The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Symbols


The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth is a central symbol in the book: it is the portal that carries Milo to imaginary lands. It frames the story, as it is the starting point for Milo's journey and the way he returns from fantasy back to his real life. On a grander scale, it also symbolizes the spark that inspires Milo's intellectual awakening. By traveling through the tollbooth, he opens himself up to adventure and to the opportunity to transcend his limited view of life—and his constant state of boredom.

The tollbooth is a mysterious gift that appears in Milo's room. Milo reads the instructions and puts the tollbooth together. When he pays the toll and rides his toy car through the tollbooth he leaves the reality of his room and life and enters a magical, fantasy world. At the end of his journey, filled with new self-awareness and a desire to learn, Milo reenters his bedroom by passing back through the tollbooth.

The story itself can be seen as an allegory. Milo passes through the tollbooth and finds wisdom. The tollbooth is the gateway that starts him on the road to discover that learning can be fun. It introduces him to characters that demonstrate the power of knowledge and the importance of learning.


Milo receives gifts throughout the novel that play an important part in the story and help Milo learn valuable lessons. Each gift is given to Milo to help impart knowledge. That knowledge can also be seen as a gift. So each gift serves two purposes. It is a gift and it teaches a lesson that Milo learns by using the gift.

The first gift is the Phantom Tollbooth itself. Milo doesn't know who has given him the gift but he assembles it and uses it to embark on his adventure. King Azaz gives Milo a box of all the words the King knows. He tells Milo that the box will allow him to "ask all the questions that have never been answered, and answer all the questions which have never been asked." Alec Bings gives Milo a telescope so that he "can see things as they really are." The Soundkeeper gives him a package of sounds. The Mathemagician gives him a magic pencil. The sights, sounds, words, and numbers prove to be useful tools for Milo during his journey, getting him out of various scrapes and teaching him the value of being observant, thoughtful, flexible, and willing to learn.


Tock, the dog that ticks, is a watchdog. He has a large clock on his side, and he explains to Milo upon meeting him in the Doldrums that his job is to make sure no one wastes time. Through the character of Tock, the clock is ever-present during Milo's journey. It is a reminder that he must make the most of his journey—and of his life. There's no time to waste on boredom when there is so much to see, do, and learn in the world.

Milo must learn to use his time wisely. Tock tells Milo that the only way to avoid wasting time is to "start thinking." This is a playful way of looking at the phrase, "the clock is ticking," which mean something needs to happen right away before time runs out. A stopwatch is often used to symbolize time ticking away and the clock on Tock's side serves this purpose.

When Milo and Tock are sent to jail, Tock asks Milo to wind him up because he was "beginning to run down." Alarm clocks usually slow down and stop unless they are wound up so this attempts to shows that Tock really is a watchdog or stopwatch.

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