Douglas is the most important character in Dandelion Wine. The novel is the story of his summer. Douglas is a twelve-year-old boy who faces many challenges and changes over the course of the season. He loves the magic of summer and early on he realizes that he has become conscious for the first time of being alive. Douglas feels tremendous joy and appreciation for all of life. However, this realization of what it means to be alive carries with it a dark side: Douglas also must come face to face with the concept of death. The battle in the book is his attempt to come to terms with life.
Douglas is inquisitive and pensive, and although he does not understand the process of growing up, he quickly begins to see links between the events of the summer. Douglas thinks things through and draws conclusions based upon what he knows. However, he is also willing to revise his conclusions when events disprove them. He reasons out his own mortality based upon his observations that nothing lasts forever—neither machines nor people can outlast time. Despite the cold nature of this rationalization, Douglas is still very much a kid, and he wants to believe in things like magic, the Lonely One, and witches. Because of his urge to believe in the fantastical, Douglas is unwilling to admit that he has to die. The realism of death threatens to take away his belief in magic. At the end of the book Douglas is able to reconcile his love for life with an understanding of death. He sees that the magic is everywhere, which the magic is living itself.
Although the events of Douglas's summer seem far from ordinary, the changes that he goes through are ones that everyone must face. Douglas's story is that of every child, for at some point we all stumble upon the certain truth that we are mortal. The time and circumstances of that discovery are not as important as the result. Douglas does not simply decide that life is worth living. He comes to the conclusion that life is magical. Douglas may be Bradbury's ideal response to the dilemma of mortality. In the end, although he is more mature in many ways, Douglas still retains the happiness of a child, a happiness that life itself inspires.
Tom is Douglas's ten-year-old brother. Tom is not in the same position as his brother, because he is not yet truly cognizant of his own mortality. They both share a love of summer magic, but, unlike Douglas, Tom never has to question that magic. Tom provides a unique perspective. He and Douglas often partake in the same activities, but while Douglas is forced to evaluate them in terms of the bigger picture that is slowly becoming critical to him, Tom is free to evaluate things on their own level.
Although he is younger than Douglas, Tom sees things that his brother does not. Tom senses people's emotions extremely well, and he understands Douglas pretty well, even though Douglas is often slightly confused by Tom. Unlike Douglas, as the summer goes on Tom does not draw connections between the events. He continues to live completely as a child, and yet sometimes he thinks of things that none of the older characters come up with. Tom is a perfect example of the creativity of children. Because he lacks the larger framework that Douglas is struggling with, and that adults have fully in place, Tom is not forced to think within that framework. Tom is able to think things that would seem perfectly ridiculous to the other characters but to him seem completely reasonable.
Tom is also very kind and content. Many times life can be wonderfully easy for little kids, because they are happy living each day on its own terms, and Tom goes through summer with hardly a worry. It is not that important things do not affect Tom but rather that he does not worry about what cannot be changed, unlike many adults. There are a few events in the summer that have a great impact on Tom, but they do not cause him to re-conceptualize the way he understands the world.
There is a reason that Grandpa Spaulding gets along so well with his grandchildren, and that is because he is very much like them. His love of life is as great as that of Douglas or Tom, and since he is more eloquent he is better able to share that love. In some ways Grandpa Spaulding is the most amazing character in the book. For Tom or Douglas to love life is no big thing, because almost everyone recalls the joy of childhood. For an old man like Grandpa Spaulding to take so much pleasure in life is astounding. He brings home the point that life is magical. Whether it is through pontificating with Bill Forrester about the philosophical solitude and solidarity with nature achieved in mowing the lawn, or discussing the features of dandelion wine with his family, Grandpa always seems amazed by the world. He has managed to live his life without losing his childish wonder for the world. Grandpa Spaulding has been through Douglas' trials but still retains much of Tom, and his contentment may be Bradbury's demonstration of what can be expected at the end of a life lived well and full.