In Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors,” in bombed-out post-World War II London, a group of boys known as the Wormsley Common Gang destroys the house of Mr. Trevor (a.k.a. Old Misery) as an elaborate prank. Their motivations for demolishing the elderly man’s home, however, vary according to different characters.
Trevor, the group’s newest member, is from a higher class family that has “come down in the world.” Formerly an architect, Trevor’s father is now a clerk; his mother snobbishly looks down on her neighbors. Trevor—who has qualities of “brooding silence,” and “danger, of the unpredictable”—commands the respect of the boys who dare not mock his name. Known to them as “T.,” he is not the official leader of the gang but wields his influence to convince the others—who seem intimidated by his upper-class knowledge and haughty or “haw-haw accent”— to destroy Old Misery’s home, which survived the Blitz.
To T., Old Misery’s home represents the former social status and fortune enjoyed by his parents. Like T.’s father, Old Misery is educated and once held a creative career as a builder and decorator. When T. invites himself inside to see the house, he notes fine objects like the antique paneling and the two-hundred-year-old corkscrew staircase held up by nothing but opposing forces. T. tells the gang, “It’s a beautiful house” and looks away, licking his lips with scheming incited by envy.
T’s motivation for destroying the house seems to be jealousy of Old Misery’s status and fine material possessions (like china, glass, pillows, parquet, ornaments, etc.) and resentment, with the ensuing desire to annihilate and erase another person’s chance at reclaiming beauty. T. wants to destroy the edifice completely because
Walls could be preserved. Façades were valuable. They could build inside again more beautifully than before. This could again be a home.
His purpose is not to steal or express hatred, but to make the point that objects and money—T. burns Old Misery’s cash—are “only things.” It's also a way to wield power over the other boys in the gang (T. challenges Blackie the leader by convincing the others to follow his plan).
He is almost trancelike in his machinations as if “he were absorbed in some dream he was unwilling—or ashamed—to share.” In fact, he feels like a wronged child and forms the mission to destroy the house.
It was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his fifteenth year crystallized with the pain of puberty.
Yet when this scheme is disrupted by Old Misery’s early return home, T. reacts like a petulant child, whining, “It isn’t fair.” He also loses command over the gang and relinquishes power back to Blackie.
The gang members, on the other hand, are motivated to destroy the house out of their desires to follow T., have fun and avert boredom (after all, they were going to steal free bus rides for amusement instead), and express animosity toward Old Misery. For example, when Old Misery offers them chocolates, the boys do not know how to react; they wonder if the chocolates were found or stolen. Not wanting to be controlled, they show Old Misery that they cannot be bribed by relentlessly bouncing a ball on his wall. Finally, the demolition of the house offers the boys purpose as they work diligently dismantling everything.
Blackie, the leader, is motivated by possible fame for the gang. Even though he sees “the hollowness of T.’s leadership,” he concedes that T.’s plan would bring the Wormsley Common Gang great notoriety.
[It] would surely reach around London. There would be headlines in the papers. Even the grown-up gangs who ran the betting at the all-in wrestling and the barrow-boys would hear with respect of how Old Misery’s house had been destroyed.