This story combines both commercial and literary elements. The commercial, or popular elements are those which make for a compelling story, with vividly-drawn characters, a shocking central event, the tense build-up of conflict, and a strong sense of place. These are the aspects that are likely to appeal to most readers, who will buy the book to read the story – hence the term 'commercial' to describe this kind of writing. Greene wrote many stories and novels of this nature, featuring, among other things, gangsters, fugitives, doomed passions and conflicts. His ability to create strong, suspenseful plots also saw him venture successfully into cinema, providing the screenplay for two of the most celebrated British films of the immediate post-war period, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (based on his short story ‘The Basement Room’).
However, Greene was not just a popular, commercial writer. His work is also literary, in the sense that it goes beyond surface meanings to reveal deeper truths about human nature and society. On the face of it, ‘The Destructors’ is simply about a gang of boys who set out to destroy a centuries-old house just for the sake of it, traumatising the house owner in the process. On another level, though, the story can be taken as a wider comment on what was happening in Britain just after the second world war, a particularly grim time for the country with its economy ravaged, social displacements and bombed out streets in many of the big cities. Society appears fractured and the setting is bleak.
The story shows how the war adversely affected the boys; they have grown up in its immediate aftermath, in a time of austerity and hardship and the grim realities of conflict and destruction. As a result, they have known no beauty in their lives. When they do see something beautiful, like Mr Thomas’s house (which in spite of having suffered in the war-time bombings, retains its air of old-time elegance), they set out to destroy it so systematically that nothing of it will be left. They represent the new generation who care nothing for the traditional civilised ways of old England, as represented by Mr Thomas’s house, built in a bygone, more genteel era. The effects of two world wars have given birth to a new and grimmer society, as represented by the gang. The story can also be regarded as an allegory of the innate destructive tendencies of human nature in general and the failure of civilization to counteract such tendencies (compare William Golding’s Lord of the Flies).
The story, then, is not just a tense, dramatic narrative, it also functions on a more sophisticated literary level in its exploration of psychological, social, and cultural realities. Its literary elements are at least as important as its more popular appeal; it can readily be approached on either level.
I tend to view Greene's work as an example of literary fiction. The thematic implications of the short story move it past the parameters of commercial fiction. There are significant and profound themes which emerge from the work and speak to the larger condition of what it means to be human. In this idea that it asserts themes and ideas of "literary merit," Greene's short story can be seen as literary fiction.
"The Destructors" speaks to the creative and destructive dynamic that exists within human beings. The need for the boys to find some creative outlet which is itself an act of destruction is a significant part of the work. What the boys do has no directly transcendent purpose. Instead, it is one in which their own flaws become revealed. The excitement with which the gang follows T. and then the malaise that sets in as a result of it helps to illuminate a fragmented human condition. Such an idea is not meant for a commercial output, or intended to generate wealth through writing. Rather, the story's predicament has a statement to make on what it means to be human. It is here in which critical appreciation of the work moves it into the realm of literary fiction:
‘The Destructors’ may be Greene’s best story and perhaps one of the finest in the language. It has all the qualities that have come to be expected in the short story: focus, compression, pace, and that element of surprise, that epiphany that brings one to recognizing a powerful truth. It works as both parable and allegory, parable in the sense that it is a narrative in a relatively contemporaneous setting that makes a clear moral point, allegorical in the sense that it ‘signifies’ on several levels.
The allegorical notion of the story as well as its moral point that helps to enhance its meaning are ways in which it fulfills the understanding of literary fiction. It is not really a commercial piece because of Greene's direction intention within it: "‘The Destructors’ flips innocence [represented by the boys] into an unaccustomed controlling position over corruption [represented by society]." Greene intends to make a statement about innocence and what it means to be young. He wishes to make distinct statements about the corruption within society and within human beings. The ending is not one where there is an affirmation of commercial and consumerist notions of the good. The ending of "it's nothing personal" as the lorry driver uncontrollably laughs is more literary in scope. Greene's short story is more intended to be a work appreciated for its literary merit.
The intention of "The Destructors" aims to make a statement about what it means to be human. The themes revealed and the manner of illuminating these ideas helps to enhance such a statement. As critics believe the work to be one that "will remain a disturbingly powerful story and take on even more significance as time passes," it becomes clear that "The Destructors" is more a work of literary fiction than one of commercial purposes.