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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Chapter 2 : Beyond Expectations | Summary



Milo's adventure begins as he speeds "along an unfamiliar country highway." For once he is aware of his new surroundings, noticing the sparkling sun and shimmering colors around him. He sees a sign on a small house that reads, "Welcome to Expectations." Milo parks his car and blows his horn, and a small man in a long coat rushes out of the house. He is the Whether Man, and everything he says is repeated several times. Milo doesn't understand the man's jokes as he explains to the boy that "Expectations is the place you ... go to before you get to where you're going."

Milo continues his travels down the road and misses a turn because he is daydreaming. No longer on the main highway, everything starts to turn gray and quiet, and the car slows down. At last the car stops, and a voice tells Milo that he is "in the Doldrums." Milo is confused, and the voice tells him that the Doldrums "are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes." Milo jumps when he realizes the voice is coming from a small creature sitting on his shoulder. The creature identifies himself as a Lethargarian, and dozens more Lethargarians appear all around them. They are hard to see because each one becomes the color of its surroundings. They tell Milo that thinking is not allowed, and as they speak they yawn and fall asleep. One of the creatures tells Milo to look up Ordinance 175389-J in the rule book, which states it is "unlawful, illegal, and unethical to think ... surmise, presume, reason, meditate, or speculate ... in the Doldrums." Laughing is also against the law and "is permitted only on alternate Thursdays." People are expected to just do nothing. A typical day consists of daydreaming, napping, dawdling, lingering, lounging, wasting time, and putting "off for tomorrow what we could have done today."

The Lethargarians scatter when a dog they call the Watchdog approaches. The Watchdog is the only one in the Doldrums who does something rather than nothing. He is a large dog with a ticking alarm clock on his side. His job is to make sure that no one wastes time. When Milo explains that he is "just killing time," the Watchdog's alarm goes off and the dog shouts. He tells Milo that the only way to find his way to Dictionopolis is to start thinking, since he ended up in the Doldrums by not thinking. The Watchdog jumps in Milo's car for a ride as Milo tries to think about something. Every time Milo has a thought, his car goes faster. Soon he is back on the highway, surrounded by color again.


The author continues to have fun with wordplay and puns. Milo assumes the man is the Weather Man—a play on the homophones "weather" and "whether." The Whether Man tells Milo that there are no wrong roads because every road leads somewhere. Juster also writes jokes into the narrative, in this case playing with the common phrase, "lose your way." The Whether Man explains that he lost his way years ago so if Milo finds it, "please return it."

Juster plays with the position of the words on the page to emphasize his point. Milo is traveling in his car, and the words "mile after" appear on separate lines to emphasize the distance being traveled.

"The Doldrums" has a double meaning. It is both a place in the story and a state of being stagnant or listless. The word also has a nautical meaning that resonates with its use in the book: it is an area near the equator where ships often get stuck due to the lack of wind. The name "Watchdog" also has a double meaning. Literally it refers to a guard dog. But it also refers to the alarm clock embedded in the dog's side and resembling a watch.

The Watchdog scolds Milo into thinking. This is a commentary on the importance of being thoughtful and active, and the danger of inactivity and mindlessness. The author adds, with gentle irony, that things can "be accomplished with just a little thought." Each thought makes Milo's car go faster.

Milo is bored at the start of the novel and suffers from his own version of the doldrums. Ennui, or "boredom, doldrums, and indifference" is characterized by a lack of enthusiasm and feelings of apathy. Ennui is a familiar complaint of young people; they can often be bored with school, books, and activities they find dull, passive, or meaningless. Many young people are accustomed to fast-paced video games and interactive activities and become bored with anything less engaging. Psychologist Gayle L. Macklem refers to student boredom as the "elephant in the classroom." According to a 2010 education study, boredom "is one of the most commonly experienced emotions of students in schools." Milo is one of these bored students who is not engaged or excited about learning. At the start of The Phantom Tollbooth, he doesn't appreciate school or see the value in learning. This will all change by the end of the story when reality and fantasy merge and Milo develops a desire for knowledge.
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