Douglas is the twelve-year-old protagonist of Dandelion Wine, through whose eyes the story unfolds. And make no mistake: This is Bradbury's own story.
Bradbury tells us in the book's intro, "Just This Side of Byzantium," that Green Town is a stand-in for Waukeegan, where he grew up. So in this book, then, we have the author attempting to make sense of what he learned about life and death as a child and how it gels with what he knows of life and death as an adult. Maybe that's why Lena Auffmann says to her husband Leo, inventor of the ill-fated Happiness Machine:
"The first thing you learn in life is you're a fool. The last thing you learn in life is you're the same fool." (13.129)
Bradbury, after all, would know.
Doug has an epiphany in Chapter 2: He's alive. And this realization is described so vividly that we suspect Bradbury must really have experienced it himself:
"I want to feel all there is to feel, he thought. Let me feel tired, now, let me feel tired. I mustn't forget, I'm alive, I know I'm alive, I mustn't forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that." (2.79)
Of course, the flip side of realizing you're alive is realizing you have to die. Doug starts a notebook to write down all subsequent epiphanies, which become increasingly grim. And he struggles with this, as evidenced by the fact that it takes him ten minutes to write out the words, "SOME DAY, I, DOUGLAS SPAULDING, MUST DIE…"(34.15). In his defense, it's a pretty loaded sentence.
Doug's coming to terms with his mortality represents Bradbury's attempt to do the same, which is one of the great things about writing books: Doing so helps you understand your own place in the world. Doug ultimately makes peace with the idea of death, as Bradbury must have, and as we all must eventually. And that's the great thing about reading books: Guys like Bradbury feel the things we feel, and they take the time to write them down so readers for years to come can find their own experiences reflected back from the page.
Doug is an imaginative, humorous, and insightful character. And he's so sincere that he's unintentionally funny. For example, he gets all excited about the word relish on a jar in his grandma's kitchen, because he's decided to relish being alive (39.10). It's the little things, yo.
Speaking of relishing being alive, Doug's so into this living business that his dream is to live forever. So whether he's running through the ravine in new shoes that make his feet feel faster, carrying heavy buckets of berries, or picking dandelions in his grandfather's yard three times every summer, Doug really feels his life as he lives it.
When you have a character who feels things so deeply, you get to feel them with him, and in Doug's case, this means reliving the wonder of childhood through his eyes. Like when he imagines that you could "pour one single drop of this dandelion wine beneath a microscope and perhaps the entire world of July Fourth would firework out in Vesuvius showers" (27.13). It's magical to think that way, and it's magical to revisit that kind of thinking through Doug.
As we already mentioned, though, with all this love for being alive comes a real understanding that life ends in death for our main dude, Doug. And Doug's keen, tragic awareness of his own mortality is both his greatest strength—it causes him to live life fully and urgently—and his greatest weakness, since it drives him to such a severe sickness that he, well, almost dies.
In Chapter 30, Doug worries himself into a state of exhaustion and contracts a fever so high that his parents put him outside under a tree to sleep at night in hopes of cooling him off. Mr. Jonas comes to visit and sums it up best when he says:
"A hot night, not a breath stirring, in August," he answered himself. "Killing hot. And a long summer it's been and too much happening, eh? Too much." (37.14)
Yeah… Doug worries himself sick. Literally. What can we say? He's a sensitive guy, and he's super tuned into the world around him.
Doug doesn't just mourn losing those he loves to death or distance (pre-Facebook, having your friends move to some far-away town was way more painful)—he also mourns the loss of the trolley for the bus and the breaking down of the fortune-telling mannequin at the local arcade.
Doug's reverence for the arcade is another reminder of how simple things were in childhood: "In the arcade, then, you did this and this, and that and that occurred. You came forth in peace as from a church unknown before" (34.55). When Doug saves the witch from the arcade owner who wants to destroy her because she's malfunctioning, and brings her home (34.160), we can see this as Doug struggling to let go of his childhood innocence, of him clinging to a time when he didn't feel the imminence of death the way he does now.
Hey—no one ever said growing up was easy. We're sure Doug would agree.