Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Dreams permeate the landscape of the novel and signify ambition, aspirations, and escape. Dreams are embedded into the very language of the novel as numerous elements are named after dreams. The circus itself is named Le Cirque des Rêves, or the Circus of Dreams, and is informally known as the Night Circus. The circus’s name, coupled with the fact that it is only open at night, evokes the magic of exploring dreams in real life. Similarly, the Wunschtraum clock that is displayed front and center at the circus’s entrance translates from German to “the dream clock” and functions to count down to the circus’s opening each evening as well as present an ethereal welcome to the circusgoers. The novel rarely includes literal dreams, instead focusing on the way the circus casts a dreamy spell over many of the characters’ lives. The tents that Celia and Marco construct for their challenge are manifestations of their personal dreams. Similarly, Widget captures memories and dreams in bottles to display in the Bedtime Stories tent. And the circus’s most ardent followers’ identity is so inextricably linked to dreams that they go by the moniker rêveurs, or “dreamers” in French.
Tarot cards play many roles in the novel. Most often, tarot cards foreshadow events or correspond with a moment of character development. While Isobel is most associated with the tarot as the circus’s fortune-teller, others have remarkable moments in which the tarot play heavily into their lives. Marco’s identity as a magician is exposed by Le Bateleur, or the magician, falling from Isobel’s deck, while his relationship with Celia and the destruction and reconstruction of the Night Circus is foretold by the cards. Bailey’s eventual role in the circus is also foreshadowed by his tarot reading. Most significantly, the magic of the tarot has a strong hold over the balance of the circus via Isobel’s spell with the Temperance card. The power of Isobel’s spell is not revealed until she revokes it in a moment of heartbreak, resulting in catastrophe and driving the plot toward its climax.
The use of doubling is featured in many ways, most often manifesting in pairs of characters whose lives parallel and often depend on one another. This is most apparent with Celia and Marco, whose fates are intertwined by the challenge. Similarly, Hector and the man in the grey suit act as foils to one another to drive the plot forward. The birth of the Murray twins occurs on opening night and permanently ties their lives to the circus. The twins also possess the parallel gifts of hindsight and foresight. The death of one of the Burgess sisters signals turmoil within the Night Circus and represents a significant turning point in the novel.
Color defines the division between the circus and the outside world. More specifically, the lack of color is indicative of the Night Circus. Everything from the tents, to the animals, to the performers’ outfits is black, white, or gray, enhancing the ambiance of a dream-state. The Murray twins’ fiery red hair marks them as both integral to and unique within the Circus. Red is also associated with the rêveurs, who complement the circus’s characteristic monochromatic style by wearing a red accessory, such as a scarf. Herr Thiessen inverts this motif when he attends the circus’s anniversary party in a scarlet suit with a black tie. The color-shifting gown Celia wears at the anniversary party indicates the vibrance of her individuality that she longs to express. In contrast, Marco’s clothes at the party are the same hue as the servants’, representing how well he blends into the background.