The Night Circus has almost no rules, all we know is that takes a great deal of energy to sustain, and that anyone can do it, if they really wanted to learn how to do it. Again, at the end of the book Alexander ascertains that magic is not real, rather magic is a metaphor for what is possible in the world, and what is needed to make a story. Morgenstern's critique of modern society is that it does not believe in magic or dreams anymore, and that telling stories would be one way to rectify this problem, which leads to the moral of The Night Circus... the importance of telling stories.

The importance of stories to society is revealed by Alexander, which presumably is in line with the author's own beliefs about telling stories. Alexander states the following:

"It is important...Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words."

Telling Stories

In The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern teaches readers the importance of telling stories and she suggests what qualities make a great story which includes blurring dueling ideas and stressing the importance of dreams and magic as inspirations to creating stories. She pays tribute to The Tempest and inserts characters that function to her story much like Prospero did in Shakespeare's, but also sets her story apart from The Tempest.

Ultimately with its many thematic layers and unique characterizations The Night Circus is really about the art of creating a story.


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