The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 10. A Colorful Symphony Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As Milo, Tock, and the Humbug follow Alec through the forest, the light becomes increasingly beautiful. Alec struggles to run, as he can’t see what’s right in front of him, so he often crashes into trees. Finally, the Humbug pants that they’re lost. Alec says they’re not lost; they’re “right here on this very spot.” And being lost, he insists, is about knowing where you aren’t. Milo is confused, so Alec points to a small house and tells Milo to go ask the giant.
Alec essentially proposes here that the journey, not the destination, is the point of going anywhere. So if a person can be happy where they are, they’re not lost, per his logic. Milo, though, seems to have a destination in mind (though he hasn’t mentioned one), so this idea is unsettling for him. It requires him to think about moving through the world in a new way.
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Milo knocks on a door labeled “THE GIANT,” but a normal-sized man opens the door and says he’s the smallest giant in the world. Milo asks the man if he’s lost, but the man sends Milo to ask the midget. The backside of the house has a door labeled “THE MIDGET.” A man answers the door who looks exactly like the giant; he says he’s the tallest midget in the world. When Milo again asks if he’s lost, the midget sends Milo to ask the fat man. Milo knocks on the appropriate door—and the fat man looks just like the midget. He says he’s the thinnest fat man in the world and sends Milo to speak to the thin man. The man who opens the final door looks just like the others; he’s the fattest thin man in the world. Milo says he believes the men are all the same.
doesn’t tell Milo why the giant is the person to ask a question like this. But as Milo goes around the house, asking each man the same question, it starts to look like the point here isn’t to answer Milo’s question of whether or not he’s lost. Rather, the point is to show Milo how much things change depending on his perspective, as this man implies when he says that he’s, for instance, “the thinnest fat man in the world.” (“Midget” is now considered an offensive term, so its use here reflects the era in which the novel was written.)
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The man draws Milo close and tells him not to ruin it. To tall men he’s a midget, to short men he’s a giant, to skinny people he’s fat, and to fat people he’s thin. He has four jobs for this reason, even though he’s totally ordinary. Milo asks again if they’re lost, but the man can’t answer. He sends them back to ask the giant and closes the door.
Finally, the man confirms that this was just an exercise in seeing things from new perspectives. Acting as four very different men allows this man to take on four different identities—and four different jobs, which he frames as a positive thing. Milo, though, doesn’t entirely see the point of this exercise, since he’s still so concerned with possibly being lost.
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Milo and Tock return to Alec, who leads them to a big clearing. He explains that people here live in a city called Reality. Milo looks to his left and sees a beautiful, shiny city. Alec says that city is Illusions; Reality is the other way. Milo doesn’t know what illusions are, so Alec defines them as things that aren’t actually there, but are visible. The Humbug is extremely confused, but Alec explains that sometimes it’s simpler to see things that aren’t there than to see things that are there. For instance, you can see all sorts of things with your eyes closed. This is why imaginary things can be easier to see than real ones.
As Alec explains illusions to Milo and the Humbug, he implies that a lot of times, people see what they want to see—their imaginations fill in any gaps and turn their worlds into what they want them to be. This, Alec suggests, is easier than seeing reality for what it is. It’s possible to see this as commentary on the modern world, where life isn’t always great, but where shiny new things can sometimes make life seem better if a person focuses on those new things.
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Alec tells Milo that they’re right in the middle of Reality’s Main Street. Tock and the Humbug see nothing, but Alec leads them down the street and points out invisible sights and greets people. The people all walk with their heads down. When Milo says he doesn’t see a city, Alec says the people don’t either—but they don’t miss it. He explains that years ago, there used to be a beautiful city here that people loved to admire. The point wasn’t to get to one’s destination in this city; the point was to admire things along the way. But people discovered you can go faster if you look down—and as everyone started doing that, things got dirtier and uglier. Nobody cared about the city, so the city disappeared. Milo remembers all the times he’s walked home in this manner.
Reality reads as a representation of  the modern world in which Juster was writing. The modern world arguably prioritizes expediency over interpersonal connection or genuine enjoyment, which is why the residents of Reality—and Milo, who lives in the real modern world—are more concerned with getting places fast than in enjoying the journey. The disappearing fictional city symbolizes people in the real world’s inability to notice the world around them, and it’s significant that Milo recognizes this. Presumably, because he recognizes that he does ignores his surroundings and sees the horrifying consequences of doing so, Milo will change his ways once he returns home. 
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Alec says that nobody cared enough to do anything about the missing city. Telling residents the city is gone doesn’t do any good. He explains that many actually live in Illusions—but that, in a way, is just as bad. Milo suggests that someday, they’ll have a city that’s easy to see, like Illusions, and hard to forget, like Reality, and Alec says it’s possible. Rhyme and Reason just have to come back.
The worst part of Reality isn’t that it doesn’t exist. Rather, Alec insists that what’s even worse is that instead of noticing what’s around them, people fill in their mental image of the city with pictures that aren’t even real. This means that residents don’t see their city as it is, and so they can’t even try to change it for the better.
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At this, Alec rushes ahead so they can catch the evening concert. He leads them through Reality to where a huge orchestra is playing in the forest. The conductor is on a high podium in front, conducting with full body movements. Milo notes that he doesn’t hear anything, but Alec says that’s the point—this is a concert you watch. Right now, the musicians are playing the sunset, like they do every evening. They play morning, noon, and night at the appropriate times of day. There’s color in the world because the musicians play the color. The concert is almost over, Alec explains, and then Milo will be able to ask the conductor, Chroma, about this himself.
Showing Milo an orchestra that plays a concert you’re supposed to watch encourages Milo to see things from yet another perspective. What if, the novel suggests, color actually did come from a bunch of people playing instruments? In addition to being fun and fantastical, this also encourages readers to look for the beauty in the modern world. There are many surprising things, the novel suggests, that are worthy of attention and appreciation—if a person is willing to look.
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When the sun sets, leaving the bass fiddles playing the night and bells playing the constellations, Milo says the concert was beautiful. Chroma says he’s been practicing a long time as he picks Milo up and sets him on the music stand. Chroma introduces himself as Chroma the Great, “conductor of color.” Chroma explains that he plays all day. When Milo asks what happens if they stop, Chroma raises his hands. The instruments stop—and the world suddenly looks like an unused coloring book. The musicians play again when Chroma brings his arms down, and Chroma explains the world would be dull without color. Yawning, Chroma says he needs to sleep and asks Milo to wake him up at 5:23 for the sunrise. Tock and Alec both fall asleep, and Milo follows suit.
Seeing the world as an unused coloring book gives Milo yet another new perspective: things would be extremely boring if the world weren’t as colorful as it is. Using the orchestra metaphor encourages Milo to think more critically about, and pay attention, to, every little bit of color in his life. It also suggests that every color has a reason to exist—whether it’s because plants are green to best absorb sunlight, or as in the context of the novel, because a particular instrument plays that color of green.
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