Analysis of the Destructors by Graham Greene

When first reading “The Destructors”, by Graham Greene, one might think they are simply reading a tale of childhood mischief. However, like all valuable stories, there are deeper connections that must be made in order to understand the author’s motives. “The Destructors” tells the story of a gang of kids who aim to tear down an old man’s house. This is a bit disturbing; it is not something most kids would spend their free time doing, and starts to give the idea that the story is a depiction of something greater. Indeed, as we will discuss, Greene is using his characters to portray a microcosm of post-war Britain. Specifically, Greene targets two central themes within this microcosm. The most important is the transition of attitudes over generations. We will see that this transition is a harmful one, and this is due to Greene’s second concept of the destructive nature of mankind. The combination of destructive tendencies and this transition provides the reader with the story’s ultimate message: human attitudes are nearly impossible to change over time, and war can create a cascade of destructive generations to come.

To establish this message, Greene employs the use of an allegory. The story itself is not just representative of the words on the page, but something much more important. In this case, characters may be symbolic of particular people in society, but more accurately, the view into the character’s lives as children is symbolic of what they will become as adults. The conflicts that the characters undergo will be conflicts that they manage as adults, but on a different scale. For instance, the main conflicts for the kids are how to tear Old Misery’s house down in the most efficient manner, and who should be in charge of the initiative. As will be discussed further, this can be translated as tearing down a country in war, and selecting a general for troops. To the kids, the conflicts probably seem like games, but due to the allegorical nature of the story, we can see that when these kids mature, these same games will be reality.

To analyze this story completely, the best method is to view the story as it develops scene by scene, rather than through individual characters. This method works best since the story is symbolic as a whole more than it is of any character. As the story opens, we learn of the Wormsley Common Gang, a group of boys that meet in a parking lot every morning. The text mentions that this parking lot is the site of the last bomb of the blitz, and that the leader of the gang, Blackie, claims to have heard it. However, the rest of the gang doesn’t realize that the last bomb dropped when Blackie was one year old. From this we gather critical information to start our analysis. The blitz refers to the 8 month long bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany in World War II, which ended in May of 1941 [1] . We gather that Blackie is the oldest of the group, probably around 16. So that would place the story in post-war London around 1956. Thus, a transition is taking place with these children, who are too young to comprehend the war, but who are growing up in a state of disarray of their country.

Next, we are introduced to the newest member of the gang, T, who is typically silent at meetings. However, the children note that there were, “possibilities about his brooding silence” signaling that T may be contemplative, and a potential strong force later in the story. He speaks up one morning, mentioning that, “Wren built that house.” The house he refers to is that of a man the kids call Old Misery, and was one of the only houses to escape the bombs. Christopher Wren was an architect that, as T mentions, built St. Paul’s Cathedral in London [2] . This is a crucial piece of information because St. Paul’s also miraculously escaped bombing during the war. Knowing this, we clearly establish that Greene is using the house and kids to represent the war. We also obtain details about Old Misery. His real name is Thomas, and he is an elder that was once a builder and decorator. Thomas was a man who built houses, and made them to look beautiful, but that beauty was lost in the war. The aspect to note here is that Thomas has experienced beauty and ugliness in his life, but the kids have only grown up in dreariness. This is proven when Blackie responds to T’s comments with, “who cares?” With the exception of T, who seems to be more intellectual than the rest, the kids are growing up with the mindset that life is miserable, and destruction is the only option.

In the next scene, we learn more about Thomas. Thomas meets up with the gang in the lot one day, and gives them some candy he doesn’t want. The gang is confused by this because they only see him as a mean old man. They begin looking for reasons that he might have done this, because they don’t see that Thomas is actually a nice person. Once again, they are growing up seeing the world as bitter. They think that Thomas is trying to bribe them to stop throwing balls at his wall, so they “don’t take the bribe” and throw them all day. Of course, Thomas doesn’t say anything, because he appreciates their innocence. To him, the kids represent the life he had as a child. The fact that the kids call Thomas, “Old Misery” is ironic, because they are actually more miserable than he is.

The next day, the kids learn that T had been to Thomas’s house. Moreover, they are astonished that T didn’t break in or steal anything while there. The kids are only concerned with doing wrong to others, and can’t believe it when T says the house was beautiful. This term completely escapes them; nothing is beautiful to them, and they immediately disapprove of T saying it. We start to think that perhaps T is the point of hope for the future; he is smart and seemingly more appreciative of life than his peers. However, this changes quickly. T mentions he found out that Thomas would be leaving town on holiday the next day. The gang switches back to accepting T, as there is now the potential of stealing things while Thomas is gone. T, however, has bigger plans; he wants to destroy the house. The kids initially think he is joking, but when they learn he has a legitimate plan of action, they are on board. Not only that, but they also declare T as their new leader.

Initially, T’s actions seem to contradict his character. The beacon of hope that he first seemed to show is now gone. We first think that T appreciates beauty, but now he just wants to destroy it. From this, we can say that he recognizes beauty as something he never had, and wants to take it away from Thomas. T has intelligence, but he is using it to be devious and destructive. T is much like Hitler in this respect; he is smart, demonstrates strong leadership, and will use these strengths for evil. With Thomas leaving town, it leaves the kids to themselves, almost in control of the town. This is effectively showing the transition of ideas from young to old. The actions of the boys while Thomas is gone will stem from what they have been taught. Consequently, the boys have already chosen a leader to take them into destruction, much like the generation before them. The scene ends with some more symbolism. Blackie is considering leaving the gang since he has been overthrown. As the story says, he comes back because of the attention that the gang might obtain, but this really isn’t true. He comes to stand in the “shadow of Misery’s wall” which really means that he is standing in the shadow of something beautiful, something he never knew. He is back because he wants to take away the only beautiful thing left in Thomas’s life.

A next point of analysis comes from the youngest character, Mike. As Blackie sets a meeting time, Mike says he has to be at church at that time. We can see here Mike’s innocence and purity. However, the next morning he does arrive on time due to the fact that his mother was ill, and father was “tired after Saturday night”. Mike’s parents tell him to go to church alone, but why would he? His mother and father both make excuses not to go to church, making it seem like a chore. Mike will just do as his parents do, and meet with the gang.

The next point in the story begins the methodical demolition of Thomas’s house. This isn’t just destruction for destruction’s sake, it is meant to dismantle the house, much like the bombings of the blitz were meant to dismantle Britain’s war economy. The kids are meticulous, tearing up everything they can besides the wall. By the end of the day, we see that the inside of the house was completely in shambles. Everyone had worked hard, even Mike, who cut all the electrical switches. We see here how Mike, as a na¯ve kid, is giving up his innocence to the boys. He is a follower, and isn’t smart enough to think about why he is tearing up this house. He is much like citizens of a country that simply follow an authoritative leader’s goals, in effect, German citizens.

An important moment happens at the end of the scene, when T and Blackie burn Thomas’s savings. Blackie originally thinks to steal the money, but T wants to burn it. T is motivated strongly to take every last thing away from Thomas. Blackie asks T if it’s because he hates Thomas so much, to which T replies, “All this hate and love, it’s soft and hooey. There’s only things, Blackie.” We see here how the aftermath of war has affected the kids. They never had anything positive in their life like Thomas, and resent him for that. Their emotions are limited to hate because of their current situation, and thus, will only continue to worsen things for future generations. Thomas may have some hope that the kids will return things to the old ways. This is false hope, as the next passage mentions a boy’s parents driving out of town despite signs of harsh weather. They hope to escape to Brighton, a fancy town on the sea. This is symbolic of the parents’ greater hope that things will improve for Britain; but as the harsh weather suggests, their children will neglect this improvement.

The next day, the destruction of the interior continues to completion. One boy, Summers, asks, “Why did we even start this?” He, like the others, is simply driven by the authority of T, and not by any true motive. The kids begin to flood out the house, just as they learn that Thomas is coming back early. When Summers suggest they have done enough, T replies, “No we haven’t. Anybody could do this.” He knows that leaving the walls would leave the opportunity for the inside to be rebuilt, and possibly made even more beautiful than it was prior. The house that remains with only walls clearly depicts the infrastructure of Britain’s economy. After the blitz, the core of the economy was destroyed, and could have been rebuilt. However, the bitterness and destructive nature of mankind is exemplified in the gang. The gang will tear down the remaining walls of the house, much like they will neglect their economy when they become older. They have no desire to rebuild the beauty of England because they never experienced it. The house could be a place where the kids see how beautiful Britain was, and motivate them to have that for themselves one day. Their decision to tear the rest down parallels their ultimate neglect of Britain itself.

The story progresses and T is rattled by the thought that his plans might not fall through. His leadership is lost, as the gang sees T is cracking under pressure. They need someone to lead so that their efforts can continue. Blackie is the only one with experience and takes charge. Thomas is arriving, and the kids arrange a plan to divert him away from the house. T runs urgently to Thomas, telling him that a boy is stuck in his loo. T actually convinces him not to go into his house first, and has Thomas climb over his garden wall. Although Thomas says that “it’s absurd,” the fact that he climbs over seems to represent the ultimate transition of generations. Thomas isn’t really in control any more. He is clinging to his house, the only thing he has left of his good memories, but the kids, the new generation, will soon take that from him. Thomas anticipates the loo’s door will be locked, but upon giving it a hard pull, finds it isn’t, losing his balance. With the door opened, the kids push Thomas into the empty loo, take the key, and lock the door. Old Misery is now out of the picture. As he sits in the loo, Thomas realizes that there was only one car in the lot, and everyone was out on holiday. No one will hear his cries for help; he is in a sense, the last of the old Englanders, and the fate of his house now lies in the hands of the next generation. As the scene ends, Thomas realizes that even if he did call for help, not even his enemies would hear him. His enemies, now, are the kids. Thomas is beginning to see that the kids will not be able to bring back the old splendor of England; they are enemies just like the German’s who bombed his country.

The boys diligently continue to dismantle the house until it is completely gutted. Mike, the youngest, was the only one not present, for he had gone home to bed. Mike is blissfully unaware of what is happening. He is friends with these boys likely because they live in his neighborhood. He doesn’t necessarily feel any strong conviction to tear down the house, but does so because he wants to fit in with the crowd. Thus, in Mike, Greene shows how these kids will negatively affect future generations, as well.

With the job nearly finished, the boys leave for home, but not without first checking in on Thomas. They bring him blankets and food to last him through the night, and this is kind of Kevorkianesque. Although Thomas may not die, his house which represents everything that he stands for is about to. The boys bringing him some comfort seems to act as a way to ease the pain that is about to be caused. The next morning, the owner of the lone car in the parking lot arrives. The driver heard faint screams from Thomas, but did nothing to investigate. The driver here represents the unwillingness of the current generation to fix anything after the bombings. As the driver pulls away he is startled when he feels his car seem to be pulled from behind, and is then pounded with an avalanche of bricks and stones. Getting out, he sees that a rope was tied to the back of the car to Thomas’s house, and had pulled it to the ground. The fact that the driver was the one that pulled the house down and not the kids is the ultimate significant point in the story. Greene does this because the driver’s generation is really responsible for teaching the gang’s generation that beauty doesn’t exist. His generation did nothing to attempt to rebuild the city after the bombing, and hence, the superpower that was Great Britain was conceded to Russia and the United States. The immediate generation following the blitz was subjected to living in unfair conditions, which accounted for a lack of love and pride in any area of life. Although the kids were the ones who planned the destruction, it was really a consequence of those who taught them there was no hope.

When the driver hears the screams again, he fetches Mr. Thomas from the loo. Even though Thomas is clearly and understandably distraught, the driver actually laughs at him, saying, “I can’t help it, Mr. Thomas. There’s nothing personal, but you got to admit it’s funny.” These words, “there’s nothing personal,” appear for the second time in the story. The first time we hear them is when T brings Thomas food, but won’t let him out of the loo. The ultimate point being made is that the destruction isn’t personal to anyone except Mr. Thomas. He is the only one who seems to remember England for what it used to be. In this microcosm, the house represented the only part of the England of old. Now that it is gone, no one will ever be able to understand that life could be more meaningful than they live it now.

On the surface, the title “The Destructors” seems to be chosen simply because the gang in the story destroys Mr. Thomas’s house. However, it is chosen on a more meaningful level. The story is allegorical, and so is the title; the ”¹…”destructors’ are the overall destructive nature of man. Yes, we can say that the kids were destructors in the story, but from where did their destructive nature stem? The parents of these children had to live through the blitz bombing of their beautiful country. As a result, they became disparaged and bitter. Instead of any effort to rebuild London, the city was left in a deteriorating state, and the kids grew up without any concept of true beauty. However, why would the German’s bomb England? They saw the kind of wealth and pleasure the British had, and wanted to take it away out of pure hate and greed. An interesting transition is created here. Before the war, the German’s despised London for what it was, and destroyed it. After the war, the kids that grow up in London despise it for what it is, and actually want to destroy any part of London which represents the life that they missed. Now these kids are spiteful, and display the same destructive traits which caused their country’s current condition. Through the use of allegorical elements Greene is effective in portraying on a small scale what was occurring on a large scale in England, and “The Destructors” is a story which reminds us of the horrible effects of war, the destructive attitudes that result from it, and how difficult it is to break these attitudes over generations.

[1] “The London Blitz, 1940,” EyeWitness to History, (2001).

[2] “BBC – History – Sir Christopher Wren.” BBC – Homepage . N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2011.