“The Destructors” is about a group of teenage boys who call themselves the Wormsley Common gang, after the area where they live. They meet every day in a parking lot near a part of town that was bombed during World War II. Almost everything in this area is destroyed although one house stands with minimal damage. This house is owned by Mr. Thomas (whom the boys call Old Misery), an old man who lives alone. One day, the gang’s leader, Blackie, suggests that they spend the day sneaking free bus rides. T. (whose full name is Trevor) has another idea. He has been inside Mr. Thomas’s house and suggests that the boys take advantage of the old man’s upcoming two-day absence to demolish the house from the inside. T. becomes the gang’s new leader. When the boys meet at the appointed time the next morning, T. has already organized his directions for the boys to demolish the house. By the end of the day, the house is in shambles: the floors are torn up, the fixtures are smashed, the electrical cords are all cut, and doors are destroyed. After everyone but Blackie has left, T. shows him “something special,” Mr. Thomas’s savings of seventy one-pound notes. T. explains that he and Blackie will burn the notes one at a time to celebrate. After they are finished, they go home. The next day, the boys meet again at the house to complete the destruction. They take out the staircase, demolish the inner layers of wall, knock down the floors (it is a multi-story house), and flood what is left. Before they are finished, one of the boys runs in and announces that Mr. Thomas is on his way home. Mr. Thomas was not expected until the next morning, so T. locks him in the outhouse until morning. Not wanting to physically hurt the old man, the boys give him a blanket and food. The next morning, a driver starts up his truck, and as he pulls out of the parking lot adjacent to the house, he hears crashing. At first he is confused, but then he realizes that his truck was tied to a support beam of the gutted house, bringing it down. The driver lets Mr. Thomas out of the outhouse, and although the old man is devastated, the driver cannot stop laughing. He explains that it is not personal, but he thinks it is funny.
Before T. becomes the leader of the Wormsley Common gang, Blackie is its head. He is described as a just leader who is not jealous and wants to keep the group intact. He also distrusts anything having to do with the upper class. As the gang’s leader, Blackie suggests such activities as seeing how many free bus rides they can sneak and breaking into Old Misery’s house without stealing anything. When the gang sides with T. instead of Blackie, Blackie initially feels betrayed and privately sulks. He then decides that if the gang is going to succeed in the feat of destroying the house, he wants to be a part of it for the fame. Once he rejoins the group, he is fully committed to T.’s leadership and to contributing to the destruction of the house. In fact, when the gang’s confidence in T.’s leadership falters, Blackie pulls the group back together. This demonstrates that the group as a whole is more important to him than the personal glory of being the leader.
At the end of the story, an unsuspecting driver finally brings down the house. The driver’s truck is tied to the gutted house so that when he pulls out of the adjacent parking lot, the entire house crumbles. At first, the driver is astonished and confused, but once he realizes what has happened, he responds with a fit of laughter. Even when Mr. Thomas faces him and asks him how he can laugh, the driver is unable to control himself.
Joe is a member of the Wormsley Common gang. He is simply described as a “fat boy,” and he is the first to vote in favor of T.’s plan to destroy the house.
A member of the Wormsley Common gang, Mike is the only one who is surprised when T. becomes the leader. Mike has always been easily surprised and gullible; when he was nine, he believed someone who told him that if he did not keep his mouth shut, he would get a frog in it.
Summers is the only member of the gang who is called by his last name. He is a thin boy who is a follower. When, on the second day, he complains that the destruction of the house is too much like work, he is easily talked into staying and helping.
Trevor, who goes by T., is the new leader of the Wormsley Common gang. He is fifteen years old and has gray eyes. He is a member of the gang all summer before taking leadership in August, when he suggests a dramatic change in the gang’s activities. His father, an architect, has recently lost social ranking, and his mother has an air of snobbery about her. If T. had seemed like an easy target to the boys, they would have teased him for these things in the beginning. T. initially says very little when the gang meets, but as he positions himself to take leadership, he talks more. He intrigues the gang with his plan to pull down Mr. Thomas’ house, a feat unparalleled in the gang’s history. The unprecedented plan, coupled with the air of intrigue surrounding T., makes the boys in the gang eager to accept his plan. Mr. Thomas Mr. Thomas, who is called Old Misery by the boys in the gang, is an old man who lives in one of the last standing houses in its neighborhood. He was once a builder and decorator but now lives alone, emerging once every week to buy groceries. While he expects his property to be respected by the boys, he is not so disagreeable that he refuses to allow the boys on his land or to use his outdoor bathroom.
is naïve about the ways of the boys. He never expects that they will regard his offer of chocolates with suspicion, and he certainly never imagines that when he agrees to show T. around his house, T. will betray him. Mr. Thomas believes that the old ways, in which youth respected their elders, are still alive. By the end of the story, however, he realizes that he was terribly misguided. Trevor: See T.
“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.
The boys in “The Destructors” are in their teens, which is the age at which childish innocence is gradually left behind in favor of worldliness and sophistication. For the boys in the story, however, their innocence is already gone, replaced by cynicism, selfishness, and rebelliousness. When Mr. Thomas arrives home early, T. is surprised because the old man had told him he would be gone longer. Greene writes, “He protested with the fury of the child he had never been.” Not only have these boys grown up during the war years, they live in an environment that serves as a constant reminder of that harrowing experience. They meet in a parking lot near an area that was destroyed by bombs during the war, and they are seemingly unaffected by it because it is such a normal part of their life. In reality, the war years have claimed their youthful innocence, leaving them disillusioned and determined to create their own world order, but all they really know is destruction. Part of innocence is surrender to the imagination. In “The Destructors,” however, imagination takes an ugly turn. T. uses his imagination to devise the plan to destroy Mr. Thomas’s house. Greene writes that the boys “worked with the seriousness of creators – and destruction after all is a form of creation. A kind of imagination had seen this house as it had now become.” The imagination used to plot the demise of the house is the opposite of the imagination used to create it. In innocence, a person’s imagination is applied to think of a better world, but the boys have lost their innocence. They can only imagine a worse world.
“The Destructors” is a study of shifting power. Blackie initially holds the power of leadership in the gang, and he is a basically good leader. Although he encourages mischief, it is the kind that does not hurt anyone. In his hands, power is the ability to lead others. When T. takes over leadership, however, the gang changes dramatically. He gets the members to participate in a cruel plan to destroy an innocent man’s home, a home that is a treasured piece of England’s past. In T.’s hands, power is the ability to destroy. His brand of leadership is different; when Blackie arrives on the first morning of the destruction (the day after T. assumes leadership), “He had at once the impression of organization, very different from the old happy-go-lucky ways under his leadership.” When Summers arrives on the second morning, voicing his preference to do something more fun that day, T. will not hear of it. T. knows he is more powerful than Summers is, so he reminds him that the job is not done and that Summers himself voted in favor of the project. He succeeds in pressuring the boy to stay and help finish the destruction. In the changing social structure of this small community, the balance of power is shifting. The boys forcibly take power in the community, and it is executable power. They have the ability to make changes in people’s lives and to intimidate others. Mr. Thomas, on the other hand, thinks he has power that he no longer possesses. He believes that he has authority based on the social order of the past, in which he, as an elder in the community, would be respected and obeyed. The shift in power seen in “The Destructors” signals the changing social order and does not bode well for the future.
Topics for Further Study
Compare the Wormsley Common gang with modern American gangs. Consider factors like membership, recruitment, enemies, activities, and motivations. What similarities did you find? Present your findings in a collage made up of drawings, photos, maps, headlines, text, and anything else that is appropriate.
Choose a European country (not England) and research what its young people were like after World War II. Prepare a lecture to deliver to a group of high school freshmen in which you present your findings and encourage the students to imagine how they would react in similar circumstances.
At the end of World War II, the Allied Powers emerged victorious. The Allies included twenty-eight countries, but the central nations were Great Britain, the United States, France, and Russia. Explore art (paintings, sculptures, photography, etc.) created during this period in these nations to see what themes, feelings, and moods are expressed. Do you find that the art celebrates the Allied victory or that it reflects the devastation of war? Compile reproductions of the works you find most compelling and make an exhibit demonstrating how art reflects the experiences of nations.
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 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 the 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.
Modernist Period in English Literature 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 re-evaluation 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.
Compare & Contrast
1950s: Since its election victories of 1945, the Labour Party is working on bringing certain industries under government control. Based on socialist principles, the Labour Party’s objectives are to distribute resources evenly among English citizens and to blur the lines of social class. Its influence is on the decline, however, since the Conservative Party reduced the Labour Party’s majority in parliament in the 1950 elections.
Today: After two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Majors, Labour Party leader Tony Blair is now England’s prime minister. English voters seem to vote in cycles, much as American voters tend to alternate over time between Democratic and Republican leadership.
1950s: The emergence of rock and roll music in the United States leads to the style’s popularity around the world. Teenagers are drawn to its energy and spirit of rebellion. Having endured the war, many teenagers in England are uncertain and cynical, and rock and roll music appeals to their spirit of defiance and to their drive to create a new identity.
Today: Rock and roll music has evolved into a variety of types, including pop, alternative rock, punk rock, heavy metal, and funk. England’s contributions to rock and its descendants are considerable. Besides the many contemporary English bands enjoying worldwide success (including Radiohead, Oasis, Dead Can Dance, and Stereophonies), formative bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones continue to influence musicians today. These two British groups consistently top every poll, list, or survey of the best bands and albums of all time.