Dandelion Wine is the story of a summer, but it is also a story about people's lives and what it means to live. Douglas Spaulding is the central character in the book, and the great challenge that he faces over the course of the summer is coming to terms with life. First Douglas becomes conscious of the fact that he is alive. He had never really thought about this before, and his discovery provides him with pure joy. Douglas rejoices in all of life around him. However, much of the rest of the book involves Douglas coming to terms with what inevitably follows understanding that he is alive—understanding that he must die.
Life is in a very simple way inseparable from death, because they are what we see as the two opposite ends of existence, and the line between them is clear. Life only has meaning as long as there is death. But to a twelve-year-old boy like Douglas, who has just found out that he is alive, grappling with the idea of death is not so easy. Death will take away all of the magic that he has just found, and so he does not accept that it will come for him. But throughout the course of the book Bradbury shows us that death is not always a bad thing. Both Helen Loomis and Great-grandma Spaulding die content. They were able to die happy because they lived their lives the way they wanted to. We cannot go through life attempting to avoid death. On the contrary, Colonel Freeleigh willingly hastens his own death in return for feeling his blood rush through his veins and his heart beat like it did when he was young and full of energy. What is important is that we constantly drink in the magic of life.
Like Grandpa Spaulding, we must see the beauty in mowing the lawn and taste the savory flavor of weeds. Douglas gets extremely sick and almost dies before Mr. Jonas comes and gives him as a gift what he forgot that he had—life. The fight with mortality became terrible for Douglas because he refused to let it go. We cannot stop death, but once we admit that then we can live life to its fullest, neither taking it for granted, nor excessively questioning the beauty it brings.
It is not surprising that a book about a child's summer should have happiness as a major theme. However, given that the story involves coming to terms with death it is significant that there is not a single episode in the novel that does not have some manner of happy ending. Everything in life is happy. Douglas and Tom are almost always happy. Happiness is not so much opposed to sadness in Dandelion Wine as it is a default state. Life is enjoyable, so people should be happy. Even in the chapters that deal with the evil things in life, like the Lonely One and his encounter with Lavinia Nebbs, there are bright spots that remind us that the evil is only part of the picture. And, besides, Lavinia Nebbs kills the Lonely One. Colonel Freeleigh is happy as he dies, as is Great-grandma Spaulding. Leo Auffmann's Happiness Machine hurts his family, but in the end Leo knows that family itself is happiness. John Huff leaves Douglas behind, but he will have fond memories of his best friend.
Everything that occurs can be looked at as a blessing. But Bradbury is not saying that there are not sad things in life; he is not denying that evil occurs. Rather, Bradbury points out that there are always many beautiful and grand things occurring in life, from the cutting of grass and the bottling of dandelion wine to the love between Bill Forrester and Helen Loomis. And even in sad situations we still have so much around us that is beautiful and magical, so happiness comes naturally. Bradbury paints a picture of humans as essentially happy creatures.
The concept of change permeates Dandelion Wine. Douglas at some points feels that everything is changing over the course of the summer—his best friend leaves, people in the town die, Great-grandma dies. But Douglas has no way of making sense of all of the changes because he only truly became aware of his life at the beginning of the summer. He sees all change as bad because it leads away from the way things were. However, this is not necessarily the case, and part of Mr. Jonas's gift to Douglas is the knowledge of constancy in the world. The seasons come and go in a cycle, and summer does not last forever. Tom and other children tend to see things the same way because they do not see any progression occurring in their lives. Douglas becomes aware that there is such a progression and therefore any changes scare him. Grandpa Spaulding, on the other hand, is aware that even though times change they also remain the same. He understands, along with the other adult characters in the book, that life is a cycle. Because life itself is constantly moving, it appears that there are many changes, but life returns in a way to where it was before. So, while it is certain that everyone grows older, it is also true that as that process occurs you begin to see the change in life as a constant. At the end of the book, Grandpa Spaulding tells Douglas and Tom that at his age the days kind of blend together. Tom does not believe him and insists that he will always remember that day. But Tom lacks the perspective to be able to say what his grandfather can. Douglas, on the other hand, with his newfound understanding of life, begins to comprehend the constancy of some changes in life.
Memory has a recurring role in Dandelion Wine. Colonel Freeleigh becomes a Time Machine to the boys because his memory can transport them to places in the distant past. In the end of the book, Tom still believes that he can remember everything. Douglas believed that once, but John Huff showed him how difficult it is to remember even simple, important things. Memory is fallible, and we do not hold on to everything, but we do remember some things. After all, it is memory that makes possible the past. If we remembered nothing then we would have no concept of change, because we would have nothing to compare the present with. The entire book, we must come in mind, comes from Bradbury's memories, made "real" to us through his imagination. Certain characters in the book are given to much reflection, and their thoughts of the past make us wonder how much things really change. Although he is getting older, Grandpa Spaulding seems to live life very similarly to Douglas or Tom. Memory is also a way to combat some of the change in life, because we can remember people after they are gone. Great-grandma Spaulding will live on in the actions and memories of her family.
Magic permeates this story. The book begins with Douglas invoking his magic at the beginning of the first day of summer and ends with him doing the same at the end of the last day of summer. Magic is more than a part of life—it is life. There is no magic in the classical sense involving witches and monsters, and the only episode in the book that involves serious discussion of such magic is told in a very humorous way. It is the bigger magic that Bradbury focuses on, the magic of existence. Douglas begins to understand this magic for the first time on the day he realizes he is alive. On that day he understands that the magic that runs through the world runs through him, and that he is a part of the world. If this magic is everywhere, then it is not really anything more than an appreciation for the beauty of life. Hence Grandpa Spaulding tells Bill Forrester how spectacular it can be to mow the lawn. Hence a simple weed, the dandelion, can be turned into bottled summer. The magic is in life, and it is up to us to see it, appreciate it, and partake in it. If we do, then we will be thrilled with the happiness of simply living life.
The title of the book is Dandelion Wine, and so it is clear that the dandelion must have particular import. Bradbury uses the dandelion as a symbol of life itself. Cut down at the end of each month of summer, the dandelions return soon after, representing the cycle of life. Pressed into wine and bottled, the dandelion represents summer itself, and a drop of the drink brings the taste of magical life. The many bottles of wine, one for each day of the summer, represent the memories of events that have passed by, and drinking one is like remembering that particular day. The dandelion also symbolizes the magic of life, because it is a seemingly unimportant weed and yet it has such tremendous power. If from the simple dandelion comes memories, the cycle of life, and summer in a bottle, this makes it hard to deny the magic of life.
Machines are also present throughout Bradbury's novel, and they reflect the cycle of life. Douglas draws his conclusions about life through watching machines and people. The trolley stops running, the Green Machine is put away, and Leo Auffmann cannot invent a Happiness Machine. Nothing lasts forever, Douglas learns. Machines cannot be used to thwart human limitations either, although Douglas tries with a last ditch effort to have the Tarot Witch make him immortal. Machines are built, they run down, and eventually they are replaced. This is not a pretty metaphor for human existence, but if we add in an undetermined amount of time during which the machine runs well then it does come pretty close to describing the human life cycle. On the other hand, precisely because they do not last forever, machines may become a part of the magic of life. The lawn mower is magical to Grandpa Spaulding, and the trolley is magical to Douglas. They become an integral part of people's memories, and that way they do achieve immortality.