Section 1: Close Reading

Patricia C. Johnson

Professor  J.E. Patten

English 112B: Young Adult Literature

May 15, 2000


Research Project: Dandelion Wine


Section 1: Close Reading


“Her hand trembled.  He felt the tremble…Why? But she was bigger, stronger, more intelligent than himself, wasn’t she?  Did she, too, feel that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching, malignancy down below?  Was there, then, no strength in growing up?  No solace in being an adult?” (42)


Step 1:  Figurative Language

The best example of figurative language in this passage is the image of the “unnamable” danger, the dread that comes out of the ravine as an almost physical force, affecting Toms’ safe and good “summer mood”, and chilling him to the bone. This image, which, through careful word choice on Bradburys’ part, brings to mind a creeping foe along the lines of Tolkeins’ “Gollum” and sets the tone of the entire chapter.

Step 2: Diction

Several words in particular assist the imagery of this passage.  “Intangible”, “groping”, and “crouching” all have connotations of darkness and blindness, and also call up the feelings associated with being lost in an unknown place.  Malignancy brings to mind horrific disease, or evil in the way a sorcerer would be. Definitions of these words appear below, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

Intangible: (adj.) 1. Incapable of being apprehended by the mind or senses.  2. Incapable of being defined.

Groping: (grope) (v.) 1.  To reach about or to feel one’s way uncertainly. 2.  To search blindly or uncertainly.

Crouching: (crouch) (v.) 1. To stoop with the legs pulled close to the body. 2. To cringe in a servile way.  3. To cause to bend low, as in humility or fear.

Malignancy: (malignant) (adj.) 1.  Showing great malevolence or evil.  2.  Highly injurious. 3.  Life-threatening: virulent (as in disease).

These definitions widen the meaning of the passage in some interesting ways.  If the menace that both Tom and his mother feel is “incapable of being apprehended by the mind or the senses”, it brings up some even bigger questions about what exactly the source of the fear is.  Of course, the ravine is wide, dark, and unknown.  There is also the painfully tangible fear of the serial killer, The Lonely One. The subsequent use of the words “crouching”, “groping” and “malignancy”, especially when read in a row without being contextualized within their sentences, brings to mind a very clear picture of a groveling, (perhaps drooling) dark and evil-eyed minion of hell.  In fact, Bradbury is quite free with his Ravine/Hell comparisons.  Word choice is crucial in bringing about the desired implications in the readers’ mind.

Step 3: Literal Content

 The two characters in this section are Tom Spaulding (Doug’s younger brother; Tom is ten years old) and his mother. They have gone outside on a warm summer night to look for Doug, who is late getting home.  They walk by the infamous “Ravine” near their home, where a dreadful personage known only as “The Lonely One” is supposedly lurking.  Tom is reacting to the fact that his mother is afraid – that her hand trembles in his!  He is struck with the realization (for the first time) that adults (parents as adults being the focus here) are not immune from fear.  He must face the truth that growing into an adult is not a total release from the heart-pounding terror children feel of “malignant” things that “grope” and “crouch” in the dark. 

Step 4: Structure

This passage describes action.  There is no discussion between Tom and his mother.  They are simply walking in the dark, hand in hand, and he has felt the physical manifestation of her fear: her hand trembles in his.  The rest of the passage is completely made up of his ruminations, his realizations, and his unhappy questions to himself and to the world at large.  This first-person form contributes to the meaning in that it accurately describes the path this boy’s thoughts are taking as he comes upon a none too heartening truth.

Step 5: Style

The main observation in terms of style that can be made in this passage is that all of the sentences, with the exception of the first one, are interrogative.  The second sentence is the biggest, most crucial and most popular interrogative sentence in the history of humanity: “WHY?”.  The ability to ask the question “why?” is perhaps one of the top three things that separate human beings from the animals. The fact that this question heads the list of questions that Tom is asking is significant, because it is universal and “bigger than he is”.  There is a helpless familiarity to the one-word question “Why?”, and every single person who has ever lived has asked it, (of themselves, of God, of the gods, of someone else) whether from a despairing, philosophical, angry, or (as in Tom’s case) completely flummoxed point of view. There is some separated alliteration, as in “stronger…strength…solace”.  Each of these words beginning with “s” has a meaning that relates to comfort and protection in Tom’s mind.  They can be contrasted with the repeated “m” sounds in “menace…malignancy”.  In these “m” words, Tom feels fear and the inescapable approach of the Unknown. 

Step 6: Characterization

This passage provides significant insight into Tom’s character.  He is technically a secondary character; his brother Doug (who is the semi-autobiographical representation of Bradbury himself) is the main character throughout most of the book.  However, through this passage the reader comes to understand not only some of Tom’s deepest fears, but also how he relates and fits in to the family as a whole.  There is little that we are shown about Tom and Doug’s mother, beyond short passages like this.  Both boys look up to her with the normal adoration of young sons for their mothers, which makes their realization that she is ultimately no less and no more than they are in terms of strength and humanity all the more wrenching.  As Tom asks himself this series of questions, mainly hinging on the fact that his mother is “bigger, stronger, and more intelligent” than he is, he shows himself to be just as observant and intellectually curious as his older brother, and just as afraid of this journey called “growing up”.

Step 7: Tone

The tone of this passage is dark and fearful.  The characters and the reader feel the same sense of being watched and of being hunted.  At the same time, Tom’s sense of pure outrage at his discovery that his parent is just as afraid as he is (despite her greater “intelligence” and size) comes through loud and clear.  Some irony comes out in the language, especially in Tom’s somewhat bewildered question: “Was there, then, no strength in growing up?”.

Step 8: Assessment

This passage gives significant insight into the work as a whole. Doug, in his careless but not malicious forgetfulness of time, allows the reader to see into the deepest fears of a parent and of a ten-year-old simultaneously.  Tom is characterized as a very intelligent, observant little brother, and he feels a certain sense of responsibility for his older brother, as well, which is unusual in terms of sibling relationships, considering he is the younger of the two.  This passage gives clarity to several of the important relationships in the book: Mother and Tom, Mother and Doug, Mother and Father, and the boys and Father.  Their roles extend, move and change in reference to each other and the context of the moment, just as relationships among people in the “real” world do.

Step 9: Context

This passage is part of a chapter that begins with a bit of foreshadowing: Grandpa reminds Doug, “Don’t get lost, son!” as the boy rushes out into the darkness of the ravine with two friends.  The tension builds as Mother begins to wonder where he is, and there are several instances in which she calls out from the porch, “Douglas! Doug?” then a line (to build tension), and finally a very short, ominous sentence: “Silence.”.  After Doug finally comes home (not, of course, realizing the panic he has caused), the chapter slides down what had been a rising peak of tension with Mother calling softly to the boys after everyone is in bed, “ ‘That’s your father.’ ”, and then the short declarative sentence, “It was.”   This (seemingly) simple sentence reflects the feelings of safety and peace that have gently returned to the house, and there is a sense of completeness in the family being together once more. 

Step 10: Texture

The structure, imagery, and figuration of the novel Dandelion Wine are all encapsulated rather neatly in the passage which I have chosen to explicate here.  There is a general building of tension in the passage that mirrors and echoes that of the novel as a whole.  The structure, a rambling first-person narrative form, is representative of the overall style of the novel. 

Step 11: Themes

Dandelion Wine in general explores themes such as the fear of the journey from safe, interesting childhood to unknown, “responsible” adulthood, fear of the unknown, the origin and elusiveness of happiness, family structure (the novel features a couple of brothers, a mother, a father, two grandparents and a great-grandmother in the Spaulding family alone), the randomness of violence, and the strength of love as it mixes joyfully with the overpowering beauty of life.  The passage in particular is representative of the rest of the novel in that, even in a few short sentences, it touches on the two most oft-repeated and important themes of the book: fear (in general), and growing up. 

Step 12: Thesis

One of the most traumatic and fearful realizations a young adult comes to is that his mother and father are bundles of weaknesses and failings along with their strengths and talents, and that truth makes parents just like all people, and most terrifying of all,  just like him.

Section 2: Questions and Answers

1.      List each member of the Spaulding family. Briefly describe important relationships among the family members.

Answer: The Spaulding family includes Mother, Father, Douglas (age twelve), Tom (age ten), Grandma, Grandpa, and Great-Grandma.  Doug and Tom are energetic boys who have just begun their summer vacation.  They have a very close relationship with each other – most notably, Grandpa oversees the making of the Dandelion wine, and Father takes the boys out on their hikes to gather berries and knowledge. There are also several boarders living in the Spaulding household.

2.      Discuss Leo Auffman’s “Happiness Machine”.  Does his creation bring happiness to those who try it? Discuss why or why not.

Answer:  Leo Auffman decides to make a “Happiness Machine”, and ultimately he creates a bright yellow box in which a person sits to experience “happiness”.  He tries to gather all exciting and pleasurable things and experiences and place them in this box to be felt by the occupant: travel, color, light, sweet smells, music, good food, dancing, knowledge.  However, it is a complete failure.  First, Leo’s son tries the Machine in secret one night and comes back into the house in tears.  Leo’s wife is furious with her husband for bringing this about – she was never happy about the idea in the first place – and Leo talks her into trying it herself.  Her initial reaction to the “journey” is wonderment and excitement, but she comes out of the bright box in tears.  In explaining to her husband, she tells him that the experiences shown to her in the box are bits and pieces of other people’s happiness, and did nothing for her but show her all she had NOT done, NOT seen, NOT tasted and NOT experienced.  She knew loss, loss that had never been loss to her before. She had been quite happy in her life of caring for her family and living this small town life, but in seeing the world’s temptations, pleasures, and titillations, she feels a sudden and overwhelming dissatisfaction with her life. 

3.      Illustrate at least two ways in which Doug and Tom intend to “preserve” their experiences of the summer.

Answer: Doug and Tom are intent upon “saving” some of the most important gems of the summers’ experiences, and they go about it in several ways.  Two examples of this are: the making of the dandelion wine, and the list they keep of “Firsts”.  In assisting with the making of the yearly dandelion wine, they feel that they will have a tangible bit of the summer left to enjoy when the snow falls and the wind blows again outside.  These bottles are kept safely in the basement, where they can be visited on the darkest winter evenings.   Secondly, Tom keeps a list of “firsts” for the summer: first swim, first ice cream cone, first grass tumble, and so on.  Through this list, he is attempting to savor and somehow keep the experiences of this particular season intact, so that he will never ever forget.  Both of these actions show the boys’ desire to hold on to the beauty of the summer, and to their youth.

4.      Explain the significance of the relationship between the children and Mrs. Bentley.  How does that relationship change?

Answer: Mrs. Bentley is a ninety-two year old woman who receives a visit from some young children one day.  They do not believe that she was ever young like they are, and are almost rabid on the subject.  Not only do they laugh at her when she tells them what a pretty young girl she was once, they are downright offended and hurt by her assertions.  Even when she brings out a picture of herself at about their age, they insist that she could have stolen the picture from someone, and refuse to believe that it was she.  After a long and sleepless night during which Mrs. Bentley examines her love of “saving”, “scrapbooking” and “collecting”, she meets the children the next day with a very different approach.  Having come to the conclusion that she needs to live in the present and discard the past like outgrown clothing, she answers the childrens’ questions about her by informing them that she was mistaken, she was “never young” and most decidedly “never pretty”.

5.      Infer from what you know about the respective ages and situations of Miss Helen Loomis and William Forrester what they believed about how their lives together could have been different.

Answer:  Mr. Forrester was in his early thirties, and Miss Loomis in her nineties.  They met and enjoyed an extremely fulfilling friendship on Miss Loomis’ front porch for the several weeks before her death. There was a deep spiritual understanding between them, and they both believed that their souls were somehow connected and would meet again in the future, hopefully at the right respective ages to carry on a romantic relationship, as opposed to simply a friendship alone.  This theme of the elusiveness of time and happiness corresponds perfectly with the chapter about Mrs. Bentley.

6.      Summarize your understanding of the “Lonely One”.  Make some likely conclusions about what happened to him.

Answer:  After the Lonely One had his last unfortunate run-in, we know that he was arrested and taken away because in a following chapter some of the boys are talking about the fact that he didn’t look anything like they expected him to look.  They thought, perhaps that he would be dark and sinister, and in fact he was short, blond and balding. 

7.      In the story there is an older gentleman who secretly calls a place and does what?  Name the person, the place he calls and what he does once he has been patched through?

Answer: Colonel Freeleigh calls Mexico City and once he has made the connection, he simply listens to the sounds and life going on on the other side of the world.

8.      Why does the person in question 7 do this?  Describe and interpret his nurses’ reaction when she finds him out.

Answer:  The Colonel wants to have a last taste (for he knows that he is near death) of that hot and lively existence in Mexico City.  It is fairly obvious that he has spent some time there in the past, and his friend Jorge who puts the receiver of the telephone near the window so he may hear everything is obviously aware of his indulgence.  The Colonel’s nurse is quite upset when she finds him out.  She threatens all sorts of things if she catches him doing it again, but he cannot stop himself.  The last time he manages to get through he passes away with the phone and the sounds of Mexico City Life buzzing in his ear.

9.      In the beginning of the novel, something is chasing Douglas.  What is it?

Answer:  The knowledge that he is ALIVE is chasing Douglas in the beginning of the novel.

10.  Explain why the knowledge that Douglas comes upon in the beginning of the novel is crucial to the rest of the novel as a whole.

Answer:  Douglas’s realization that he is ALIVE is crucial in relation to the rest of the novel because the novel is, as a whole, a poem and song in honor of the beauty (with troubles and horrors included) of life.  Some of the most important things that young adults must learn are that life is rarely fair, never perfect, and always perplexing.  On top of these truths, however, lies the realization that Doug comes to: we are each of us alive and under an obligation of sorts to make the most of it: that is, to act, to love, to take risks.  Everything else will follow.

Question Rationale (In Relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy):

Question 1 falls under the “Knowledge” competence in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and by asking it I would hope to verify the student’s thorough understanding of the important familial relationships among the main characters in the novel.

            Question 2 shows Comprehension on the part of the student of one of the main themes of the novel: happiness and its elusiveness.  In order to effectively answer the question, the student must have grasped this theme and understand why the Happiness Machine did not work.  In describing the well-meaning failure, I would hope to see an understanding in the student’s writing of the themes of experience, simple pleasures, and 

            Question 3 falls under the “Application” section of Bloom’s.  In answering it a student shows that he or she can use information in the story, information as seemingly simple as the fact that Doug keeps a list of “firsts”, for example, to refer to the themes of the story as a whole.

            Question 4 demonstrates the student’s skill in the Analysis area.  In answering the question, a student must show that he or she understands a particular exchange between some of the secondary characters and can explain its significance.

            Question 5 shows competence in the “Synthesis” section of Bloom’s.  The student should be able not only to draw conclusions about the unique relationship between Mr. Forrester and Miss Loomis, but also to relate knowledge from several areas of the novel.

            Question 6 shows understanding of the “Evaluation” section of Bloom’s.  The student should be able to draw conclusions about a situation in which the outcome was not clearly mapped out for them. 

            Question 7 refers again to the simple “Knowledge” section; see question 8.

            Question 8 takes up the theme of Question 7 but carries it further into the “Comprehension” section.  The student is now required to “translate knowledge into new context”.

            Question 9 asks a very simple “Knowledge”-based question, and really requires the student to have read the first chapter of the book.  However, it also demands a fairly close reading, because if he or she has just skimmed, there might be a simple recall of the facts but no true understanding, which is required for Question 10.

            Question 10 requires that the student “Analyze” the facts surrounding the experience of Doug finding that he is ALIVE.  The student must recognize the hidden meanings buried there and extrapolate from them some kind of truth.

Section 3: Developmental Issues

Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs is particularly relevant to this discussion of Dandelion Wine.  Children have, first of all, a need for physical well-being.  Doug and Tom are cared for in the very loving family that they have been blessed with.  This is the kind of family and most children only wish they could have had.  Not only is there a multi-generational support system (who is lucky enough to have known his or her great-grandparents?), but there is no uncertainty in the lives of these boys concerning where their next meal will come from.  The Spaulding family is certainly not extremely well-off, but they are able to provide the children with more than adequate food, clothing, and shelter.  These are details that do not seem important unless one is without them.  Unfortunately, children can easily become complacent about what they have been given, unless they are somehow made to understand the difficulty of a life without new clothes, a bed and bedroom, and a certain meal and mealtimes. 

Children perceive and begin to create their own ideas about relationships, friendship, and romance in relation to their need to love and be loved.  As they develop and grow into young adults, children either create or re-create the love and trust and understanding that they may or may not have found in their familial relationships. Since a child’s relationship with his various family members is his first glimpse into what a relationship is like in general, he will most likely model his behavior within his first relationship outside of the family on an internal set of behaviors.  Tom, for example, feels loved by his family, and in response he feels love and respect for them.  It is not difficult for him to express that same care and respect for people outside of the family who communicate with him or initiate friendships.  It is also interesting to note that he is a part of the “run-in” with Mrs. Bentley.  He is with two other children, who are each rude to Mrs. Bentley in their own ways, accusing her of lying about her past and stealing a picture of another little girl when she produces a photograph of herself in order to prove that she was once young. At the climax of the scene, in which the two girls run off with a ring and a comb that were Mrs. Bentley’s and which fit them perfectly, Tom calls to them to return the things, and they refuse.  He then stays long enough to apologize to Mrs. Bentley.  He sees that she is tremendously hurt and affected more by the insulting manner of the girls than by the theft of her trinkets.

            Children’s need to belong is also a crucial issue in Dandelion Wine.  Doug’s group of friends in particular is described in some detail.  In particular, Doug is close to John Huff, who moves away halfway through the novel, in a very traumatic and meaningful scene.  The boys are playing hide-and-go-seek and Doug commands them to “FREEZE!”.  John, with all the others, must freeze in place, and Doug is given a chance to see him – really see him – for perhaps the first time.  These groups of friends are important to any young person, and the loss of a member of the group with whom one particularly identified with is especially traumatic.  Another example of this idea within the novel can be seen in the case of Elmira Brown and Clara Goodwater  (of course, one can point out to the students the reference in the last name “Goodwater” to the witchtrials depicted, among other places, in the play The Crucible. They should also be aware of the common Puritan address “Goodwife”).  Although Elmira and Clara are not, of course, children, the same ideas can be seen very clearly in their behavior – Elmira wants very much to belong, to be seen as a part of the Club.  The chapter ends happily with her gaining a friend in one she considered her enemy, and children reading this might take from it some lessons about belonging, as well as another reiteration of the truth that adults go through some of the same complications and trials as young adults do.

The need to know, as described by Maslov, is shown here through the actions and thoughts of several characters, but particularly Douglas.  He starts the novel with the rather amazing and almost violent realization that HE IS ALIVE.  Again, this might seem like an obvious or painfully clear truth, but Doug comes to understand it principally through the interaction with his lively brother and his attentive father. 

Children’s need for beauty and order is the most important truth to be shown through this novel.  The style of the novel is written entirely for the benefit of the child who recognizes beauty and order to be of the utmost importance.

In general, development of the mind of the child into the mind of the young adult and ultimately, into the mind of the mature adult, are all explored in this novel.  The whole is seen as a journey, and yet adulthood is not presented as a state of being in which all questions have been answered and all doubts have been quieted.

Section 5A: Biographical Investigation 5 pages