Published in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth is a reflection of the quickly changing midcentury world. In the novel, characters reflect on the rise of big cities, consumerism, and the increasing pace of modern life—but the novel suggests that all of these things detract from the joy of living. Young Milo is portrayed as a product of this setting: he hurries through his days, doesn’t see the point in doing anything, and can’t entertain himself despite having a bedroom overflowing with toys and books. By the end of his trip to the Lands Beyond, though, Milo has learned to appreciate life and seize every opportunity to enjoy his midcentury world. Through Milo’s journey, The Phantom Tollbooth shows that in order to remedy the ills that come along with the modern world, it’s necessary to slow down, appreciate what one has, and admire beauty in the world wherever one finds it.
The Phantom Tollbooth portrays the modern world that Milo inhabits as one that is senseless, dull, and unable to intellectually or visually stimulate its residents. The novel mostly makes this point by portraying places in the Lands Beyond that closely mirror the real-life modern world that Milo inhabits. For instance, Alec Bings introduces Milo to two twin cities called Illusion and Reality. Reality was once a vibrant, beautiful city where people loved nothing more than to admire their beautiful surroundings. But when people began to prioritize speed over visually enjoying their city, the city itself began to disappear—and now, the residents don’t even notice their city is gone. And many, Alec explains, actually live in Illusions, which is bright, shining, and perfect—but doesn’t actually exist except in people’s minds. Through the story of Reality, the novel proposes that modern life has caused people’s priorities to shift from enjoyment to expediency. The speed required of modern city life discourages people from even noticing how beautiful and interesting their home is. A similar tale played out in the Valley of Sound, which, when Milo arrives, is entirely devoid of sound. This is because as residents moved into cities where more loud, obnoxious sounds were the norm, people stopped appreciating life’s more beautiful sounds. And when a man known as Dr. Dischord made it so the valley’s residents could only hear terrible sounds, the valley’s ruler, the Soundkeeper, decided to take all sound away. Both of these stories are fantastical and exaggerated, but they both suggest the same thing—that modern life is fast, loud, and ugly. This creates a vicious cycle: as the world gets louder and uglier, people think this is normal, and so nothing changes.
To fix these issues with the modern world, the novel suggests slowing down, appreciating beauty, and seeking out joy to counteract the modern world’s speed and ugliness. Again and again, the characters Milo meets suggest that the only way to fix things in the Lands Beyond is for people to slow down and start appreciating beautiful things again. It’s ridiculous, people imply, to live life at such a breakneck pace that one can’t appreciate anything. It’s absurd to move so fast that people don’t even notice when their city disappears into thin air. This lifestyle makes people oblivious to the sights and sounds around them, and the solution is to restore life’s meaning. Milo doesn’t remain in the Lands Beyond long enough to see how they change once Rhyme and Reason return, but he does see the positive effects of balancing beauty with ugliness in the Valley of Sound. Milo helps the residents there steal a sound from the Soundkeeper’s fortress, which enables them to knock the fortress down and release sound back into the valley—good sounds as well as bad. Interestingly, this simply returns life in the valley to normal; the return of sound doesn’t make life particularly good or particularly bad. With this, the novel proposes that normalcy, and balance between the terrible and good parts of the modern world, is worth striving for, even if “normal” might not be as flashy as what came before.
Milo himself provides the novel’s clearest example of the ill effects of the modern world, the remedy for those ill effects, and the final result. Milo begins the novel living a life much like those who live in Reality: he hurries through his day without seeing anything. He doesn’t even notice a singing sparrow, and he doesn’t see the point in doing or thinking anything. But as he journeys through the Lands Beyond, Milo learns to slow down, be curious, and take pleasure in all life has to offer—whether it’s the Word Market in a bustling city, or the rolling countryside. Finally, when Milo returns home, he finds that with these skills, he has no problem entertaining himself in his own bedroom and his own city. Through Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth shows that one of the best ways to thrive in the modern world is to slow down and see it as something inherently exciting, rather than seeing it as a means of getting ahead as quickly as possible.
Boredom, Beauty, and Modern Life ThemeTracker
Boredom, Beauty, and Modern Life Quotes in The Phantom Tollbooth
He looked glumly at all the things he owned. The books that were too much trouble to read, the tools he’d never learn to use, the small electric automobile he hadn’t driven in months—or was it years?—and the hundreds of other games and toys, and bats and balls, and bits and pieces scattered around him.
“That’s a ridiculous law,” said Milo, quite indignantly. “Everybody thinks.”
“We don’t,” shouted the Lethargians at once.
“And most of the time you don’t,” said a yellow one sitting in a daffodil. “That’s why you’re here. You weren’t thinking, and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.” And with that he toppled out of the flower and fell snoring into the grass.
Milo couldn’t help laughing at the little creature’s strange behavior, even though he knew it might be rude.
“Stop that at once,” ordered the plaid one clinging to his stocking. “Laughing is against the law.”
“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—”
Milo had never thought much about words before, but these looked so good that he longed to have some.
“Look, Tock,” he cried, “aren’t they wonderful?”
“They’re fine, if you have something to say,” replied Tock in a tired voice, for he was much more interested in finding a bone than in shopping for new words.
“Oh no,” said Milo seriously. “In my family we all start on the ground and grow up, and we never know how far until we actually get there.”
“What a silly system.” The boy laughed. “Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.”
“I suppose so,” said Milo, for he had never really thought about the matter.
“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”
“You see what a dull place the world would be without color?” he said, bowing until his chin almost touched the ground. “But what a pleasure to lead my violins in a serenade of spring green or hear my trumpets blare out the blue sea and then watch the oboes tint it all in warm yellow sunshine. And rainbows are best of all—and blazing neon signs, and taxicabs with stripes, and the soft, muted tones of a foggy day. We play them all.”
“Carry this with you on your journey,” he said softly, “for there is much worth noticing that often escapes the eye. Through it you can see everything from the tender moss in a sidewalk crack to the glow of the farthest star—and, most important of all, you can see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. It’s my gift to you.”
“Slowly at first, and then in a rush, more people came to settle here and brought with them new ways and new sounds, some very beautiful and some less so. But everyone was so busy with the things that had to be done that they scarcely had time to listen at all. And, as you know, a sound which is not heard disappears forever and is not to be found again.
“People laughed less and grumbled more, sang less and shouted more, and the sounds they made grew louder and uglier. It became difficult to hear even the birds or the breeze, and soon everyone stopped listening for them.”
“It doesn’t make me happy to hold back the sounds,” she began softly, “for if we listen to them carefully they can sometimes tell us things far better than words.”
“But if that is so,” asked Milo—and he had no doubt that it was—“shouldn’t you release them?”
“NEVER!” she cried. “They just use them to make horrible noises which are ugly to see and worse to hear. I leave all that to Dr. Dischord and that awful, awful DYNNE.”
“But some noises are good sounds, aren’t they?” he insisted.
“That may be true,” she replied stubbornly, “but if they won’t make the sounds that I like, they won’t make any.”
“But it’s all my fault. For you can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”
“How did you do that?” gasped Milo.
“There’s nothing to it,” they all said in chorus, “if you have a magic staff.” Then six of them canceled themselves out and simply disappeared.
“But it’s only a big pencil,” the Humbug objected, tapping at it with his cane.
“True enough,” agreed the Mathemagician; “but once you learn to use it, there’s no end to what you can do.”
“But that can never be,” said Milo, jumping to his feet.
“Don’t be too sure,” said the child patiently, “for one of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are. You see,” he went on, “it’s very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it’s there, but you just don’t know where—but just because you can never reach it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth looking for.”
“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.”
And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know—music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new—and worth trying.
“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.”