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.