The Night Circus as a Narrative About Free Will

When reading (or listening) to The Night Circus, it’s easy to put ourselves in the shoes of Celia or Marco. The circus and the people in it revolve around them. We tend to have the same perspective in our lives. We like to view ourselves as the agents of change and others as static objects. We conjure up our own brand of fortune telling: “He’s useless. He’ll end up living in his parent’s basement.”, “She’s so talented. She’s bound to be successful.”, etc.

These thoughts stem from insecurities about our own futures. We see ourselves in Celia and Marco, but not as agents of change. Just like Celia and Marco, the most formative events in our lives happen when we’re very young. The magicians are bound by a spell made by their guardians without their consent. We are born in specific times and circumstances to specific parents. While these events don’t seal our fate in quite the same way as a spell, they do drive our futures in a direction that we have no control over. Our origins shape the opportunities we have available to us, so every choice we make is limited to a selection defined (directly or indirectly) by our birth.

This theme of causal determinism is also shared among other character in The Night Circus. Widget can see the people’s’ pasts but has no power to alter them, Poppet can see the future unable to act on it when it matters. Isobel comes to a realization about the difficulties of timing. It’s not enough to want/choose to do something; one also needs to be at the right place at the right time. Though talented and powerful, these characters are rarely able to make meaningful choices. Instead, things just seem to happen to them.

The one character that is different is Bailey. He represents our ideal self. Burdened by his father’s wishes, his mother’s indecisiveness, and his own coming of age, it seems that Bailey’s only two options are to take over the farm or go to college. But in fact, his future is unrestricted. When Isobel tries to read his fortune, she fails because all the cards are laid out in front of him. Bailey even manages to thwart a mistake in timing. When he leaves to join the circus, he misses it because it leaves early. However, he chases after it and creates his own opportunities. Bailey accomplishes what we wish we could – he is able to leave his past behind him and chase wholeheartedly after his dream.

Morgenstern is saying that it’s possible for us to do this too, but with one caveat. Bailey’s actions are a leap of faith; he has to leave his home to chase after an unknown goal. When he follows the reveurs, he has no idea what it means to join the circus and has no assurance that he’ll actually find it. In the end, Celia tells Bailey that she doesn’t know what will happen when ownership of the circus is transferred to him. In order to take control of our futures, we must also be willing to sacrifice safety/security and step into the unknown. Free will and an uncertain future come hand in hand.

While I think this a deep and nuanced commentary on free will, there are some problems with this analysis. There are cultural and social factors that can’t be so easily shrugged off. Even if someone wants to be like Bailey, and abandon their past, they can’t (immediately) change how other people view and treat them. It’s one thing to forget your personal history – it’s another thing to make everyone else forget it too.