Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus is the story of love and power and what happens when those two things come together. At its core, the story revolves around a challenge that has been played out between two ancient magicians for untold centuries. But when the competitors of the game fall in love, both their lives and the game are altered as they work to save one another, for only the victor can survive. Herein lies the central conflict of the story: where two lovers are bound to a fate that calls them to best one another or die trying, the world cannot remain unaffected by the pain and the beauty that results. A complex narrative with interweaving points of view and timelines, The Night Circus explores the consequences of such a game being unleashed into the real world where other people can be pulled in by its magic. 

The game is the driving force behind the plot even while remaining a mystery to nearly everyone involved. This plot is instigated when Hector Bowen appeals to his former teacher turned rival, the man in the grey suit, saying that he would like to enter into another round of their “challenge.” Though many details about the challenge are withheld at this early stage in the story, what is clear is that Hector believes his own daughter, Celia, is such a promising budding magician that she can’t be beaten by anyone that the man in the grey suit finds to challenge her. Upon agreeing to the challenge, the man in the grey suit leaves to find his own competitor and forever binds the fates of the two primary protagonists of the novel, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, together.  

Both Marco and Celia spend parallel childhoods in preparation for the challenge, training via the methods deemed most appropriate by their respective teachers. While these contrasting methods are diametrically opposed to one another,  they are the same in that they are neglectful and abusive to both children. Once the circus is created, and the challenge begins, Marco and Celia’s relationship morphs from one of competition into a passionate love affair. They come to see their moves in the challenge as something akin to love letters, with each building new tents for the sake of the other. They even collaborate on an elaborate tent known as the Labyrinth wherein they each create rooms to compliment one another’s previous move in what can be interpreted as the two testing the boundaries of the challenge’s rules about interference. With each of these testaments to their love, however, they take one step closer to the limit of how much they can hold onto with their powers. In so doing, they are unknowingly bringing themselves closer to the final move in the game by building the circus for one another.  

Meanwhile, Le Cirque des Rêves gains a life of its own with dozens of people being drawn to it as architects and patrons, fans and performers. Many of these characters are under the spell Marco cast on the circus and are unknowingly tied to its fate. In this way, the game draws in unsuspecting victims to the side-effects of the power that is being used to build the circus larger and larger. The nonlinear narrative structure and the multiple points of view serve to illustrate just how intertwined the characters become because of their connection to the circus. This also allows for the novel to utilize side stories and subplots to meditate on the nature of power and the different permutations of love. From among these characters, several key players emerge who help to hasten the plot to its climax and conclusion. The twins Poppet and Widget are born inside of the circus and they both have a natural aptitude for magic. Isobel Martin is spurned by Marco, and in her grief over lost love, she unties a charm she used to keep the circus together. Tsukiko’s love for the circus pushes her to step in when Celia begins to lose control of Le Cirque des Rêves. A humble farm boy named Bailey falls for a girl and runs away with the circus.  

The climax comes when Celia decides that the only way to end the challenge is to take it into her own hands. The circus destabilizes rapidly even though Celia is using everything in her to hold it together. Both Celia and Marco commit to sacrificing themselves to save the other and, while facing the possibility of the circus being forever lost, Celia manages to bind them both to the circus using the very technique that her father failed to perform and save them both. For Celia, this use of her father’s technique to save them both is crucial as it not only establishes that Celia is a better magician than her father, who turned himself into a ghost using the same trick, but it allows her to subvert the game itself. This final “move” effectively renders the game a stalemate as neither Marco nor Celia can continue.  

The falling action that brings about the resolution of the book occurs when Bailey arrives at the circus and is given the choice of whether he wants to take it over. Bailey is in love with Poppet, who will likely die if the circus fails, and he loves the circus itself with a conviction he has for little else, so the choice is easy. That Bailey is given choice is an important stance that the novel takes as Bailey choosing to be the new proprietor means that he has the autonomy that neither Celia nor Marco were ever afforded. Along with Poppet and Widget, Bailey takes ownership of the circus and keeps it running long into the future. In so doing, they are also carrying with them the legacy of Celia and Marco’s love story, which is forever tied to Le Cirque des Rêves.