Critical Overview

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Last Updated on April 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

Greene is considered one of the most important writers of his generation, although most of the criticism of his work focuses on his novels. Still, there are similarities between his novels and his short stories, such as his sympathetic portrayal of flawed characters, the degradation of the individual in the modern world, the need for moral compromise in certain situations, and the harsh realities of violence and cruelty. Greene’s writing style is also consistent among his novels and shorter works. Renowned English writer Evelyn Waugh describes Greene’s writing style in Commonweal as “not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry, and of independent life.” Perhaps this is why Richard Jones of Virginia Quarterly Review concluded that the key to Greene’s popularity is “probably his readability,” which attends to “the main business of holding the reader’s attention.” Waugh likens Greene’s style to that of the cinema, where the camera moves from one setting to another, settling on a character, surveying their surroundings, and so on. As a result, there is no direct connection made between the storyteller and the reader. Jones makes a similar observation: “[Greene] resorts to the tricks of the cinema—swift juxtaposition of scene, character, and tone—and is often, because of this, slick and ambiguous in his effects.” These techniques also apply to Greene’s short stories and are evident in “The Destructors.”

“The Destructors” is regarded as one of Greene’s most accomplished and important pieces of short fiction. In Understanding Graham Greene, R. H. Miller writes:

“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.

Critics often comment on the story within the historical context of the postwar era in England. Miller observes that the story reflects conditions in England in the postwar years when the gradual recovery ushered in unexpected shifts in social and political dynamics. Many communities (like the one in the story) lay in ruins, and once Mr. Thomas’s house is destroyed, Miller writes, “the landscape of Wormsley Common has rational consistency.” In Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography Volume Seven: Writers After World War II 1945–1960, Richard Hauer Costa observes:

By reversing every assumed value “The Destructors” flips innocence [represented by the boys] into an unaccustomed controlling position over corruption [represented by society]. Time and place—the World War II blitzkrieg of London—are ripe for it, and Greene makes the most of his opportunity.

Also examining the political landscape of the story, Neil Nehring of Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 162: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, asserts that Greene’s admission late in life that he had anarchist tendencies in his work should have been obvious in works like “The Destructors.” Nehring comments,

Anarchism is central to “The Destructors,” for the story’s thesis—“destruction after all is a form of creation”—is adapted from anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s famous line that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!”

On the other hand, Jesse F. McCartney of Southern Humanities Review sees the gang as symbolizing democratic socialism struggling against privilege and conservative politics.

Other critics are quick to note that the story resonates with today’s audience because what is disturbing in the story continues to be part of daily life. Nehring, for example, remarks that the story “certainly has an air of prophecy, and Greene’s prescience [foresight] in this case seems to be intentional.” Nehring adds that the actions of the Wormsley Common gang are only the beginning of the changes to come. Looking to the future, Miller notes, “ ‘The Destructors’ will remain a disturbingly powerful story and take on even more significance as time passes.”

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Essays and Criticism