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Themes in Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth"

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/20/2012

This is an overview of the ideas at work in Norton Juster's classic novel; including themes of boredom, value and common sense. Each theme comes with a prompt for student writing.

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    Can You Really Be Bored with an XBox 360 and a PlayStation 3?

    Here's the funny thing. Depending on your mindset, you can be bored when you're surrounded by things to do. You can have a stereo in your room, an iPod, an iPhone, two video game systems, and a laptop, and still feel like you have "nothing to do."

    Juster wrote this novel decades before the Internet, but Milo faced the same problem: he was bored all the time. The tollbooth and the car provide a temporary distraction, but the first place Milo goes is the Doldrums. The comic image of Tock's outrage when Milo says he is just "killing time" shows the foolishness of letting time slip by.

    Tock's lesson for Milo is that he should get as much as he can out of every day. Boredom almost catches Milo again, in jail in Dictionopolis and with the Terrible Trivium, but he learns to find ways to keep himself interested and engaged -- to find things to do, in other words. When Milo returns home, he no longer needs the car to excite him, because there is plenty in his own surroundings to suggest possibility.

    Writing Prompt: Imagine that, all of a sudden, we lost the ability to turn on anything with lights after dark. Not only does this mean no lamps, but no televisions or computer screens. What would we do at night? How would we keep from being bored?

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    Everything Around Us Has Value

    When Milo comes to the city of Reality, he sees a city that has lost all of its beauty. In the Valley of Sound, there is only silence. The reason for both of these consequences has to do with a lack of appreciation. In Reality, people began moving so quickly from place to place, without stopping to look at their surroundings and notice their value, and so the city began to fade away. The Soundkeeper locks up all sounds, because the people who live there stopped appreciating the beauty of those sounds.

    In "Thunder Cave," one of the themes that Roland Smith wants to express to his readers is that when we see things over and oer again, we see less and less of them. Familiarity indeed breeds contempt. It takes discipline to look at the same surroundings, time and again, through the eyes we used when we saw them the first time. Noticing every detail again and again brings the reward of new experiences and impressions, because we bring new elements of personality to each viewing. We change, and so our perceptions change.

    The same lesson is true in "The Phantom Tollbooth." Milo learns to appreciate the value of the things around him, and his room full of toys, which at the beginning of the book is such a boring place, has become a departure point for many wonderful journeys by the time he returns to it.

    Writing Prompt: Do you remember the first time you saw your grandparents' house? Write a description of it -- and describe it the way you remember it on your first viewing. Use as many details as you can.

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    The Value of Common Sense

    Instead of Rapunzel or Cinderella, the damsels in distress in "The Phantom Tollbooth" are Rhyme and Reason. Think about the ridiculousness that goes on at the Royal Banquet. In the Lands Beyond, there are many characters who do things for nonsensical reasons and motivations.

    Milo cannot go to the Castle in the Air to find and rescue Rhyme and Reason, though, until he has overcome his own absurdity -- his boredom with everyday life. The value of common sense is underrated, as its rewards are generally quiet and have little material value.

    Writing Prompt: Which of the rules at your school has the least common sense? Why do you think this rule is ridiculous? What purpose does this rule serve? How could you rewrite the rule so that it served the same purpose without being absurd?

    What other themes did you notice while reading the novel?