Study Guide

The Phantom Tollbooth Analysis

  • Tone

    Respectful, Matter-of-Fact

    You know how some grown-ups talk to kids like they don't understand anything? Yeah, you know the type: they assume that just because you're young, you don't know anything about the world. Well, luckily for readers of The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster is not this kind of grown-up.

    Our narrator sounds like he's talking to a total equal. He brings up complicated concepts, like idiomatic language and infinity, and treats readers like they can understand it all without any problems (sometimes he might even be expecting too much from us!).

    In the same way, the book never gets all moralistic or makes us think that if we don't enjoy school, there must be something wrong with us. The Phantom Tollbooth presents learning as a process of discovery. It's exciting, and it's something to be celebrated. Having an open mind leads to more adventure, and the rewards are enjoyment and adventure.

    Bottom line: our narrator (and hence, our author who created him) respects us. And it totally comes through in the matter-of-fact, mature tone of the story.

  • Genre

    Children's literature, Fantasy, Quest, Allegory

    There's no question about it: The Phantom Tollbooth is a work of children's literature – that's where you should look for it in the bookstore. The main character is a young boy who goes on an adventure and experiences magic, discovery, and friendship, all classic elements of children's literature. Of course the magic parts – the talking animals, Subtraction Soup, and orchestras that play colors instead of music – help The Phantom Tollbooth fit pretty nicely into the fantasy genre, too.

    Don't stop there, though. The Phantom Tollbooth is also a quest. Check out this passage, where the Humbug explains pretty clearly that the characters are on a quest:

    "Ah, the open road!" exclaimed the Humbug, breathing deeply, for he now seemed happily resigned to the trip. "The spirit of adventure, the lure of the unknown, the thrill of a gallant quest. How very grand indeed." Then, pleased with himself, he folded his arms, sat back, and left it at that. (9.2)

    When the characters themselves know they're on a quest, we're pretty sure we can call the story one. In this case, Milo, Tock, and the Humbug are on a mission to rescue two princesses and restore the Kingdom of Wisdom to its former glory. It doesn't get much more classic quest than rescuing a princess, that's for sure.

    The Phantom Tollbooth dabbles in other genres, too. Some might say it's a satire or parody, while Adam Gopnik says, "'The Phantom Tollbooth' is an old-fashioned moralizing allegory, with a symbolic point at every turn" (source). For more on this story as an allegory (and to find out what an allegory even is), head on over to our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section. We bet you'll learn a lot.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of a book is pretty telling of what you'll find inside. So by naming this book The Phantom Tollbooth, our author reminds us that the tollbooth is something we should keep our eye on. Norton Juster doesn't call his story Milo or The Lands Beyond – and he totally could have. But then, we might have focused more on the character or the places he travels than the purpose of the tollbooth itself.

    So what is the phantom tollbooth? Well, it's the thing Milo receives in the mail that changes his life by helping him get to the Lands Beyond in the first place. And remember, the story doesn't end when Milo leaves the Lands Beyond: it ends when the tollbooth disappears and moves on to another deserving child. This disappearance is emphasized by the use of "phantom" in the title. Like a ghost, the tollbooth fades away, leaving us to wonder if it was ever there at all. So instead of spending our time unpacking all the puns or figuring out all the allegories, we're able to focus on what the tollbooth teaches us: learning is the key to adventure.

    (For more on what tollbooths might mean to our story, check out the section "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.")

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    From the outside, it looks like Milo ends the book basically where he started: in his room. The tollbooth's gone, so there's no evidence of the magical journey he just took, and it turns out he's only been gone for a couple of hours. It's as if his venture to the Lands Beyond never took place.

    It's really too bad. All those exciting adventures, the things Milo learned, the people and characters he met – and from the outside, it's like Milo just spent the past few hours in his room, doing nothing.

    Depending on how realistic your view of the book is, you could say that maybe he didn't go anywhere, maybe he was in his room the whole time. But you know what? It doesn't really matter. Milo clearly did go on some kind of journey: whether it was real or imaged is kind of beside the point (at least in the discussion of the ending!).

    On the inside, Milo is totally different. During his time in the Lands Beyond, he acquired a whole new set of values and interests. At the beginning of the book, he was super-bored by everything: "When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have" (1.2). The Phantom Tollbooth's first paragraphs show a boy who has a lot and is pleased with nothing.

    In contrast, at the end of the book, Milo is excited by everything around him, and inside him. He's excited by the contents and skills of his own mind, and what he can do with that mind. In the Lands Beyond, he thought that his quest was rescuing Rhyme and Reason, and restoring rational thinking to the Kingdom of Wisdom. But don't you think his quest is about way more than that? In a way, he's actually rescuing his own imagination for himself. The book's very last lines have Milo saying, "Well, I would like to make another trip […] but I really don't know when I'll have the time. There's just so much to do right here" (20.19).

    Milo loses the tollbooth, so he can't go back to the Lands Beyond again, or meet up with the friends he left there. But now, he doesn't need some outside object to have adventures or enjoy himself. He's figured out how to enjoy the present, to soak up his surroundings, and to make magic where none seems to exist. He's gotten out of the Doldrums, for good.

  • Setting

    The Lands Beyond

    The Phantom Tollbooth may start and end in a nameless city in the real world, but its true setting is the fantasyland to which Milo travels when he passes through the tollbooth: the Lands Beyond. And what, exactly, are these lands like? Well, there's actually a map! Yep, that's an authorized look at the layout of the Lands.

    Zooming Out

    For those of you who are a little more interested in the broader geography of the Lands, let's take a closer look at that map. According to the title, it's supposed to give readers a sense of "The Lands Beyond, including a description of the several towns, boroughs and municipalities comprising the kingdom of Wisdom." Okay, so the map goes from left to right: the whole right edge is the body of water called the Sea of Knowledge. Milo enters from the center left, and he hits the following landmarks: the Doldrums, the city of Dictionopolis, the Forest of Sight, the Valley of Sound, the island of Conclusions, and the city of Digitopolis. The big climactic finish takes place in the Mountains of Ignorance, which are in the upper right.

    Zooming In

    Got all that? Okay, now let's zoom in on a couple of areas in the Lands Beyond to get a sense of their scope.

    In some cases, the settings take on the characteristics of the people who live there. For example, words are the most important things in Dictionopolis. So the grandest building there, the king's house, resembles a "book":

    It was a strange-looking palace, and if he didn't know better Milo would have said that it looked exactly like an enormous book, standing on end, with its front door in the lower part of the binding just where they usually place the publisher's name. (7.5)

    In comparison, numbers are the most important things in Digitopolis, and so Milo finds out that the Mathemagician constructed a home featuring a rather strange, number-influenced room:

    [It was a] strange circular room, whose sixteen tiny arched windows corresponded exactly to the sixteen points of the compass. Around the entire circumference were numbers from zero to three hundred and sixty, marking the degrees of the circle, and on the floor, walls, tables, chairs, desks, cabinets, and ceiling were labels showing their heights, widths, depths, and distances to and from each other. (15.33)

    As you can tell, the make-up of a place is based entirely on the preference of its leader (be it for words or for numbers). We wouldn't mind living under Prince Cake and Ice Cream's domain, that's for sure.

    Awfully Allegorical

    The different parts of the Lands Beyond, as the setting, contribute to The Phantom Tollbooth as an allegory. (Basically, that means that what happens in the book really means something else, too: there's a double meaning for which we should be on the lookout. For more on this, check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory".) The relationship between places and meanings might be clearest in the distinction between the cities of Illusions and Reality in the Forest of Sight:

    In a few more steps the forest opened before them, and off to the left a magnificent metropolis appeared. The rooftops shone like mirrors, the walls glistened with thousands of precious stones, and the broad avenues were paved in silver.

    "Is that it?" shouted Milo, running toward the shining streets.

    "On no, that's only Illusions," said Alec. "The real city is over there" (10.41-43)

    What is going on here? Well, Illusions appears to be a city, yes. We learn from Alec that some people live there, but most people live in Reality. Okay, now take away the capital letters, and what do you have? Some people live in illusions, but most live in reality. Get it? That's an allegory. But wait, there's more: Milo thinks that maybe, if he can get Rhyme and Reason (rhyme and reason) to return, Illusions and Reality (illusion and reality) can be matched together and everyone will be on the same page.

    Complicated? Yes. Fun? Absolutely.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Tree Line

    The Phantom Tollbooth appeals to readers of all ages. In some ways, it's written simply enough that a young'un will totally get it. The clear plot involves a young hero, a magical voyage, the threat of danger, and the idea of rescuing beautiful princesses. These universal ideas are easy and fun to read about, and make the book a classic YA gem.

    But not so fast: the book is full of complexities. It's overflowing with puns, plays on words, and allegories (check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on that). The closer you look, the more complex it gets. We'd bet that even Shmoop missed a few things. Yeah, that's right: even Shmoop.

  • 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.

  • The Phantom Tollbooth

    Yep, that's right. This whole book is an allegory. Wait, what's an allegory again? We're glad you asked. We can understand an allegory as "any writing in verse or prose that has a double meaning. This narrative acts as an extended metaphor in which persons, abstract ideas, or events represent not only themselves on the literal level, but they also stand for something else on the symbolic level" (source). If you've read our section on "Writing Style," you know our author is no stranger to double meanings.

    The way we see it, there are three main ways that allegory is used in The Phantom Tollbooth:

    • People: Every person or personified animal Milo meets represents something and has a special lesson to teach him. For example, King Azaz represents language and the Mathemagician represents numbers. Because the rulers each value their own specialty the most, their kingdom has split in half and its people can no longer achieve true wisdom. (And so, of course, this kingdom is called Wisdom.) To check in on what other characters mean allegorically, hit up the "Character Analysis" section.
    • Things: Even the objects that Milo comes in contact with have allegorical meanings. Even the tollbooth has some extra meaning. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory: The Tollbooth" for more on that.)
    • Places: Each place that Milo visits on his journey represents something on the allegorical level. The book makes it easy for us to figure out what those places represent by giving them obvious names: the Kingdom of Wisdom, the Mountains of Ignorance, the Sea of Knowledge, and the Island of Conclusions. And don't forget the twin cities of Illusions and Reality. (Naming places after the things they represent is a key element of allegory, and you can see it in other famous allegorical works like The Pilgrim's Progress, which might as well be subtitled, "The Original Allegory.") For more examples of places being allegorical in The Phantom Tollbooth, go check out the sections "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory: The Doldrums" and "Setting."
  • Meals

    Meals play an important part in many fantasy stories – just think of the famous tea party in Alice in Wonderland.And if you've read enough fairy tales, you know that eating the food in magical lands can sometimes doom you into staying . Luckily for Milo, he doesn't have this problem. But he does eat two important meals in the Lands Beyond – or at least he tries to. At the end of each one, he's not very satisfied.

    In Dictionopolis, Milo is left hungry because he doesn't know how to order properly: "I didn't know that I was going to have to eat my words" (7.52). Milo isn't used to the idea of "eat[ing his] words," so he doesn't realize he should say delicious phrases. Instead, he ends up with "Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen […] I would like to take this opportunity to say that in all the – " (7.40). While we don't know exactly what this tastes like, it seems "unappetizing" and doesn't "look worth eating" (7.54). It's simply not as good as what everybody else orders at the banquet.

    Then, in Digitopolis, Milo eats all the soup he can: by that mealtime, he's really hungry. The more he eats, though, the more he wants: "'Please have another portion,' said the Mathemagician, filling their bowls once more; and as quickly as they'd finished the first one the second was emptied too" (15.7). By the end of the meal, Milo's hungrier than ever. That's because in Digitopolis, people start eating when they're full and eat so they can be empty/hungry, not the other way around.

    In both places, Milo eats with the city's ruler and through the meal, learns about the place's customs. Even in the real world (not that the Lands Beyond aren't real!), meals are an important way of learning about the culture. So, through these meals, Milo gets the chance to open his mind and realize that everyone thinks of everything – even food! – quite differently.

  • Gifts

    Milo receives an important gift in nearly every landmark he hits on his journey through the Lands Beyond. If you've ever read another quest story, you know that this isn't unusual. Everywhere a traveler stops, he's likely to get a gift – whether in the form of an object or just some much needed advice – from the residents of that place.

    For Milo, each of the gifts he receives will turn out to be important when he gets to the most dangerous part of his journey: crossing the Mountains of Ignorance to reach the Castle in the Air.

    Let's take a closer look at the gifts themselves:

    From King Azaz, Milo gets a "box [with] all the words [the king] know[s]" (8.64).
    From Alex Bing, he gets a telescope that shows "things as they really are, not just as they seem to be" (11.25).
    From the Soundkeeper, he gets a collection of little noises
    From the Mathemagician he gets a pencil, his "own magic staff" (16.70).

    And sure enough, each of these gifts helps Milo save himself and his friends from a terrible demon. The telescope reveals the demon of insincerity as someone who's not dangerous at all; the magic staff unmasks the Terrible Trivium's plan; the words scare the giant so much he lets the travelers go; and the sounds dispel the fantasies set up by the Senses Taker.

    So what's the big deal? It's just a bunch of objects. Or is it? If you think about it, every time Milo uses one of these gifts, it feels like the people Milo met earlier on his journey are coming back to help him on his quest. It reminds Milo of the rest of his journey and reminds us, as readers, just how far he's come.

    One more thing: Have you ever heard the saying about a starving man and fish? It goes something like this: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Translation: if you give a guy a fish to eat, he'll have food for one day (not bad). But if you can just teach him how to fish, he'll be able to feed himself forever (much better).

    Both King Azaz and the Mathemagician teach Milo how to fish, rather than just giving him those fish to eat. What we mean is, they give him tools that he can use to make the learning process his own. It turns out learning is a process of discovery, not just a set of right and wrong answers to recite from memory. Lesson learned!

  • The Doldrums

    The Doldrums are one of the first places Milo visits in the Lands Beyond, so we get the feeling they're probably pretty important. When he first arrives, her meets the Lethargarians, a group of colorless folks who don't do anything, and don't do it according to a strict schedule (doesn't make much sense, does it?). Basically, they have nothing to do and they're bored all the time.

    Sound familiar? That's right: their condition is a lot like Milo's, who drove through the tollbooth in an attempt to get away from his own boredom. In fact, Milo's had spent some time in the Doldrums before even getting to the Lands Beyond. He just didn't know it.

    Norton Juster explains that the similarity between how Milo feels at the beginning of the book and the way other characters act in the Doldrums is deliberate (intentional). They're supposed to seem like the same thing. Milo's world at home "was, of course, the doldrums – his own special version of them" (source). In the Lands Beyond, though, Milo has some help: the watchdog Tock bounds in and gets Milo out of there right away. And so, Milo leaves the Doldrums behind… for good.

    At the end of the book, when Milo is a totally different person. So maybe it's not the place that makes something the doldrums, but the person. Milo's house, which was totally boring to him before, now seems super exciting. So if you're ever in the Doldrums, just remember: there's an easy way out – through your own mind!

  • The Castle in the Air

    The phrase "castle in the air" is often used to describe a fabulous daydream that someone's having about a fantastic future. The castles people fantasize about aren't based in reality. After all, they're in the air. In fact, that's the point: they're desirable and unreal, and so they're super fun to imagine.

    In The Phantom Tollbooth, though, at least one castle in the air is real. The book's Castle in the Air is where Rhyme and Reason are imprisoned after they're exiled from Wisdom. As a castle, it's a fitting place for royalty to live, and it floats about the Mountains of Ignorance, a tremendous distance in the air.

    But be careful: like other objects in the Lands Beyond, the Castle is more than what it seems. The Humbug thinks it's glorious and pleasant, for example, but the princesses remind him that it's been converted into a jail: "no matter how beautiful it seems, it's still nothing but a prison" (18.78). So what is Norton Juster trying to tell us? That we should daydream? That fantasies are prisons?

    We're pretty sure that's not the takeaway here. More likely, Juster is (as he always does) trying to make sure we look at things from all different angles. Sure, daydreams are fun, but when they become a reality, they lose some of their sparkle and wonder. What do you think?

  • The Tollbooth

    In several of the interviews Norton Juster gave to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, he mentioned one big worry he had: that twenty-first-century readers won't know what tollbooths are (for one example, check out this source).

    So, if you've never heard of a tollbooth before, don't worry. You're not alone. A tollbooth is a tiny building on one end of a big highway or road. Before you drive on the highway, you have to stop at the tollbooth and pay a little money. The money is the toll, or little tax, that you pay to get on the road. Nowadays, you're likely to see a tollbooth at one end of a bridge, like San Francisco's Golden Gate.

    So, a tollbooth is like a gateway, or a door. (You could compare it to the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or Platform 9 ¾ in the Harry Potter series. All are gateways that characters pass through to get from their own realities to magic lands.) Once you go through it, you're free to explore new territory. In Milo's case, this territory is the Lands Beyond.

    Without the appearance of the tollbooth, Milo wouldn't have been able to get to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Just a reminder to us readers that you can't get somewhere by standing still. You need to break through a passage or a gateway to get your journey started.

    (You can read even more about the idea of the tollbooth in "What's Up With the Title?")

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    It's easy to confuse the author of a book with the narrator, especially when that narrator is third person omniscient. Let's break that down. That means that the narrator writes in the third person (calling the characters in the story "he" and "she") and knows everything (that's the omniscient part). Yep. This narrator can tell us what everyone's thinking and doing at all times. Pretty impressive, right?

    So the narrator and the author aren't the same person (the author made everything up, the narrator is just relating it to us), but in The Phantom Tollbooth, the narrator sure seems to have control over what goes into the book. Take the introduction of the Dodecahedron:

    He was constructed (for that's really the only way to describe him) of a large assortment of lines and angles connected together into one solid many-sided shape – somewhat like a cube that's had all its corners cut off and then had all its corners cut off again. Each of the edges was neatly labeled with a small letter, and each of the angles with a large one. He wore a handsome beret on top, and peering intently from one of his several surfaces was a very serious face. Perhaps if you look at the picture you'll know what I mean. (14.7)

    Wait a second, is the author speaking directly to us? He sure is: here, "you" means the reader and "I" means the narrator. Sure enough, there's a picture for us to look at (at least in our copy of the book) just one paragraph later. The fact that our narrator talks about the picture means that he's thinking about the actual format of the book and how it is designed. That's the author's job more than the narrator's, right? Basically, in The Phantom Tollbooth the author and narrator are sort of mashed together. But we like Norton Juster, so that's okay.

    What effect does this kind of narrator have on the way we read the book? Why doesn't our author have Milo narrate things as he goes along? Well, think about it this way: if Milo were narrating, we probably wouldn't learn as much as we do. Even in the passage we just quoted, we get some information that Milo probably couldn't have given us (we love the kid, but he just hasn't taken the right math classes yet!). Also, because Milo isn't narrating the experience, we're able to imagine that we are Milo on this trip. Just write "Shmoop" wherever you see "Milo" in The Phantom Tollbooth, and voila! It's us on that magical journey.

    One last thing. Why does the author use pictures to help illustrate (pun intended) his point? Well, maybe he's trying to even the playing field: the whole story is told in words, which is kind of unfair to the Mathemagician and his numbers. So throwing a picture in there uses the more neutral art (as opposed to words or numbers). But to be fair, we're glad The Phantom Tollbooth is written in words. Think about it: when the Mathemagician writes a letter using only numbers, King Azaz can't understand it. So if The Phantom Tollbooth were written all in numbers, we'd be out of luck.

    • Plot Analysis

      First, a warning. The Lands Beyond don't even make an appearance in our classic plot analysis. We haven't forgotten about them (they're the bulk of the book, after all), but we think the bigger issue it that of Milo's development as an awesome kid. So, we challenge you to write a second plot analysis for this book: one that takes place only in the Lands Beyond. You know you want to give it a shot.

      Initial Situation


      In the opening pages of the book we're introduced to Milo and learn one important things about him: there's no excitement in his life. He's bored. Period. End of story. (Well, not end of story, but you get the point.)


      Did We Mention He's Bored?

      Yep, that's right. Shmoop thinks that the initial situation is the conflict. Sure, Milo runs into a bunch of little problems in the Lands Beyond, but those are just complications (see below) in a greater conflict. What's the conflict about being bored, you ask? Well, Milo just isn't enjoying life: he's not getting out of it what he could and should, and that's just not okay for a little boy.


      Going Home

      Milo knows he has to go home, and he doesn't like it one bit. After all this excitement, going home will just make him even more bored. That's definitely going to complicate things, and throw a wrench into the possibility of Milo overcoming his conflict.


      The Whole Stinkin' Journey

      Okay, so there's not a clear-cut climax outside the Lands Beyond. We'll give you that. But could we maybe, just maybe, think of Milo's whole experience in the Lands Beyond as the climax? It's a little strange, we know, but the climax is the most exciting part of the book, right? It's the height of the action. And give how little action there was back home, the Lands Beyond seem pretty climactic to us.


      Grounded for Life?

      We don't know about you, but we were definitely on the edge of our seats when Milo passed back through the Tollbooth and into his house. What would be there? How long has he been gone? Will his parents be super mad? And will he ever go back through the tollbooth?


      Back to Reality

      Here's where we get all our answers. It turns out Milo has only been gone a few hours so his parents didn't even notice. He eats dinner, goes to bed, and goes to school the next day, just like normal. But when he comes back, the tollbooth isn't there. So nope, he'll never go back.


      Triumph Over Boredom

      Instead of bumming out about the disappearance of the tollbooth, Milo looks on the bright side: after his journey through the Lands Beyond, he now knows how make new adventures for himself. Boredom, be gone!