“The Destructors” first appeared serialized in two parts in Picture Post on July 24 and 31, 1954, and then was published in the collection Twenty-one Stories the same year. Graham Greene said in the preface to his Collected Stories, “I have never written anything better than ‘The Destructors,’ ” yet he adds, “I remain in this field a novelist who has happened to write short stories” (Kelly, 97). The story, as does much of Greene’s writing, deals with class differences and violence.
“The Destructors” begins by introducing the reader to a group of children, the Wormsley Common Gang. The story is told in third person, following the gang mentality by not focusing on a particular point of view. The gang’s new leader is Trevor, whom they call “T.” T.’s father used to be an architect but is now a clerk. T. is able to blend into the group, despite his social class and name, which he announced as a “statement of fact, not as it would have been with the others a statement of shame or defiance” (7). The landscape of Wormsley Common in 1950s London is punctuated by the aftereffects of the Blitz. The gang meet in a carpark, next to a house that survived the Blitz when all those around it were destroyed. Mr. Thomas, or “Old Misery,” owns the house, which has fallen badly into decay. T. knows that Christopher Wren designed the house. None of the other children know who Wren is, displaying the class division between T. and the other members.
While Old Misery is away for the August bank holiday, T. proposes that the gang destroy the house, and the leadership changes hands. Blackie, the former leader, goes along with the plan only to gain fame for the gang. The children systematically destroy the house: cutting wires, smashing the bath, collapsing the self-supported spiral staircase. T. finds Old Misery’s savings in the mattress and insists on burning the notes one by one. The description of the ash raises images of religious services, as does the unleashing of a flood on the destroyed house. When Blackie asks if T. hates the old man, T. replies, “Of course I don’t hate him. . . . There’d be no fun if I hated him” (16).
Old Misery returns early the next day, and T. falters in his leadership. He is called “Trevor,” which could crack his authority completely. Blackie supports him, and the gang traps Old Misery in the outdoor lavatory. They toss him food and blanket as a sign that they do not want to hurt him, but they refuse to release him. The gang attaches a rope from a strut supporting the house to a lorry, so the entire house collapses when the lorry driver pulls away in the morning. The story ends as Thomas sobs over the demise of his house while the lorry driver laughs, “There’s nothing personal, but you got to admit it’s funny” (23).
The house functions as a symbol of old Europe, and the gang members react against the “misery” the previous generations caused them. The decay of the house represents the crumbling social structures of postwar Britain. While Trevor’s name sets him apart from the other children, his use of the word “beautiful” to describe the house most strikingly demonstrates how different he is from them. His rage at the house can be seen as a backlash against his own class. As his father created houses, T. destroys them. Greene comments, “Streaks of light came in through the closed shutters where they worked with the seriousness of creators— and destruction after all is a form of creation” (15).
Greene, Graham. Twenty-one Stories. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1981.
Kelly, Richard. Graham Green: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Miller, R. H. Understanding Graham Greene. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Watts, Cedric. A Preface to Greene. London; New York: Longman, 1997.