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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Chapter 10 : A Colorful Symphony | Summary



Milo thinks they are lost, but Alec explains that they are "right here on this very spot." When you're lost, you don't know "where you aren't." Alec suggests they visit a giant living in a house with the sign that says "The Giant." A man of ordinary height answers the door, claiming to be "the smallest giant in the world." Milo asks him if they are lost, and he tells them to ask the midget around back. They walk to the rear of the house and knock at the door under a sign that reads, "The Midget." The same man answers the door, saying he is "the tallest midget in the world." Milo asks him if they are lost, and he tells them to ask the fat man on the side of the house. The same man answers the door and says he is the thinnest fat man in the world. Milo asks him if they are lost, and he says to ask the thin man on the other side of the house. The same man answers the door once again, saying he is the fattest thin man in the world. Milo tells him that he believes he is all of the men, and the man explains that he is a midget to tall men, a giant to short men, a thin man to fat ones, and a fat man to thin ones.

Milo again asks the man if they are lost. He replies that it is "harder to tell whether you are lost than whether you were lost." He suggests they go back to where they were. Milo asks Alec if people live in the forest, and he replies that they live in a city called Reality. They see the forest, and Milo notices a shiny city off to the left. Alec says it's the City of Illusions, and that they are actually standing on Main Street in the city of Reality. Milo, Tock, and the Humbug are unable to see anything like a city around them. Alec explains that the people who lived in the city never paid any attention to how things looked, and eventually the city began to disappear until it was invisible.

That evening they go to hear a symphony orchestra with over a thousand musicians. The conductor uses his body to conduct, but they are unable to hear any music. Alec tells them that they are supposed to watch it, not listen to it. The orchestra is playing the sunset. Afterwards, the conductor of color, Chroma the Great, picks up Milo and places him on the music stand. He tells Milo that they play every day, and when they stop, all color vanishes.


The nature of reality is an underlying theme in this chapter. The man in the house with four sides represents an interesting exploration of this theme: the man is the smallest giant, the largest midget, the fattest thin man, and the thinnest fat man. And yet he is the same man. The reality one experiences all depends on how one perceives things.

The names of the cities—Reality and Illusion—create an interesting contrast. Reality appears to vanish because the people who lived there did not pay any attention to it. So it became invisible figuratively and literally.

It is quite a twist to imagine an orchestra that one watches instead of hears. The author plays with the ideas of sound and silence to disrupt readers' expectations and to encourage a different perspective—in this case, of the sunset, which can have all the visual complexity and beauty that an orchestra does in sound.

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