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Nights at the Circus Study Guide & Plot Summary

This Study Guide consists of approximately 91 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Nights at the Circus.
This section contains 1,314 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
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Nights at the Circus Summary & Study Guide Description

Nights at the Circus Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Related Titles and a Free Quiz on Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter.

Plot Summary

The relationship between the Jack Walser and Sophia Fevvers starts simply, as that of a reporter interviewing a trapeze artist (aerialiste) and fantasy legend. Walser is a California born reporter, originally aloof to the world of the extraordinary, which Fevvers represents. Fevvers is a famed aerialist, the Cockney Venus, whose claim to this fame is a pair of huge wings that she says she was born with. Their first encounter is subtly combative. Neither trusts the other and both are intrigued at the same time. The first book of the novel outlines Fevvers' past in the form of this interview. She has been through many struggles and has had few real moments of joy.

Fevvers claims to have been hatched from an egg. After hatching, she is found by Lizzie, a woman who worked in a whorehouse run by a woman named Ma Nelson. Lizzie is no longer a prostitute when she finds Fevvers and Fevvers originally attributes this to the fact that Lizzie always preaches to the clients about God. Later, it is revealed that Lizzie really preaches to the clients about women's rights and other struggles. Fevvers is born with only feather tufts on her back, and the women of the house dress her up as cupid and put her to stand over the living room like a showpiece. This is her only job in the house until she sprouts her wings some years later, and then they call her the Winged Victory. With her newly developed wings, Fevvers takes on the task of learning how to fly.

Ma Nelson dies when Fevvers is a teenager, and all of the women in the house lose their home to Ma Nelson's brother. He is a man with a cold heart and won't let them remain there unless they agree to repent and speak out against the horrors of prostitution. Before leaving, the women decide that they can't bear to leave the house to Nelson's evil brother. They cover the entire house with gasoline and burn it.

Lizzie and Fevvers move in with Lizzie's sister Isotta, who owns an ice cream shop in Battersea, London. Isotta lives there with her husband and children. Lizzie and Fevvers work at the shop through the summer, but when the winter comes, times get hard. Isotta's husband falls ill, and Fevvers is forced work for Madame Schreck, the head of a freak show for women. Madame Schreck offers Fevvers a large sum of money to be on display in her show. Madame Schreck, a grim and greedy woman, works Fevvers and the other women at the house without pay for months. Like at Ma Nelson's house, the women form a comradery. It is the only positive thing they have to hold on to in Madame Schreck's dismal world. All of the women have hard pasts and nowhere else to go, so of course, Madame Schreck takes advantage of their weakness. One client in particular takes a liking to Fevvers, and, after visiting Fevvers every night, he asks Madame Schreck if he can buy her. Schreck lies about the fee, trying to again cheat Fevvers out of her earnings. Fevvers gets the partial truth out of Schreck through intimidation.

Before Fevvers can take her pay from Schreck's safe, she is overpowered and taken away by two men who work for the client who bought Fevvers. She is unsure what this man, Christian Rosencreutz, plans to do with her. Later, his intentions become clear: he believes her to be the goddess of love walking the earth and wants to sacrifice her so that he can have eternal life. Through her ability to take flight, Fevvers manages to escape through a window.

Back home in Battersea, Fevvers finds all of the women she worked with at Madame Schreck's resting with Lizzie. As it turns out, Madame Schreck dies after Fevvers' encounter with her, and the women are able to escape and take the earnings they were owed. Fevvers and Lizzie take on the task of finding the right path and homes for the women. Lizzie and Fevvers take a new path as well when one of their friends from Ma Nelson's calls them with the idea for Fevvers to try a flying trapeze act. Fevvers excels at this profession and performs all around the world before returning to London. Her return brings her to Walser and his interview. She also receives an offer to tour with an imperial circus. Walser decides to make a proposition to his boss: if his boss allows Walser to travel with Fevvers, he will entertain their readers with an insider's view of the circus.

Walser convinces the American circus owner, Colonel Kearney, and his pig, which Kearney consults on all decisions, to let him join the circus as a clown. The first stop of Colonel Kearney's Grand Imperial Tour is Petersburg. As a clown, Walser doesn't have the chance to see the beauty of the city. In the circus world, clowns are considered the lowliest of the group and are treated accordingly. Clown Alley is the area where the clowns from the circus are sent to live. Injured from an incident with a tiger, Walser is initiated into the clown brotherhood through a disturbingly depressing ritual. That night he meets Mignon, the wife of the circus monkey's trainer, and also gets a hint that Fevvers is attracted to him. Fevvers meets Mignon that night as well and takes the abused woman under her wing.

The next day everything is running smoothly at the circus. Fevvers introduces the rest of the circus to the new Mignon and sparks a bond between Mignon and the tiger trainer, the Princess. The two take up an act together. Mignon sings and waltzes with the tigers, and the Princess plays the piano. The circus is a hit, and everything is well until the final showing in Petersburg. As if cursed, everything goes wrong on this night. First, Buffo, the head clown, is drunk beyond functionality, and he tries to kill Walser in the middle of their act. During the Princess and Mignon's act, the female tiger gets jealous seeing her dance partner and mate dancing with Mignon and attacks Mignon. The Princess is forced to choose between two of her loves, and she shoots the tiger in the head. In the end, Fevvers saves the show with a winning performance, and Kearney is able to pack happily for Siberia. First, though, Fevvers' greed places her in the arms of another crazy man. Again she manages to get away, this time barely, and she gets on the Siberia train with a broken spirit.

The train crashes, and Fevvers and the circus folk, minus Walser, are kidnapped by a band of outlaws. The outlaws hope that Fevvers' alleged ties to royalty will help nullify their exile from Russia. A storm hits the area that night and blows the outlaws and the clowns into the night without a trace. The group moves on, now minus the clowns, and they end up at a seemingly abandoned house beside a frozen lake. They reside in the house with its owner for a few days before everyone goes their separate ways. Fevvers sets out to find Walser, while Mignon, the Strong Man and the Princess remain at the house. Kearney, Sybil and an escapee they met along the way head out to find a way to a railroad.

In the meantime, Walser is knocked unconscious from the blast when the train is bombed. He is first found by a group of female escaped prisoners and later by a tribe's shaman. The Shaman mistakes Walser's foreign language as a sign that he is a fellow shaman, and he takes Walser to live with him in their village. Walser remains there, slowly recovering his memory until Fevvers and Lizzie find him. Seeing Fevvers again brings him clarity, and they have their first open exchange. They are in love.

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This section contains 1,314 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our Nights at the Circus Study Guide
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Nights at the Circus from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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