Marnus is the main character in the novel, both as a young boy and as a young man. He narrates the main body of the book as his eleven-year-old self. Marnus is a nice, respectful child who believes in his parents, his country and his government. His best friend is a boy named Frikke Delport, whom he at first was afraid of and didn't much like, but after defending himself from Frikke's teasing about his big ears, the two became the closest of friends and ultimately genuine blood brothers. Unlike his older sister, Marnus is still of the age where he believes, without question, everything his parents tell him, and if he does have cause to question what they have said, he talks himself out of it. He idolizes his father and is extremely proud of him. He thinks his mother is the most beautiful, accomplished woman in the world. His feelings about his sister are slightly more complex; he loves her because she is his sister, but the majority of the time he does not like her very much.
Marnus feels that he has had an idyllic childhood in Cape Town, where they live by the bay. He loves fishing and is good at rugby, and also does well at his schoolwork. He is proud when one of his essays makes it into the end of year school review and this speaks highly of his potential. He has big shoes to fill because his father and his sister are renowned for their aptitude for everything and both have been Head Boy and Head Girl at the High School. Marnus wants a close relationship with his father and is devastated when he fails to reel in the shark he has caught in full view of both his dad and the General; his father is angry and has no patience for the boy's tears. It is devastating to Marnus to disappoint his father. His decision to never talk about the fact his father is abusing Frikke allows him to continue to have a strong relationship with his father; he simply does not see what he does not want to see.
As a young man, fighting another country's war against the common Communist enemy, Marnus shows himself to be a formidable and respected leader but a jaded one, tired of being used as a pawn in a game played by governments that he had no part in electing. He is ultimately killed fighting this war.
Frikke is Marnus' best friend, and later in the novel they become blood brothers. They tell each other everything, but Frikke does not tell Marnus that he is molested by Mr. Erasmus. Frikke is a troublemaker at school but nonetheless well-liked by the faculty, although he has a reputation for being a bully. He was bullying Marnus about his big, protruding ears when they became friends. Frikke is not as academically gifted as Marnus but is a far better rugby player, and it is believed he will go on to play for the Springboks, the South African national team. From the start of the novel we learn that Frikke is frightened of Marnus' father but it is not until the end of the book that the reason for this comes to light; he is being abused by him, and is unable to defend himself either physically or by telling someone. Marnus' father is so influential and respected in town it's unlikely that anyone would actually believe him.
At the start of the novel it seems as if Marnus' father is a good father who loves his kids unconditionally. He is proud of the fact he doesn't discipline them with physical force but by looking at them a certain way, or by using a certain tone of voice. He expects them to behave well, to work hard and to do everything to the best of their ability. He is a proud family man with enormous respect for his own parents and enormous resentment that their life in Tanzania was taken from them when rebel Africans stole their farmland. He is a patriot, not only for South Africa as a governmental entity, but also for the geography, the beauty and the memories from his childhood that he loves to share. He is an influential general and pillar of society who is thought to be destined for government. He is fervently anti-communist and is the liaison for many foreign leaders and politicians who come to South Africa in secret to try to align themselves against the communist threat. He is also incredibly racist, and fills his children's heads with his racist beliefs. He does not tolerate any argument or disagreement, forbidding his wife's sister to come to the house because she questioned his views and trying to stop his wife from seeing her at all. He is somewhat of an oppressive husband, controlling his wife. Marnus' father is attracted to young boys, encouraging Marnus to shower with him when he is well past the age of this being appropriate. He abuses Frikke Delport and knows that Frikke is powerless to stop him.
Marnus' mother was a well-known opera singer. She has a beautiful voice that is a pleasure to listen to and she is passionate about music. Her one rebellion against the fierce controlling ways of her husband is to play jazz music in the car when he is not with her; it is banned from the house. She also attempts to continue a relationship with her sister, also banned from the house for questioning Marnus' father's political views, but abandons this when her sister tries to show her that she is controlled by her husband. She is a loving mother who adores her children and wants them to represent the family well, but her sole identity even to herself is that of devoted wife. It is implied, however, that she has an affair with the General.
Ilse is Marnus' older sister. They love each other but do not have personalities that blend well and are often argumentative and irritable with each other. Ilse is musically gifted, playing the piano beautifully and singing, although her voice is not as pleasurable to listen to as her mother's. She encourages Marnus occasionally but they still have the childish competitiveness between them. Ilse travelled to Holland the previous summer and has come back with a sureness in herself that her teachers do not care for, and a habit of questioning things that adults say as if she is herself an adult. She is now starting to see that apartheid is wrong, and gets very upset when Little-Neville is beaten because he is black. She begins to talk back to her mother due to her burgeoning convictions.
Doreen is the Erasmus family housekeeper and has been with them for many years. Mr Erasmus feels that his wife is too generous with her and cuts her too much slack, resulting in ideas above her station and a confidence he dislikes, but Mrs Erasmus knows that a housekeeper with the loyalty and work ethic of Doreen is rare and should be held onto. Doreen is an excellent cook and this is chiefly why she is retained as a housekeeper. She also takes charge of the children when their parents are out. Doreen's son, Little Neville, is at the best Coloured school in the state and she has high hopes for his future.
Little-Neville is Doreen's youngest son and the apple of her eye. He is attends the best school for Coloureds in the state. He is a hard worker and has ambitions, such as becoming a minister. He is brutally set on fire by white trainworkers as he is waiting for the train to take him home at the end of the summer; he lives but is badly burned. Despite not being mentioned in the novel that much, he is actually an important and pivotal character, as the attack on him starts to change the way Ilse views the way in which the black Africans are treated.
The General (Mr Smith)
The General is a mysterious political or military figure from South America who is staying with the Erasmus family, but whose identity and purpose must be kept secret. The children are therefore instructed to call him "Mr Smith". He is an impressive looking, hirsute man with whom Ilse seems to be infatuated, leading Marnus to believe that the two must be having an affair. He is kind to Marnus and Marnus feels that he wants to impress the General, but is not sure why this is. The General has children of his own and is both encouraging and friendly. He is also very eager to learn about South Africa from Mr Erasmus' perspective. He, like the South Africans, fears communism. He is similar in appearance to Marnus' father which is why Marnus first believes it is the General who is molesting Frikke; however, the General has a large scar that runs the length of his back, and when Marnus sees him on top of Frikke, he realises the scar has disappeared.
The Delports' Coloured servant. Mum thinks she is too sassy and pretends she is white.
Dad's father and Marnus and Ilse's grandfather. Oupa was raising his son in Tanganyika when he realized he would need to get out before the troubles on the horizon manifested themselves, so he sold off his property. That, and the gold and rubies he and Ouma prospected, made him a rich man. He built the house on St. James Street in South Africa and later volunteered in the navy. He died in an accident at sea and his body was never found.
Dad's mother and Marnus and Ilse's grandmother. She came to South Africa with her husband and her son. She could never have any more children, and it was soon discovered that this was because the doctor left a pair of scissors in her after Dad's c-section. She decided to have an operation, but as this was not long after Oupa's drowning, she died under anaesthetic, most likely due to sorrow.
Marnus and Frikkie's teacher. She is pleasant enough, but is angry when she thinks Marnus has let Frikkie copy his work. She also adheres strongly to Afrikaners' superiority, which comes out in her teaching.
Martin and David Spiro
Two Jewish twin brothers Marnus' age whom he plays with when Frikkie is not around. Their father, Mister Spiro, is very rich and owns the petrol stations.
A young, red-haired Afrikaner girl from a poor family. Marnus and Frikkie mess with her a lot, but Marnus eventually decides this is cruel and they ought to be nicer to her. Mum is invested in Zelda because she herself was poor when she was growing up, so she tries to bring Zelda to certain cultural events, and Ilse gives her hand-me-down clothes.
A Coloured man who used to work for Oupa and Ouma, and then stayed on to tend the garden after they both died. Mum liked his work there, but was very upset when one day he just ran off and never returned. The family assumed he stole their fishing equipment as well. Marnus and Frikkie run into him one day, but he seems addled in the mind and keeps asking the boys for bottles. Marnus feels sorry for him but is disturbed by the encounter.
Mum's younger sister, who is only twelve years older than Ilse. She is more liberal than the rest of the family and Dad finally says she is not welcome in their house anymore. Mum still takes the children on secret visits to Karla, but one day the sisters get in an argument about Chrisjan, race, and how Dad oppresses Mum and Tannie Karla would never want to be married because of how she sees her sister's marriage. Mum claims Karla is a Communist and she does not want her children around her anymore. Karla writes Mum a letter from England but Mum refuses to read it. The children secretly open it and read Tannie Karla's exhortation to Mum about being open-minded.
Oupa's brother, Dad's uncle, and Marnus and Ilse's great-uncle. He stayed on in Tanganyika even after Oupa and Ouma left, but he eventually had to come to South Africa as well because the blacks said he needed to pay his debts on his land. He has a farm in Grabouw now where he grows apples.
A local Coloured fisherman with whom Marnus is friends. He says his ancestors came from Java, but Dad does not believe this. Jan often tells Marnus about how the whales are all gone because of the destruction of nature.
Brigadier Van der Westhuizen
An associate of Dad's and the General's. The General plans to go to the Brigadier's house at the end of his stay in South Africa.
The Smell of Apples Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Smell of Apples is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.