Greene’s narrator is selectively omniscient. Although the reader is made aware of the internal doubts and anxieties of Blackie, the deposed leader, the inner workings of T.’s troubled mind remain closed. The narrator is also decidedly neutral and uncensorious in the general treatment of this focal character. To proponents of the tradition represented by the objects T. destroys, this child seems the very essence of evil. Greene, however, offers nothing to suggest anything other than a mysterious amorality that is cold, implacable, and generally inexplicable, although he piques curiosity with oblique references to T.’s background and mental state. When Old Misery suddenly returns home and threatens the enterprise, T. protests this unforeseen complication “with the fury of the child he had never been.” Earlier, T., who generally looks down when he speaks, proposes the destruction of the house to the incredulous boys with “raised eyes, as grey and disturbed as the drab August day.”
Prior to T.’s membership in the gang, its members’ preoccupation was with adolescent mischief, such as stealing free rides on public transportation. T., however, is decidedly unchildlike and becomes the instrument that destroys not only the house but the group’s collective innocence. The pleasures of their previous childhood preoccupations are forever lost to them. T. has taken them abruptly from innocence to experience, summarily depriving them of a gradual but essential learning process. In this regard, T.’s actions are presented as more the product of fate than malevolence.
The economy of description in character development is characteristic of Greene’s writing. Extensive graphic detail and character background are all but nonexistent, but there is enough to make the reader more than willing to supply the missing dimension.
Greene demonstrates the instability of postwar England in his presentation of opposing forces throughout “The Destructors.” The tension created by these forces reflects a society that has survived trauma but is deeply changed by it. Social dynamics are undergoing change, and the youth no longer feel connected to the past, as previous generations did. Greene’s writing often incorporates paradoxes, and in this story, paradoxes are used to communicate the atmosphere of the community in which the Wormsley Common gang functions.
Greene’s use of paradox in the story is evident in T.’s attitudes toward Mr. Thomas. On the one hand, he sets about destroying his house, treating him disrespectfully, and regarding him with suspicion. At the same time, however, T. does not hate him. His intention to destroy Mr. Thomas’s life is not personal but is rooted in his desire to get rid of the last vestige of traditional beauty in the war-torn landscape. Although his destructive behavior is not personal, the consequences are deeply personal for the old man, but T. is unable to consider such consequences. A related paradox in the story is when T. takes Mr. Thomas’s seventy one-pound notes, but not for personal gain. Instead, he takes them only to burn them. In other words, T. takes items that are inherently valuable, but he has no interest in making use of that value. T.’s attitude toward Mr. Thomas’s house is paradoxical, too. He knows the house is beautiful, but his feelings about beauty, especially as they relate to social classes (the house is an emblem of the upper class) makes it easy for him to destroy it anyway.
Another example of paradox is in the truck driver who ultimately brings the house to its final destruction. While the reader expects this man to react with feelings of guilt or horror, he laughs. He has no part in planning the...
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destruction, nor does he have any feelings toward the old man or what he represents; yet, his reaction is not what is expected. He lacks sympathy or compassion and bursts into uncontrolled laughter, saying, “You got to admit it’s funny.”
Beneath the surface of “The Destructors” are allegorical elements that enable Greene to comment about postwar England. The various characters in the story represent the older generation and the traditions of the past and the younger generation and its rejection of the empty promises and values of the past. Mr. Thomas stands for the old ways and the past belief in the authority of elders. He initially expects to be able to tell the boys what to do and what not to do, simply because he is older than they are. In the determination to destroy Mr. Thomas’s house, the work of a respected English architect, Greene demonstrates that the longstanding class struggle, as represented by property, is intensified. The lower class, represented by the gang, is not satisfied to watch the upper class enjoy valuable property; instead, they succeed in destroying it and somehow achieve a closer balance between the haves and the have-nots.
The story is also an allegory about power. T. joins the group and soon takes the power away from Blackie. Once he has secured power in the group, he immediately initiates changes by raising the stakes of what kind of mischief they will seek. T. becomes a sort of dictator in the group, giving orders and making unilateral decisions. In the wake of World War II, these are disturbing images of a new generation of power-hungry young people emerging from the wartime experience. Readers may interpret this as a message about the price of war or as a warning of what may come if something is not done to reverse current trends.
The reader’s first impression of “The Destructors” is that the story is a simple chronicle of senseless violence and wanton destruction carried out by thoughtless, unprincipled adolescents. Graham Greene’s story, however, is actually a metaphor for class struggle in English society in the decade following World War II. The tension between working-class Britain and the upper-middle-class society that had absorbed all but the last vestiges of the nobility had surfaced dramatically in the years following the previous world war. These years were marked by repeated challenges, both social and political, to the established order of an empire in decline. Old Misery’s house somehow survived the battering of a second great war, as did the monarchy and the entrenched class sensibility of British society. The house, however, is considerably weakened, held in place by wooden struts that brace the outside walls. In its fragile state, it needs support, as does the political and social structure that it represents. It cannot stand as it once did, independent with the formidable strength of the British Empire. The interior, although a trove of revered artifacts of civilized European culture, nevertheless represents a tradition that is increasingly meaningless to the lower classes.
The members of the Wormsley Common gang—who significantly are twelve in number, like the apostles of the New Testament—are forces of change, agents subconsciously representing quiet, methodical revolution. Their demolishing of the house is painfully systematic. The boys work with steady persistence on their enterprise of destruction. They work, paradoxically, with the seriousness of creators. As Greene’s narrator asserts, “destruction after all is a form of creation.”
T. and his followers represent the extremes of nihilism, the philosophical doctrine that existing institutions—social, political, and economic—must be completely destroyed in order to make way for the new. In the context of nihilism, the destruction of Old Misery’s house is both positive and necessary. T., whose nihilism is intrinsic to his distorted personality, makes it clear that he feels no hatred for old Mr. Thomas; like a true nihilist, he feels nothing, rejecting both hate and love as “hooey.” For someone with such a dangerously warped sense of mission, T. is also curiously ethical and high-minded. When he shows Blackie the bundles of currency discovered in Old Misery’s mattress, Blackie asks if the group is going to share them. “We aren’t thieves,” T. replies; “Nobody is going to steal anything from this house.” He then proceeds to burn them one by one as an act of celebration, presumably a celebration of triumph over the currency that more than any other entity determines the distinctions of social strata in postwar Great Britain. The truck driver, with his reassurance to Mr. Thomas that his laughter is nothing personal, reflects the position of the underclass: utter indifference to the sacrosanct values of tradition and civilized society.
The modernist period in English literature began in 1914 with the onset of World War I and extended through 1965. It is a literary period that reflects the nation’s wartime experiences (World War I and World War II), the emerging British talent of the 1920s, and the economic depression of the 1930s. Toward the end of the period, literature and art demonstrate the nation’s growing uncertainty, which became especially pronounced after World War II; this uncertainty would give way to hostility and protest in the postmodernist period.
During the early years of the modernist period, the foremost fiction writers were E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and Somerset Maugham. One of the major accomplishments of this period was the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a work that continues to be respected as a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature. In the 1920s and 1930s, the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh were harshly critical of modern society, expressing an attitude shared by many English men and women of the day. In the 1930s and 1940s, novelists such as Greene wrote traditional fiction that was well-crafted enough both to stand up to innovative fiction of the day and to gain a wide and loyal audience.
Many writers of this period (Greene included) were born at the turn of the century, near the end of the Victorian age. These writers were reared in an environment of Romanticism, which often meant leading a relatively sheltered childhood that left them ill-prepared for the realities of adult life. This background, combined with events of the first half of the twentieth century, led writers such as Greene to question the values of their past and to reevaluate the world in which they lived as adults. This reevaluation is seen in Greene’s fiction as he explores morality and creates characters who possess the capacity for both good and evil.
During the 1950s in England, the reality of organized groups of teenagers set on being disruptive and disrespectful caused public concern. Known as teddy boys, these groups of boys banded together in the name of delinquency and destruction. In many ways, they were the precursors to the modern-day gangs. These groups of boys are regarded as products of the postwar society in which they lived, having been exposed to violence and instability as children.
The teddy boys got their name from their choice of attire; although they were generally working-class boys, they chose to wear Edwardian-style suits traditionally worn by young upper-class men. This suit, commonly known as teddy style, combined with the delinquent behavior of its wearers, caught the attention of the press. The teddy boys were not just creative in their delinquent behavior; they also made irreverent changes to their suits, such as adding bolo ties, that they had seen in movie Westerns.
“The Destructors,” along with two of Greene’s other short stories (“The Basement Room” and “Under the Garden”), was adapted as a television series in England in 1975 by Thames Television. The series included thirteen episodes.
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McCartney, Jesse F., “Politics in Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors,’ ” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1978, pp. 31–41.
Miller, R. H., “Short Stories, Plays, Essays,” in Understanding Graham Greene, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 149–76.
Nehring, Neil, “Graham Greene,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 125–39.
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Waugh, Evelyn, “Felix Culpa?,” in Commonweal, Vol. 48, No. 14, July 16, 1948, pp. 322–25.
Bloom, Harold, and William Golding eds., Graham Greene, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 1992. Noted literary scholars Bloom and Golding explore Greene’s life and career in this installment of their Modern Critical Views series. Besides reviewing Greene’s biographical information, the editors examine Greene’s body of work, commenting on themes, style, and influences.
Cassis, A. F., ed., Graham Greene: Man of Paradox, Loyola Press, 1994. This collection of fifty-seven essays and excerpts includes writings by the author, interviews, and writings about Greene by others, all of which give the reader a sense of what kind of man Greene was personally and professionally. Topics covered include writing, Catholicism, and the writer’s role in modern society. Contributors include Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess.
Thomson, David, England in the Twentieth Century, 1914–1979, Viking Penguin, 1990. Thomson provides an overview of world events of the twentieth century (including both world wars, the depression, etc.) as they relate to England, in addition to reviewing important domestic issues and events. Thomson’s study stops just short of Margaret Thatcher’s career as prime minister.