Book Reviews

The Night Circus: Thoughts on “Illumination” (Part 2)

the night circus
(Via Goodreads)

The Night Circus (2011)

By Erin Morgenstern

I have just finished the second section of The Night Circus, “Illumination.” My overall impression of this section is confusion and puzzlement. The main reason why I am in this state of confusion is because as a reader, I am still trying to figure out the main plot line. It is usually given to you at the beginning of the novel or at least, easy enough for the reader to figure out. There are many characters in this novel, where each chapter focuses on a different character’s narrative. Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint what the big picture is. How do all of these minor story lines fit together in relation to the “bigger picture”? What purpose do these minor story lines serve, and what is the “big picture,” itself? These are all lingering questions that have been on my mind while reading this section, and I feel like none of them were answered. 

“Illumination” means?

The title of the second part is “Illumination.” When we think about the word, “illumination,” we obviously associate the world with light and enlightenment. The literal meaning, “light” is shown throughout the circus. For example, the bonfire filled with spectacular colors that is secretly operated by Marco. Another example is the stars. The bright stars in the sky guide Poppet to visions of the future.

In regards to “enlightenment,” as a reader, I feel like we are ways away from truly understanding the plot of this book. We are given small bits and pieces about what each character is going through, but we cannot fully piece together the whole story. So our knowledge is somewhat limited as if we are just spectators going to the circus. Amazed by the performers, but we don’t question how these magical acts are done. The book, itself, has all these secrets and mysteries that cannot be deciphered (and I’m not sure if it will ever be as I keep reading.)

Secrets have power…And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them. Writing them down is worse, because who can tell how many eyes might see them inscribed on the paper, no matter how careful you might be with it. So it’s really best to keep your secrets when you have them, for their own good, as well as yours.

This is, in part, why there is less magic in the world today. Magic is secret and secrets are magic, after all, and years upon years of teaching and sharing magic and worse. Writing it down in fancy books that get all dusty with age has lessened it, removed its power bit by bit. It was inevitable, perhaps unavoidable. Everyone makes mistakes.

-Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Some of these characters are given “enlightenment” or knowledge. First of all, Poppet and Widget have special abilities; in which Poppet can see the future while Widget is able to see a person’s past. These gifts can determine how they interact with others. Yet rather than getting involved, it seems that Poppet and Widget keep quiet about their gifts. They let fate happen regardless of whether or not they want to interfere.

Although it may appear that enlightenment brings forth knowledge, it could also lead to destruction. One of the twins, Tara Burgess, begins to question the circus. She begins to notice how the performers and behind-the-scenes workers are aging fairly slowly, and that no one has gotten sick or ill while traveling around the world. Her inquires led her to meet with Mr. A.H. to see what he has to say about these issues, but it eventually led to her demise as she was “accidentally” hit by a train. If one comes to question authority, it seems they meet an unfortunate end.

What is the function of the circus? 

The circus is a spectacle for the people. It is enchanting and mysterious. Every performance leaves people amazed. Like the attendees in the circus, as readers, we are spectators too. We are also in amazement as we read the descriptions of the illusions and magical performances that these characters create. Yet we are also in the same position of the behind-the-scenes workers of the circus such as Tara, in regards to not understanding what the sole purpose of the circus is aside from entertaining people. The circus holds many secrets and mysteries that it leaves readers in the dark as oppose to having that omnipresent perspective. All we know is that the circus is essential to the challenge.

Furthermore, the circus is the central place where all the action happens. Aside from being where the challenge is taking place, the circus is where Bailey’s narrative is set in. At the circus, Bailey meets the girl, Poppet, who he met one time in the past when he went into the circus as a dare. (I didn’t think that the girl he met was her actually.) These two narratives have finally blended together. Now, I must continue on reading to see what will happen between them, and how it relates to the challenge.

The First Meeting

The only chapter I enjoyed in this section is “Tete-a-Tete.” Marco and Celia finally get to interact with one another, and are now fully aware that they are each other opponents. There is something sensual about their encounter. They exchange subtle glances, and flirt by showing off their illusion skills. Not fully revealing their secrets, but enough to impress and amaze one another. They have a strong bond, where their powerful “energies” seem to compliment each other: “The feel of his skin against hers reverberates across her entire body, caught in the haunting greenish-grey of his eyes again, and she does not turn away” (221). Marco and Celia have a strong physical attraction to each other. I assume that their relationship develops over the course of the story because Isobel was presented with “The Lovers” tarot card when reading Marco.

I feel like The Night Circus is still a 3/5. I am still trying to figure out what’s the purpose of the challenge and how all the characters are involved. In “Illumination,” I got more character development. I am looking forward to the next section to see how these characters interact with each other, and how their lives intertwine.

Want more of The Night Circus? Check out my thoughts on part one, “Primordium.”

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