The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Context


Fantasy Literature

The Phantom Tollbooth is a modern fantasy, and, as such, it is sometimes seen as inappropriate for children by some people, who think, as Juster puts it, that "fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them." But despite the dire predictions of its failure when it was published—its fantastical nature and its vocabulary and wordplay were deemed too difficult for children—it gained and maintains its status as a classic.

As a fiction genre, fantasy often includes these elements:

  • Setting in another world—The setting is either imaginary or set in an alternate time period such as the past or the future. Milo's journey takes him through a series of make-believe places and fantastic settings including a valley where no sounds at all can be heard.
  • Characters from another world—The characters are invented by the author and may be unlike anything seen on Earth or in realistic fiction. Milo meets all kinds of made up characters including a talking ticking dog, a beetle in a suit, and a giant bee who can spell.
  • Suspension of reality—Fantasies demand the suspension of disbelief as they immerse readers into worlds that often are outside of time and reality. Readers are asked to believe what they are reading without questioning it or asking if it can really happen. Milo embarks on a journey that requires a suspension of disbelief, and he eagerly goes along with it. He meets people who can eat their words and cities where people speak with words or numbers, but not both.
  • Magical elements—Magic or strange occurrences are a part of fantasy stories. This includes events that couldn't really happen and tricks and illusions that are impossible to explain. The most magical element in this story is the Phantom Tollbooth itself. It appears out of nowhere, and when Milo drives through it he is transported to a make-believe land. The princesses live in a castle in the air that is nearly impossible to reach.
  • Supernatural creatures―Characters with strange powers and creatures from other worlds are part of fantasy stories. Milo meets many supernatural creatures in his journey including demons, little bird-like creatures who match their surroundings, and the Dodecahedron with its many faces.

Modern Telling of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The Phantom Tollbooth has been compared and contrasted with another classic of children's fantasy literature, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by English writer Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865. Both books are read by children and adults, in part because they are filled with memorable characters and strange adventures. They share the theme of the importance of education and learning, and they both create verbal humor using nonsense words and clever wordplay. For readers today Alice's Adventures in Wonderland may seem difficult to read because of the 19th-century language and references. The Phantom Tollbooth is much more accessible for contemporary readers, and younger readers especially can relate to Milo's bewilderment when he finds himself in an adult world where he realizes how much more he has to learn. Modern readers can also understand the issues of too much noise and loud music as these are a part of daily life.

Alice and Milo, the main characters in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, respectively, both begin their stories in the real world and then embark on playful journeys of discovery in imaginary worlds. Alice falls through a rabbit hole, and Milo travels through a magic tollbooth. Both characters meet humorous and unusual characters along the way, and both learn lessons and make discoveries about themselves. A white rabbit befriends Alice, and Milo shares his journey with a dog. Alice is a guest at a mad tea party, while Milo is invited to dine at the royal banquet. At the end of her journey, Alice wakes up from her dream and tells her sister the whole story. When Milo drives back through the Phantom Tollbooth, he returns to his room. He probably keeps his story to himself for fear of not being believed. Both Alice and Milo are changed by their respective experiences.

The Novel as Allegory

The Phantom Tollbooth is what a critic in The New Yorker called "an old-fashioned moralizing allegory, with a symbolic point at every turn." In the genre of allegory, an author uses symbolism and imagery to bring abstract ideas to life. For example, in Italian poet Dante's Inferno (1472), Dante's journey through hell symbolizes his desire to live a virtuous life and earn everlasting life in Heaven. He is tempted along the way by animals that represent various vices that could distract him from his virtuous path.

In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo journeys from boredom to wisdom. The path to wisdom involves not only opening his eyes to the wonders all around, but embracing the need for opposites and resisting the impulse to choose an extreme viewpoint. The opposites are represented in the novel by words and numbers, with their respective lands of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. To bring the kingdoms together, Milo must scale the Mountains of Ignorance and rescue Rhyme and Reason.

Juster pointedly uses abstract nouns to underscore the novel's allegorical content. Abstract nouns name things that are not concrete and exist only as concepts. Examples abound: Wisdom is a kingdom, Ignorance is a mountain range, Knowledge is a sea. The effect is saved from an instructive tone by its fast pacing and witty wordplay.

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