In Graham Greene's short story The Destructors, how does this quote relate to one of story's themes: "we are thrilled by wanton destruction. . . . . spectacles of mayhem. . . . are fun,...

In Graham Greene's short story The Destructors, how does this quote relate to one of story's themes: "we are thrilled by wanton destruction. . . . . spectacles of mayhem. . . . are fun, artistically rich and possibly even good for the soul."

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Graham Greene’s story of a group of young sociopaths cold-bloodedly planning and executing the total destruction of an elderly man’s beautiful old home – a home Graham’s central character Trevor, “T,” remarks was designed by renowned architect Christopher Wren – reflects a society for which total destruction is a way of life.  The Destructors takes place soon after the end of World War II, when the enormous physical damage inflicted by German bombers and, in the war’s later stages, by Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 rockets, was still the dominant feature of London’s landscape.  Greene’s gang of youths from poor families (even T’s family has fallen on hard times as a result of the war’s carnage; Greene’s narrator notes that his father was a “former architect and present clerk [who] had ‘come down in the world’”) grew up during the war, when wanton destruction of their surroundings by total strangers was as much a part of life as eating and sleeping.  Greene’s narrative provides early glimpses into the milieu into which these boys were born:

“The gang met every morning in an impromptu car-park, the site of the last bomb of the first blitz. . . On one side of the car-park leaned the first occupied house, number 3, of the shattered Northwood Terrace— literally leaned, for it had suffered from the blast of the bomb and the side walls were supported on wooden struts. A smaller bomb and some incendiaries had fallen beyond, so that the house stuck up like a jagged tooth and carried on the further wall relics of its neighbor, a dado, the remains of a fireplace.”

The boys in the gang have no concept of boundaries such as are generally associated with proper civilization.  Their existence revolves around plotting ways to commit petty crimes.  When the newest member of the gang, T, arrives, with his broader ambitions, he is catapulted to the top of the gang’s hierarchy.  T exhibits no indications of being possessed of any moral boundaries, and is committed to acting on his worst impulses.  The old man, Thomas, pejoratively labeled “Old Misery” by the boys who routinely gather near his home, presents an easy target.  A somewhat gruff and distant man, Thomas is, nevertheless, not without redeeming qualities.  He only wants to be left alone, but treats others with respect when respect is shown him.  He is by no means cruel, and offers the boys chocolates he has purchased at the store, a kind gesture met with derision:

“I got some chocolates,” Mr. Thomas said. “Don’t like ’em myself. Here you are. Not enough to go round, I don’t suppose. There never is,” he added with somber conviction. He handed over three packets of Smarties. The gang were puzzled and perturbed by this action and tried to explain it away. “Bet someone dropped them and he picked ’em up,” somebody suggested. “Pinched ’em and then got in a bleeding funk,” another thought aloud. “It’s a bribe,” Summers said. “He wants us to stop bouncing balls on his wall.” “We’ll show him we don’t take bribes,” Blackie said . . .”

So influenced by the brutality of their young lives – what, after all, was more brutal than the German Blitz intended to bomb England into submission and, eventually, simply to exact revenge for Germany’s imminent collapse (recall that the “V” in Germany’s V-1 and V-2 rockets stood for “vengeance”) – these boys are unable to comprehend simple acts of kindness unaccompanied by expectations other than a simple “thanks.”  So hardened, in fact, are these miscreants that they reflexively suspect T of softness for applying the word “beautiful” to Thomas’s house:

“The gang had gathered round: It was as though an impromptu court were about to form and to try some case of deviation. T. said, “It’s a beautiful house,” and still watching the ground, meeting no one’s eyes, he licked his lips first one way, then the other. “What do you mean, a beautiful house?” Blackie asked with scorn.

“What did you do it for?” Blackie asked. He was just, he had no jealousy, he was anxious to retain T. in the gang if he could. It was the word “beautiful” that worried him—that belonged to a class world that you could still see parodied at the Wormsley Common Empire by a man wearing a top hat and a monocle, with a haw-haw accent. He was tempted to say, “My dear Trevor, old chap,” and unleash his hell hounds. “If you’d broken in,” he said sadly— that indeed would have been an exploit worthy of the gang.

Blackie and the others need not have worried, however, as T’s ambitions for the house are as apocalyptic as were Hitler’s ambitions for much of the world: “I don’t want to pinch anything,” T. said. “I’ve got a better idea.” “What is it?” T. raised his eyes, as gray and disturbed as the drab August day. “We’ll pull it down,” he said. “We’ll destroy it.”

The quote in the student’s question -- "we are thrilled by wanton destruction. . . . spectacles of mayhem. . . are fun, artistically rich and possibly even good for the soul” – has its origins in the evolution of violent video games that incrementally could desensitize addicted youth to the realities of violence.  Greene’s gang is thoroughly, hopelessly desensitized to violence.  Providing a blanket to Mr. Thomas, who they’ve locked in his outhouse while they proceed with the destruction of his house, one of the boys explains, “There’s nothing personal. . .We want you to be comfortable.”  Okay, there is a glimmer of humanity remaining among these boys; the wanton destruction of the war, however, has immunized them to the violence that is now a part of their subconscious.  

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