The way that the novel frames the concept of time and the character Tock (whose body is an alarm clock) shows that time is extremely valuable, but is often taken for granted anyway. When readers first meet Milo, he constantly wastes time rushing through his day without paying attention or finding joy in anything. Indeed, when he receives the mysterious package that contains the tollbooth, the accompanying letter is addressed to Milo, “who has plenty of time.” This establishes from the beginning that time is something valuable, even if Milo hasn’t quite put it together yet. As Milo meets and gets to know Tock, Tock then makes it very clear just how important time is. Tock insists outright that time is the most valuable thing that people have—and yet, so many people waste it.
The novel shows how consistently people take time for granted in one of its central conflicts. King Azaz and the Mathemagician spend all their time arguing about whether words or numbers are more important. But as they argue, Tock and his clock tick away, and occasionally his alarm goes off—time, the novel proposes, is actually far more important than either numbers or words, but it’s not something that people think to even argue about. So while Tock himself and the novel on the whole propose that time is arguably a person’s most valuable possession, the way the novel’s conflicts are framed shows just how easy it is to overlook the importance of time in favor of other things.
Time/Tock’s Alarm Clock Quotes in The Phantom Tollbooth
“When they began to count all the time that was available, (…) it seemed as if there was much more than could ever be used. ‘If there’s so much of it, it couldn’t be very valuable,’ was the general opinion, and it soon fell into disrepute. People wasted it and even gave it away. Then we were given the job of seeing that no one wasted time again,” he said, sitting up proudly. “It’s hard work but a noble calling. For you see”—and now he was standing on the seat, one foot on the windshield, shouting with his arms outstretched—“it is our most valuable possession, more precious than diamonds. It marches on, and tide wait for no man, and—”
“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin—if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you should really be doing, and if it weren’t for that dreadful magic staff, you’d never know how much time you were wasting.”
“But what about the Castle in the Air?” the bug objected, not very pleased with the arrangement.
“Let it drift away,” said Rhyme.
“And good riddance,” added Reason, for no matter how beautiful it seems, it’s still nothing but a prison.”