Themes and Meanings
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.