Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Circus  

As the venue for the challenge between Marco and Celia, the circus symbolizes different things for everyone trapped in its orbit. For Marco and Celia, the circus represents both a stage for their talents and the cage that confines them. For Bailey, the circus represents escape from the life paths that have been set out before him by his family. In contrast, for Poppet and Widget, who were born on the circus’s opening night, the circus symbolizes home. For the man in the grey suit and Hector Bowen, the circus represents a contemporary expansion of their age-old grudge. The circus represents something unique to everyone who encounters it, something the rêveurs well understand as they chase the circus around the world. Above all, the Night Circus represents escapism, imagination, and magic to the droves of unnamed circusgoers who attend it. 


Trees are a complex symbol in the novel as they serve two functions: physical trees represent potential, while non-physical trees represent power. Perhaps the most notable of the physical trees in the novel, the large oak at the edge of Bailey’s farm is where he sits while he contemplates his future and dreams of being whisked away on an adventure. It is also where he is when he sees the circus on the horizon, which spurs him on his own adventure. Similarly, the Wishing Tree’s physical candles symbolize the potential of people’s wishes. In contrast, the tree of the trapped wizard from Widget’s story symbolizes power since it is capable of sealing away the wizard’s power. The story of the trapped wizard inspires Tsukiko’s attempt to end the challenge by locking Marco away in the bonfire. Similarly, one of the ways that Marco uses his magic is by drawing intricate trees in his notebooks, establishing trees as a symbol of his own power. 


Clocks are symbolic of the integral nature of time in the novel. The Wunschtraum clock is ever present in the circus and it shows that all things are tied to time. As its hands slowly tick down the cycle of the night, the clock’s elaborate chiming mechanisms thematize the mundane. Seemingly innocuous things unfold within the clock that symbolize the tiny moments in life that move time forward, like a game of chess being played out and tea being served. Clocks also serve as a reminder that there is no escaping time. That a clock is the centerpiece of a magical circus around which it is perfectly synchronized serves as a reminder that even the circus, an enchanted place that seems so separate from the world at large, cannot be fully divorced from the effects of time. While time can be distorted by the magic that Marco and Celia use, it can’t be set aside entirely.