Mordecai Richler’s major theme in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is the price of success. He warns that this price can be very high indeed when one seeks success at any cost. The novel explores the origins of that need in Duddy. Even as a small motherless boy, Duddy was driven to win the attention of both adults and his peers. He particularly sought the admiration of his father, equating approval with the acquisition of money. It is easy to see why he believed this. After all, the much-praised Lennie was admired because he was going to be a wealthy doctor. In fact, the entire society equates wealth with importance and worth. The pride of St. Urbain Street, highly praised by everyone, is Dingleman, who made his fortune gambling and smuggling drugs. Duddy was only following in that pattern when, at twelve, he stole spare hockey sticks from the Montreal Canadiens and cheated American stamp companies. Later in the novel, the wealthy Jewish businessman Cohen tells him that every successful man has a dirty secret.
Duddy is not the typical materialist, however. He desires money because it will allow him to achieve his fantasy, to reach his grandfather’s goal. Duddy is a dreamer at heart. He has convinced himself that his resort will be a haven for his family and for Virgil and Yvette as well. When he accuses Yvette of betraying him after she refuses to forgive him for the theft, he is very serious.
An underlying theme of the novel is ethnic prejudice and class consciousness as it existed during the period. Duddy’s world is rigidly structured, and true friendship seldom exists between groups. The novel is filled with examples. Yvette’s family rejects her for associating with Duddy. The rich Gentile Calder gets upset when Duddy tries to promote a business deal, and Duddy is convinced it is because of anti-Semitism. Even Virgil’s attempt to form a union for epileptics underscores this point.