The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
Analysis: Writing Style
Punny and Playful
In a way, The Phantom Tollbooth is entirely about plays on words, playing with words, and turning language upside down. As you might imagine, this makes for a pretty awesome writing style.
Let's take a closer look at Milo's adventures in Dictionopolis. Because this region values words more than anything, we get some of our best examples of punniness (yep, we're using that non-word) in this section Just look at the way King Azaz describes his cabinet:
"Why, my cabinet members can do all sorts of things. The duke here can make mountains out of molehills. The minister splits hairs. The count makes hay while the sun shines. The earl leaves no stone unturned. And the undersecretary," he finished ominously, "hangs by a thread. Can't you do anything at all?" (7.27)
Each of these descriptions of his cabinet members is a phrase people usually use in a figurative way. Have you heard any of these expressions? Well, let's check out a couple of them. People don't actually "make mountains out of molehills," for example. This is a hyperbolic (exaggerated) way of saying that someone's making a huge fuss about something that doesn't really matter. But here, the king is claiming that his duke can literally turn a molehill into a mountain. Now that's quite a feat!
The examples continue: "split[ting] hairs" isn't meant to be taken literally. Hairs are really small: Splitting them would take a great deal of time and effort. But it seems like the minister can actually do this. Or is it just figurative? What do you think? Either way, these plays on words definitely keep us on our toes and help emphasize the fact that we need to look at the world from all different angles: figuratively and literally are just two of those angles!
And of course, the paragraph we quoted is just the tip of the iceberg. Up for a challenge? See how many paragraphs of The Phantom Tollbooth you can get through without finding a play on words or a pun. It's harder than it sounds.