The main theme of the novel is racism, but this is a rather over-simplified view of the theme. Racism is viewed in the novel in two different ways: firstly, as a government and social policy, dividing people by race and color (not just "black" and "white", there was also an additional categorization of mixed-race, or Indian, people as "coloureds") and broadly covered by the umbrella of Apartheid; and secondly, as something that is indoctrinated in the home, where children are effectively "brainwashed" into believing what parents and other authority figures tell them about the differences between the races. One of the best examples of this is Marnus' statement that the blacks have such different blood to the whites.
Societal racism is seen in many ways as Marnus describes both his childhood and the geographical locations of his home. For example, we are constantly reminded that there are different schools for Coloureds, and that within these schools there are also very different standards of education provided. Doreen's son, Little Neville, goes to what is likely the best of these schools and so has at least a chance of a better future than his siblings. We also learn that there are black and white parts of town, and that the children rarely interact with each other.
Racism that is gained from experience is also mentioned; Marnus' grandparents were exiled from their home in Tanzania and ran for their lives, because guerilla soldiers were systematically murdering whites and taking their homes. This is also racism—the Africans did not care whether or not the people within these homes were good to them or not, had worked hard for their homes or not, all that they saw was white people and that is what instigated the murders. Because Marnus' father witnessed this first hand, he believes the black Africans to be a murderous and savage people, views he has gleaned from experience.
The theme of indoctrinated racism in the book is the most insidious as it is very easy to see from Marnus' opinions that he does not have any real reason for thinking that blacks and whites are different, but has just taken on the opinions that he has been told to have. He does not realize that it is because of racism that Doreen, their housekeeper, is destined to life in service of white families, but believes her to be very lucky because his family treats her much more fairly than many of his friends' families. He genuinely believes the differences between the races to be not merely skin color, but basic physiology, imagining that coloreds are actually a different species all together. He also tells the reader that they are very stupid—America took all of the smarter black Africans and left the hopelessly unintelligent ones in South Africa for the white people to have to deal with. Another way in which it becomes clear that the racism is indoctrinated into children is the way in which Ilse, Marnus' sister, seems to be starting to question what she has been told. Although she does not dare to question her parents about the viewpoints, she does seem to "go quiet" when opinions that she does not agree with are spoken.
It is not actually clear until the end of the novel that child abuse has been a theme all the way through as the author does not drop the bombshell about Frikke's abuse by Marnus' father until the final pages of the book. However, we are able to look back at what we have read and realize that many of the events and observations within it point to abuse; Marnus' father seems to take an unusual and rather inappropriate pleasure in showering with his young son and questions him in detail about his penis. When the showering together is first described in the novel it seems like a father-son tradition that is possibly something that Marnus should have outgrown. But after we realize that Marnus' father is an abuser, the description of him soaping Marnus, and asking the same of his son in return, is actually very disturbing. We also realize that the reason Frikke is said to be deathly afraid of Marnus' father is a foreshadowing of abuse and an indication of his being groomed for said abuse, rather than that Dad is simply big and authoritarian as suggested at the beginning of the novel.
Abuse of Women
Although Marnus' father does not physically abuse his wife, he is extremely emotionally abusive and it seems apparent that Marnus' mother is afraid of him. She is pathetically obedient, for example, only playing jazz in the car because he does not like it in the house, and agreeing not to have her sister visit the house as her views offend her husband. Although she does try to secretly visit with her sister outside of the home, any criticism of her husband is seen as threatening and she eventually cuts all ties with her sister. Isolating a woman from her loved ones is a classic indication of abuse. Marnus' mother is also always subservient to her husband, and her entire day is geared to making his day easier. There is no argument in the home between them because she never stands up for herself; his word is law. Marnus tells the reader that his father does not ever feel the need to physically discipline his children because he can look at them in a certain way that instills discipline and fear and immediately brings them into line; it is this "look" that he also uses on his wife.
Fear of Communism
During the periods of time that the adult Marnus is at war—"fighting another country's war against the Communists"—it becomes clear that the fear of communism that has been fairly ubiquitous throughout his childhood has been ramped up and is actually causing South Africa's youth to be sent to fight communist attackers in neighboring nations. The fear of communism has been used as an explanation for keeping Coloureds in their place, as many of the black African countries are run by communist dictatorships, and Marnus' father often exhibits anger because the British have left the South Africans to fend for themselves against the communists and have effectively run away. This fear of the spread of communism is also reflected in other countries at that time in history, and so the theme is not just a local one, but a global one.
Mirrors and Doubles
There are numerous uses of mirrors in the text, which reinforce the doubling that Behr plays with. Dad and the General are doubles in their political affiliations and physical appearance. Marnus and Frikkie are doubles, as Dad beats Marnus across his buttocks (in what is essentially a symbolic rape scene to Frikkie's actual rape scene). As they get ready together in Mum and Dad's room, Dad and Marnus look in the mirror together, showing that Marnus is mirroring his father as he grows up. At the end of the novel Marnus, whom the General described as a "carbon copy" of Dad, stands before his father so the epaulettes can be pinned on him. Rita Barnard calls this a "resonant and sinister instance of mirroring." The mirroring and doubling suggest the claustrophobic environment of apartheid-era South Africa, in which similarity and conformity are stressed.
Innocence and Experience
Marnus' narrative seems, on the surface, to be an account of childhood innocence. His life is filled with friends, adventure, loving parents, holidays, light-hearted squabbles with his sister, and a rich connection to his personal and national history. However, his childish tone and his naivete belie the rot and the darkness at the heart of his family and of his country. Even though Marnus isn't fully comprehending of everything that he sees or experiences, his experience is being slowly chipped away. He has to acknowledge his mother's infidelity and his father's sexual predation of his best friend. He grapples with Tannie Karla's banishment from the family, the horrors of what happened to Little Neville, and other uncomfortable aspects of apartheid (Chrisjan's behavior, Ilse's growing recognition of its immorality, etc.). Marnus' innocence is corrupted by the place where he lives and the people who perpetuate its cruelty.
Most of the characters in the novel have secrets, and such secrets are almost always harmful to them and/or to others. Mum cheekily tells Marnus that everyone has their little secrets, but hers—listening to jazz music when Dad isn't around, visiting Tannie Karla when she's not supposed to, and sleeping with the General—are evidence of her oppressive marriage. Dad's secret is that not only is he homosexual or bisexual, but he is a child molester. The General is enigmatic and no doubt possesses his own personal secrets, and both he and Dad engage in military and diplomatic secrecy. Marnus ultimately upholds the power of secrecy when he decides he will protect what he knows about Dad and Frikkie; this emphasizes the fact that secrets can be poisonous and powerfully oppressive, helping to retain the status quo of authority, patriarchy, and nationalism.
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.