The Destructors Summary

In “The Destructors,” a young man becomes fascinated with a stately old house that has somehow survived the bombings of World War II.

  • T. is a member of a gang of boys in post-war London. He is normally quiet and unobtrusive.

  • T. becomes fascinated with the only house on his street that survived the bombings during the war. He asks the house’s owner, Mr. Thomas, for a tour, to which Mr. Thomas readily agrees.

  • T. convinces his gang to destroy the house while Mr. Thomas is on vacation, and after some initial reluctance, the boys undertake the demolition with prodigious zeal.

Summary

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Last Updated March 14, 2024.

Introduction

One of his most famous works, English writer and journalist Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” was first published in 1954 in the UK magazine Picture Post. It was then compiled in the author’s collection Twenty-One Stories that same year. Set in an unspecified area in London after World War II, the story centers on the Wormsley Common gang and their destruction of Mr. Thomas’ house.

Because of Greene’s conversion to Catholicism in 1926, some critics interpret “The Destructors” as mirroring the parable of Lucifer’s rebellion against God. Meanwhile, others see it as a tale of democratic socialism, capturing the spirit of the times following Churchill’s defeat by the Labour Government in 1945. Still, others consider it a conscious embodiment of Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchic aesthetics.

Plot Summary

“The Destructors” begins with the appointment of the new recruit, Trevor (or T.), as head of the Wormsley Common gang. Although many things about him invite mockery—such as his stuffy name, his architect father who had fallen in social rank, and his snobbish mother—his air of quiet ruthlessness has earned him respect among the members. Often meeting up in a bombed-out car park, the gang includes the former leader Blackie, Joe, Summers, and Mike, the youngest at only nine years old.

Near the car park is one of the only houses in the neighborhood to survive the blitz: number 3 of Northwood Terrace, occupied solely by Mr. Thomas—or “Old Misery,” as the gang calls him. One time, Old Misery handed Blackie and Summers packets of chocolate. While they accepted the sweets, the boys continued to bounce balls on his wall to prove that they “don’t take bribes.”

On the evening of the August Bank Holiday, Blackie suggests a contest of who could pinch the most free rides on public transportation. However, T. arrives and shares that Old Misery had toured him around his “beautiful” two-hundred-year-old home. Having learned that the old man will be gone for two days, he proposes that they break in and destroy the house from the inside. Although puzzled that T. does not want them to steal anything, the gang votes in favor of the plan.

T.’s exciting new plot deposes Blackie from his position as leader. However, he brushes his hurt feelings aside for the “pure, simple, and altruistic ambition of fame for the gang.” As instructed by T., the gang meets up the next day with equipment such as nails, hammers, screwdrivers, and saws. Blackie arrives late at Old Misery’s house and finds the rest of the gang already hard at work demolishing the interior.

In the evening, only Blackie and T. remain inside the house. The latter 

reveals that he had found bundles of pound notes in Old Misery’s mattress. Because T. refuses to steal, the two burn the notes one by one as a “celebration.” When Blackie asks T. if he hates Old Misery, he denies it, explaining that hate and love are nonsense—“There’s only things.”

The next day, the gang continues to wreck the house. However, a breathless Mike rushes in to inform them that Old Misery has arrived early from his trip—he is on his way home. Summers suggests that they leave, but T. pleads with the resigned members for more time. Luckily, Blackie supports T.’s wishes, restoring himself as the leader in the process.

Following T.’s orders, Mike hides inside the wooden shed in the garden that functions as a bathroom. He starts to shout for help upon hearing T.’s signal. Meanwhile, the latter rushes outside and intercepts Mr. Thomas, exclaiming that a boy is trapped in his loo. Despite his misgivings, the old man follows T. to his garden. Once he opens the door to the shed, the two boys quickly work together to lock him inside. Glumly, Mr. Thomas decides against yelling for help, as no one would be around to rescue him at this hour.

Mr. Thomas hears “hammering and scraping and chipping” from inside the shed. Now more united than ever, the gang continues to work together until the house is on the brink of collapse. At one point, one of them gives Mr. Thomas a blanket and some food—all deposited through the shed door’s star-shaped hole. When the old man pleads that he wants to “sleep comfortable” for the night, the voice responds that he would not feel comfortable in his home anymore.

The next morning, a man arrives to fetch his lorry from the car park. Upon attempting to drive out, however, the house behind him comes crashing down—someone had tied the back of his car to the already gutted structure. The driver hears sounds of distress coming from the shed and rushes to free Mr. Thomas. While the latter is mourning amidst the rubble, the driver cannot help but laugh at the remains of the once-dignified home.

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