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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Themes


Knowledge and Learning

Over the course of his journey, Milo comes to understand not only the importance of learning but the power of knowledge. He goes from being indifferent and apathetic to eager and interested to learn. All of the events in the book are opportunities for Milo to learn something new about himself and provide important lessons. He realizes that he needs to expand his vocabulary and learn more about math. He learns to value both silence and noise and to accept the value of rhyme and reason. Milo receives gifts throughout the novel that help him learn valuable lessons. Each gift is given to Milo to help impart specific knowledge.

Milo comes to see that his boredom—which is his constant state at the beginning of the story—comes from his inability to see that there's a lot of things that are worth learning and that the world is an interesting place if one takes the time to pay attention. He realizes how much he doesn't know, which inspires him to truly want to learn. Learning is not a waste of time, and understanding what to do with knowledge gives one great power. Milo sees his room, his life, and his world, differently now.

Power of Communication

The characters in The Phantom Tollbooth learn the value of clear communication. The brothers King Azaz and the Mathemagician fail to communicate or understand each other because one relies on words and the other on numbers. They are more interested in opposing each other and proving their superiority, and this mistrust and miscommunication between the brothers has led to the banishment of their sisters, Rhyme and Reason. The Princesses know that both words and numbers are important tools for learning and communicating. But they can't prevail until the brothers are forced or tricked into reconciling.

Other characters, too, learn the importance of communication. Faintly Macabre has come to understand while she's in prison that her silencing the people of Dictionopolis was unwise. Similarly, the Soundkeeper realizes that banishing all sound is not the answer to dealing with unpleasant noises.

Juster's use of puns and other wordplay throughout The Phantom Tollbooth is at the heart of the novel's charm and humor. His playfulness with language as a mode of communication drives the plot and character development in significant ways, so the novel itself stands as a testament of the power of communication and the capacity of language to teach and entertain.

Fantasy Enriches Reality

Milo embarks on a journey of the imagination. Once he passes through the tollbooth, he leaves reality behind in his bedroom and meets fantastic characters and finds himself in bizarre situations. All of these magical adventures will help shape his reality. Milo learns that imagination and creativity are important parts of life, and they often result in altering one's perception of reality.

At the end of the book, Milo looks at his room differently. He was once completely unable to be excited or interested in his surroundings. In this way he was like the people of the city of Reality, as Alec Bings describes them. The people in that city stopped paying attention and caring about the city around them. The city got uglier and dirtier and finally disappeared altogether. When Milo returns from his journey, it is as if he is seeing his surroundings for the first time. His room and his world are no longer boring and dull to him. He sees the potential in his surroundings, and he will seize that opportunity to make something of his time in school and at home. His journey has led him to discover the power of learning and the importance of acquiring knowledge. Reality and fantasy merge into one and Milo's appreciation of make-believe becomes part of his everyday life.


At the opening of The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo finds everything boring: at school, during his walk home, and in his bedroom, he can't see the point in anything or find any way to have fun. After he rides his toy car through the phantom tollbooth, however, his adventure is anything but boring. Early in his journey, Milo encounters a place where everyone is bored. The Doldrums are off the main highway and everything is gray and quiet. Milo discovers that the Doldrums "are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes." Thinking is not allowed, and laughing is against the law except on alternate Thursdays. People thrive by being bored and they are expected to do nothing. Confronted with all of this, Milo is eager to escape and he realizes how absurd being bored all of the time really is. He also learns that the antidote to boredom is knowledge. The more you know and learn about things, the less likely you will be bored again.

At the end of the book, Milo has learned there is more appeal in showing an interest in things than there is in ignoring everything. He goes from being constantly bored and lacking in interest to becoming aware of everything around him. He is eager to start learning and realizes that acquiring knowledge is preferable to being bored.


Throughout the novel we see opposite or contrasting ideas that represent different points of view. It's as if the ideas and values in the book are positioned on a seesaw and each side is trying to prove its point. The truth lies in the balance, somewhere in the middle. These opposing ideas shape the book and illustrate the importance of finding and maintaining balance.

Words and numbers are separated by the beliefs of King Azaz and the Mathemagician, two brothers who argued and now live in different cities. King Azaz rules Dictionopolis and believes in the power of words. The Mathemagician is the ruler of Digitopolis, the city of numbers. He believes in the power of numbers. People in each city use words or numbers but not both. This disparity led the brothers to ban their sisters, Princess Sweet Rhyme and Princess Pure Reason. The sisters were exiled because they believe that numbers and words are equally important. In the end, the beliefs of rhyme and reason prevail and the princesses are rescued and balance is restored between their two brothers.

Silence and noise are contrasted throughout the novel. Dr. Dischord collects and dispenses loud sounds. The Soundkeeper stores sound so that Silent Valley is always quiet. Chroma the Great conducts the symphony comprised of musicians whose instruments make no sound—this symphony is meant to be watched and not heard. Like other opposing forces that the novel explores, Juster plays with how sound and noise interact, and how their imbalance can be disruptive. Once Rhyme and Reason are allowed to return, sound and silence come together again as well, reestablishing their balance.

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