Through her characters and their relationships, DiCamillo poses several themes. Opal, as well as each of the other characters, is confronted with issues such as love, loss, and friendship. Brought together, the characters gain wisdom and valuable lessons about what it means to hold on, to let go, to listen, and to share. Ultimately, Opal discovers what is really important.
Opal is a frank, funny, lonely little girl who fears upsetting her father. But with Winn-Dixie at her side, she decides to ask him about her mother who left them. She then memorizes what her father tells her because, as she says, "I wanted to know those ten things inside and out. That way, if my mama ever came back, I could recognize her, and I would be able to grab her and hold on to her tight and not let her get away from me again."
Opal's need is not just to hold on to the memory of her mother, but to have her own fears calmed, to know that she is safe and loved. Because her father is so preoccupied with his work and his own hurt, he does not recognize the kind of reassurance his daughter desperately needs. As she watches him with Winn-Dixie during one of the dog's fits, Opal tells the reader, "I loved the preacher so much.... I loved him because he was going to forgive Winn-Dixie for being afraid. But most of all, I loved him for putting his arm around Winn-Dixie like that, like he was already trying to keep him safe."
Throughout the story, Opal expresses her loneliness and her need to have someone to hold on to. She talks to God about being lonely; she adopts Winn-Dixie because he does not "belong to anybody;" and she takes him everywhere because being "left behind probably made his heart feel empty." Opal relates to this because she feels the same way. Her need to hold on to her mother's memory is strong, and she searches for ways to do it: memorizing things about her, collecting stories she hopes one day to tell her, and trying to be good so that no one else will leave her.
Opal's new friends hold on to things, as well. Miss Franny holds on to her library and the Littmus Lozenge candy to remind her of the past because all her friends and family are dead. Otis keeps his music to himself for fear of being returned to jail. Gloria Dump hangs her empty whiskey bottles on a tree so she does not forget past mistakes. Amanda, holding on to the pain of losing her little brother, shuts herself off from other people. And, finally, the preacher holds in his emotions, fearful, too, of losing again if he loves too much.
But Winn-Dixie shows them the way to let go of their pain. DiCamillo uses the dog to teach the other characters what they must hold close. But, like the Littmus Lozenge with its blend of sweetness and sorrow, these people must first learn to accept that life holds both joy and pain and consists of both holding on and letting go. Miss Franny learns that she does not have to be lonely in her library full of books. She learns that sharing her stories can bring companionship. Otis, by sharing his music with others, gains self-confidence and friends. Amanda eases her sorrow over her brother's death by allowing other people to be her friends. Gloria, by sharing the wisdom she has gained, also gains friends and helps others discover what is really important. Opal learns about...
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letting go when she loses Winn-Dixie. "I was supposed to hold on to him," she says. But Gloria Dump replies, "There ain't no way you can hold on to something that wants to go, you understand?"
Searching frantically for Winn-Dixie, Opal and her father come face to face with reality when the preacher says, "it's time to give up." In her desperation, Opal blames him for giving up on her mother, for letting her mother leave. Fortunately, Opal recognizes her father's hurt and fear in his response, and she also recognizes his very deep love for her, which was all she really needed to know. Despite his role as a catalyst, Winn- Dixie also discovers a new way to react to his own fears and, in the process, teaches Opal one more important lesson: letting go does not mean losing.