The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Phantom Tollbooth can help.

The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 3. Welcome to Dictionopolis Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The dog apologizes for his “gruff conduct” and introduces himself as Tock. Milo assures Tock it’s fine and asks why he’s called Tock, since he goes “tickticktick.” Tock starts to cry and tells his sad story. His parents named his older brother Tick, expecting him to go “tickticktick.” Instead, Tick went “tocktocktock.” It was too late to change Tick’s name. Figuring their second child would make the same noise, they gave Tock his name—but Tock goes “tickticktick.” His parents gave up on having children after that and turned to philanthropy.
Tock’s family story is funny, and it also shows readers how humor works. The fact that Tock’s parents were wrong about their children twice is unexpected—but then the end of the story, where they turn to philanthropy and give up on trying to properly name their children, comes totally out of left field. So, the story is funny because the reader goes into it expecting the story to end one way, and it ends in a totally different way.  
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
To stop Tock from sobbing, Milo asks how he became a watchdog. Tock says it’s tradition in his family. There used to be no time at all, which made things very inconvenient—nobody could catch their trains or know if they were eating dinner at dinnertime. When they finally divided time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years, time started to seem less valuable since there was so much of it. Watchdogs came into being to make sure nobody wastes time again. Tock stands in his seat and says proudly that time is “our most valuable possession.” Milo hits a bump in the road, and Tock falls. His alarm goes off.
Tock makes the case here that lots of people are like Milo. Lots of people aren’t able to fill their days with fulfilling, entertaining activities, and so they end up in the figurative Doldrums wasting time. It’s possible to see watches and alarm clocks as real-life watchdogs, as they remind those who use them that time is always moving forward. It’s important that Tock insists that time is, essentially, the most important thing in the world; the novel will revisit this soon.
Themes
Boredom, Beauty, and Modern Life Theme Icon
Related Quotes
After a while, Milo and Tock catch sight of Dictionopolis’s flags. At the gate, the gateman asks Milo if he’s come to buy or sell, since it’s market day. Milo stutters, confused, and says he doesn’t have a reason—or even an excuse—to enter the city. The gateman fishes out an old reason for Milo to use, which turns out to be a medallion on a chain that reads “WHY NOT?” The gateman places the medallion around Milo’s neck and ushers the car through the gate.
Recall that Milo’s only reason for coming to Dictionopolis is that he poked it on the map; he has no idea what he’s going to find and no agenda once he’s here. So, the excuse medallion for Milo is fitting. “Why not?” implies that there doesn’t always have to be a reason to do something, aside from there being nothing better to do. That’s the point where Milo is in his development right now: he’s willing to go along with what’s happening to him because he has no good reason to do anything else. 
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Boredom, Beauty, and Modern Life Theme Icon
Immediately upon entering, Milo wonders what the market will be like. He doesn’t have to wonder long, though, because he drives right into a huge square with decorated stalls all around. A sign announces that this is the Word Market. Five tall, regally dressed gentlemen rush to Milo and, speaking in turn, greet him and offer him the hospitality of Dictionopolis and Azaz the Unabridged. They each say the same thing, but use different words to say it. Milo asks why they speak like that—wouldn’t it be easier to use one word? The gentlemen say that’d be ridiculous. One says that “one word is as good as another—so why not use them all?” They’re all the right words, after all.
These men’s manner of speaking is absurd—it’s overly flowery, and using so many words doesn’t necessarily get their point across any better than saying things in a straightforward way. Even the names “Dictionopolis” and “Azaz the Unabridged” (presumably the leader of Dictionopolis) are associated with speech and long, uncondensed writing, respectively. To Milo, this is shocking in part because it seems like he’s never encountered anyone who takes so much pleasure in vocabulary. After all, Milo historically hasn’t seen the value in going to school and learning, so it makes sense that he’s coming at this from a very different perspective than the people of Dictionopolis.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Get the entire The Phantom Tollbooth LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Phantom Tollbooth PDF
The men introduce themselves. They are the Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation, and the Undersecretary of Understanding. The minister explains that they’re the king’s cabinet, and that Dictionopolis is the source for all the world’s words. The words grow in their orchards. Milo admits he didn’t know words grew on trees. The undersecretary and count say that since money doesn’t grow on trees, something has to—like words. The crowd cheers at this display of logic. The minister says this market takes place weekly, and their job is to make sure the words sold are real (nobody could use a word like ghlbtsk, for instance). But they don’t care if words make sense or not, as long as they mean what they’re supposed to.
The cabinet men are all officials in what words mean, both in their dictionary definitions and in specific contexts. In this sense, they’re almost walking dictionaries. However, this doesn’t mean that their logic is sound—saying that something had to grow on trees, and that it may as well be words, is questionable at best. The fact that the crowd cheers at the “display of logic” then suggests that in Dictionopolis, as the minister says, nothing has to make sense. Individual words may have to mean the right thing in context, but the overall message of what someone is saying doesn’t have to be reasonable at all.
Themes
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Absurdity vs. Reason Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Milo says little, as lots of words are difficult for him and he doesn’t know many of them. As the cabinet continue to tell Milo about their work, the earl says it’s “easy as falling off a log,” which causes him to fall off a log. The duke and the minister scold the earl for choosing such a dangerous expression. The count tells Milo to choose his words carefully so he says what he means to. Then he invites Milo to the royal banquet later. The cabinet runs away. Milo tells Tock he had no idea words could be this confusing—but Tock says they’re only confusing “when you use a lot to say a little.”
Milo finds that in Dictionopolis, he’s at a disadvantage. It’s never been important to him before this to know what words mean. But now he sees that he’s going to have to learn and catch up if he wants to be able to function effectively in Dictionopolis—there’s now a purpose to learning, in other words. Tock’s advice, though, rings true: the cabinet is being more confusing than they need to be because they use such flowery, extravagant language to express simple ideas.
Themes
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Theme Icon
Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon