Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Nights at the Circus

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
X
Illustration You have already viewed an explanation Register now and access this and thousands of further explanations for free
English Literature

Have you ever wanted to run away with the circus? Well, the newspaper reporter Jack Walser in Nights at the Circus (1984) does just that. The novel follows his journey through Russia with Colonel Kearney’s circus as he works on his next big story incognito as a clown.

Angela Carter Nights at the Circus

  • Nights at the Circus (1984) belongs to the genre of magic realism (among others).

  • The ending leaves the reader wondering whether or not Sophia Fevver’s wings were real or a deception.

  • The most common type of relationships explored in the novel are those between parent/mentor figures and their child/mentee.

  • The omniscient third-person narrator enables the reader to gain an understanding of different characters’ perspectives.

  • The novel critiques both patriarchy and capitalism through the presentation of male violence, abusive relationships, and the exploitation of employees.

Nights at the Circus is widely considered to be the most accessible of Angela Carter’s novels and stories, and it was adapted for the stage in 2006. The novel won the esteemed 1984 James Tait Black Prize for fiction, which its judges attributed to the strength of Carter’s character creation and her energetic writing style. The narrative style, which uses an omniscient third-person narrator, allows the reader access to the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of a variety of characters. This helps to ensure that many secondary characters are well-rounded, with fleshed-out backstories that explain their motivations.

Nights at the Circus belongs to the genre of magic realism and the literary movement of postmodernism. The narrative corresponds to the postmodernist characteristic of questioning absolute truth and reality. This is done through Jack Walser’s existential journey with the Shaman and the novel’s ambiguous ending, which questions the veracity of Sophia Fevver’s status as a winged woman.

Nights at the Circus: Summary

Set at the turn of the century, in 1899, the novel opens with the aerialiste Sophia Fevvers giving an interview to an American reporter called Jack Walser. After contracting yellow fever whilst travelling around the world reporting on war and disaster, he is taking a break from heavy topics to look at human interest angles.

Jack is invited into the aerialiste’s dressing room, where she tells him her life story. Sophias foster mother, Lizzie, interjects at points to add to the narrative. Sophia Fevvers makes the bold claim that she was hatched from an egg and has real, functioning wings.

She talks Jack through her early childhood in Ma Nelson’s brothel, after being left as a foundling in a box on the doorstep, nestled amongst straw and the smashed pieces of her shell. She also details her adolescence, which was marked by the unfurling of her wings and her perilous first flight.

Fevvers explains how, after Ma Nelson’s death, the brothel was inherited by her estranged brother and that the inhabitants burned it to the ground before leaving. Sophia and Lizzie go to stay with Lizzie’s family, where they experience a brief idyll helping in the family’s ice cream parlour.

Sadly, this happiness does not last as the family are plunged into poverty and illness. Desperate to help, Fevvers joins Madame Schreck’s Museum of Women Monsters. This is a type of brothel and place of voyeurism. The Madame is cruel and exploitative. Sophia works there alongside Fanny, who has an extra set of eyes for nipples, the Wonder, a woman with dwarfism who claims to have been fathered by a fairy, and several others. The Madame sells Fevvers to Mr Rosencreutz, who believes that she holds the power to youth and longevity. She manages to escape by jumping out of a window and flying to freedom.

Fevvers concludes her tale by explaining how she met the circus owner, Colonel Kearney, and became a professional aerialiste. Against his better judgement, Jack finds himself toying with the possibility that Fevvers may be telling the truth and that the safest place for a winged woman would be in the circus, where she could pretend to be a fake pretending to be real. Enthralled by Fevvers, the reporter persuades his boss to let him join the circus to report on it incognito. The circus’ next tour route is through Russia, where they will perform for the Tsar before finishing in Japan.

Jack Walser’s path crosses Fevver’s again after he rescues Mignon from a tiger attack. Just before the troop set off for Siberia, Sophia narrowly escapes from the clutches of a sinister Grand Duke, whom she decided to visit alone against Lizzie’s advice. Whilst travelling by train through rural Siberia, a group of bandits deliberately derail the train. All of the circus performers are led away by the bandits, except for Jack. Believing tabloid gossip that Fevvers was engaged to the Prince of Wales, they had hoped that she would be their emissary to the Queen of England.

The escaped inmates and equally oppressed former gaolers of a cruel institution for female murderers come across the train wreck. One briefly feeds Jack, who is in a state of confusion and amnesia following a head injury, but they leave him. Finding himself alone, Jack leaves the train wreck and wanders through the frozen Siberian forest until he comes across a Shaman. Believing the babbling stranger to be another Shaman’s lost apprentice, he takes him under his wing and teaches him his traditions.

Jack assimilates well to life as the Shaman’s apprentice, learning fragments of his language and having drug-induced visions. His memory slowly returns in fragments. Fevvers and Jack are reunited, and she helps him to remember who he is.

They marry, against Lizzie’s advice, and whilst in bed together, Jack asks her why she tried to convince him that she was the world’s only fully feathered intacta. This leaves the readership questioning whether or not Sophia Fevvers truly was a winged woman at all. What was her deception? Her wings, her virginity, or both?

Nights at the Circus: Themes

Important themes in Nights at the Circus include love and relationships, and truth and deception.

Love and relationships

This novel focuses on the absence or presence of love in different types of relationships. The reader is presented with many nurturing relationships. Some of these blend the bonds between mentor and mentee and parent and child. Another key focus is the absence of love and the presence of abuse in many relationships. Finally, there are also romantic relationships that bring love and fulfilment.

Nurturing relationships

  • Jack and the Shaman.

  • Fevvers and Lizzie.

  • The piano teacher, Mignon, and the Princess.

  • Fanny, Beauty, and the orphans.

  • The Wonder and her adoptive family.

Romantic relationships

  • Jack and Fevvers.

  • Mignon and the Princess.

  • Olga and Vera.

Abusive relationships

  • Olga and her late husband.

  • Mignon and the Herr M.

  • Mignon and the ape-man.

Truth and deception

This theme runs throughout the novel, from bold claims to tricks and sleights of hand.

The spirits took forms visible, unfortunately, only to the Shaman himself so that, to keep his customers satisfied, he must equip himself with corporeal imitation of these malevolent forms and then he could be seen to have cast them out (‘Seeing is believing’).

The Shaman employs deceptions with the aim, not of tricking, but of revealing what he believes to be the truth.

Fevvers, only the one question … why did you go to such lengths, once upon a time, to convince me that you were the “only fully-feathered intacta in the history of the world”?’ She began to laugh. I fooled you then!

Sophia’s status as a winged woman is presented as truthful until the very end of the novel when this is called into question.

Do you think Sophia Fevver’s wings were real or a deception?

The genre of Nights at the Circus

Like many of Angela Carter’s other stories, Nights at the Circus (1984) belongs to the genre of magic realism. It is set within the realistic and familiar settings of London and Russia. Within this believable setting are characters with magical features and abilities. These include not just human characters, such as the employees at the Museum of Woman Monsters, but a chimp (The Professor) and a pig (Sybil). These animals possess the intelligence of humans. The Professor negotiates pay through writing, and Sybil makes key business decisions for the Circus.

Feminist critique runs throughout the narrative, covering topics such as the male gaze, abuse and exploitation, truth and deception, and justice.

Magic realism refers to a subgenre of fiction that blends realist fiction and mundane elements with magical elements.

Key characteristics of magic realism in Nights at the Circus

  • Realistic setting: it is vital that the setting is believable. The realistic nature of the setting has the function of helping the reader to suspend their disbelief and embrace the magical and fantastical elements of the story.
  • Use of magic: this can take many forms, such as characters with magical abilities or magical creatures.
  • Social commentary or critique: a hallmark of this genre is the critique of society. This could be aimed at a particular social class, a political movement, or a source of oppression.

Quotes from Nights at the Circus

Nelson never brought me to the block so I was known to all the netherside of London as the Virgin Whore (Chapter 3).

Consider how Sophia subverts the Madonna-Whore complex here. Rather than being defined as one or the other, she is viewed paradoxically as both.

I was nought but the painted, gilded sign of love, and you might say, that so it was I served my apprenticeship in being looked at at being the object of the eye of the beholder (Chapter 2).

Sophia learns about the male gaze during her childhood in the brothel, where she dresses up as Cupid and serves as a mascot.

I’ll make him into the New Man, in fact, fitting mate for the New Woman, and onward we’ll march hand in hand into the next Century (Chapter 10).

The novel is set in 1899, and Sophia is optimistic that the new century holds the promise of equality in romantic relationships between the sexes.

Key characters in Nights at the Circus

Important characters include Sophia Fevvers, Jack Walser, Lizzie, Mignon, and the Shaman.

Sophia Fevvers

Sophia is one of the key characters of this novel. Her surname, Fevvers, is a reference to the smattering of soft, downy feathers she claims were present on her back as an infant. Throughout the novel, she claims to be the world’s only fully-feathered virgin. However, the truth of this is called into question at the very end. Her physical appearance is a key focus of the novel: she is tall, voluptuous, and glamorous with peroxide blonde hair and bold grease paint for her performances as an aerialiste. She dyes her wings a flamingo pink and has a hunchbacked appearance when they are concealed. She is interchangeably vulgar and eloquently spoken.

Jack Walser

Jack Walser is a well-travelled American reporter. He is a brave man who does the right thing when the situation calls for it, such as rescuing Mignon from a raging tiger and sending the stowaway child Ivan back to his grandmother. For most of his life, Jack experiences an emotional detachment from that very life. His experiences with the Shaman and his reunion with Sophia help him to start to live in the present. He finds love and happiness in his marriage to Sophia.

Lizzie

Lizzie is a former sex worker and an ardent feminist. She was not a successful sex worker due to her habit of talking about politics with her clients, so she became the brothel’s housekeeper. Lizzie is of Italian descent and speaks with a distinctive blended Italian-London accent. She has a close relationship with her family. Her own baby died shortly before Sophia was found on the brothel’s doorstep, so she was able to breastfeed her. The other women take on motherly roles towards Sophia, but Lizzie is her main caretaker. When Sophia becomes an aerialiste for a circus, she travels with her, assisting and advising her.

Mignon

Mignon survives a childhood and adolescence marked by abuse and tragedy. Her father murdered her mother after discovering evidence of her infidelity. He then drowned in a shallow pond whilst searching for the bread knife with which he had stabbed her. Mignon runs away from the orphanage to which she is sent, leaving her sister behind. She lives on the street, begging and stealing with a band of other homeless children, before being discovered by a con artist, Herr M, who exploits her sexually and financially.

Her next relationship, the marriage to the circus’s Ape-man, is physically abusive. The Ape-man murders her only friend. She is rescued by Jack after a tiger charged her and rejected by her husband, who believes her to have been having an affair with him.

Free from her abusive marriage, she grows in confidence, becoming a talented singer and dancer who performs alongside the Princess. The Princess is a piano-playing tiger-keeper with whom she falls in love.

The Shaman

The Shaman takes Jack Walser on as an apprentice. He is a kind man and begins to develop a father-son bond with him. Although he employs certain illusions to keep the local community assured of his powers, such as sleight of hand and voice throwing, he is no con artist. He believes these illusions are necessary to convince the community he serves of the truth of his diagnosis, such as malevolent spirits causing diarrhoea because they cannot see the spirit world. The Shaman is concerned that the traditions of his community, and his place in it, may be eroded by the increasing influences of outside societies.

Nights at the Circus - Key takeaways

  • Nights at the Circus (1984) belongs to the genre of magic realism.

  • Most of the characters are well-rounded.

  • The ending leaves the reader wondering whether or not Sophia Fevver’s wings were real or a deception.

  • The most common type of relationships explored in the novel are those between parent/mentor figures and their child/mentee.

  • The omniscient third-person narrator enables the reader to gain an understanding of different characters’ perspectives.

  • The novel critiques both patriarchy and capitalism through the presentation of male violence, abusive relationships, and the exploitation of employees.

Nights at the Circus

Everyone reads at different speeds, but the average reader will take between 7 to 8 hours to read Nights at the Circus.

Nights at the Circus belongs to the genre of magic realism.

An unnamed omniscient third-person narrator.

It is 350 pages long.

Women are controlled in Nights at the Circus in different ways. Mignon has a history of being controlled by men on whom she is dependent. She is financially and sexually abused by her employer, the con artist Herr M, and she is later domestically abused by her husband the Ape-Man.


Sophia Fevvers is controlled by poverty and capitalism. She undertakes undesirable employment in a Museum of Women Monsters out of necessity in order to help support her foster mother’s family.


Both the incarcerated women and their guards at Countess P’s institution are controlled by the Countess P. The judicial system has given the Countess power over the inmates. The methods used here are literal confinement for the prisoners and ownership of contractual agreements for the guards. Both are under constant surveillance.

Final Nights at the Circus Quiz

Question

What is Sophia Fevver’s job at the circus?

Show answer

Answer

Aerialiste.

Show question

Question

What is Jack Walser’s job at the circus?

Show answer

Answer

Clown.

Show question

Question

What countries is the novel set in?


Show answer

Answer

England and Russia. 

Show question

Question

What genre does Nights at the Circus (1984) belong to?


Show answer

Answer

Magic Realism.

Show question

Question

What animal helps Colonel Kearney run his circus?


Show answer

Answer

Sybil the pig.

Show question

Question

To which literary movement does the novel belong?


Show answer

Answer

Postmodernism. 

Show question

Question

Who does Mignon find true love with?


Show answer

Answer

The Princess.

Show question

Question

Nights at the Circus (1984) is known for its flat characters. 


Show answer

Answer

False. 

Show question

Question

Which brothel Madam was a good employer? 


Show answer

Answer

Ma Nelson.

Show question

Question

Nights at the Circus has a happy ending. 


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

 Which of the following is NOT a deceptive trick used by the Shaman?


Show answer

Answer

Card tricks.

Show question

Question

What type of animal is the Shaman’s pet?


Show answer

Answer

A bear cub. 

Show question

Question

What magical quality does Fanny, Fevver’s coworker at the Museum of Woman Monsters, have?


Show answer

Answer

An extra set of eyes instead of nipples.

Show question

Question

When is the novel set?


Show answer

Answer

1899.

Show question

Question

How does Lizzie feel about Sophia entering into the institution of marriage?


Show answer

Answer

 Apprehensive. 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Nights at the Circus quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.