The Destructors Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Destructors by Graham Greene.
In one of the poorest sections of post-World War II, a ragtag group of boys name their gang after their neighborhood and take on the label “The Worsley Boys.” Their new member, Trevor—who goes by the nickname “T”—becomes interested in a home that survived the Blitz. The 200-year-old home is the only structure, surrounded by ruins and debris. The house is owned by Mr. Thomas, an elderly loner of a man who used to be a builder and a decorator. The home’s bathroom was damaged in the war, so Mr. Thomas—who the boys call “Old Misery”—uses an outhouse.
T’s presents the gang with a plan for a prank that will out-do all the other mischief the gang has committed up to this point. The house is beautiful, T explains to the gang after touring the home’s grounds with its owner. The home is grandly decorated, and contains items like antique china. T proposes that, while Mr. Thomas is out of town, the gang destroys the home. The gang’s leader, Blackie, objects to the idea, but puts it up for a vote in a strange show of democracy. The gang votes to carry out T’s plan.
T’s confidence is burnished by the faith the gang places in him, and Blackie concludes that the gang’s reputation will improve through the completion of the prank. The next day, Blackie arrives at the home to find the other members of the gang already at work destroying the house. The boys are systematically working through the house, leaving only the walls intact. Blackie observes T sitting and listening to the sounds of the boys’ destruction. T tells Blackie to go destroy a bathroom.
Toward the end of the day, T reveals to Blackie that he’s found seventy one-pound notes, Mr. Thomas’s life savings. Blackie proposes the boys steal the money, but T wants to burn it in celebration. Blackie asks T if he hates Mr. Thomas. T explains his belief that emotions like hate and love aren’t real. All that matters are material things. The boys burn the notes one by one and then race each other home.
The next day, the boys return to the home and continue their destruction, removing the floors and turning on the water, which rushes through the now hallow house. About that time, Mr. Thomas returns early. The boys lure Mr. Thomas into the outhouse and lock him in. He cries out for help, but realizes no one is around to hear his pleas. From the outhouse, he can hear the boys continuing their destructive efforts.
At this point the house is supported only by a thin line of mortar. The next morning, the boys attach one end of a rope to a truck left nearby overnight, with the other end tied to the house’s support struts. The driver returns and heads down the street, pulling down the home in a crash of bricks and dust. The driver dismounts and releases Mr. Thomas from his outhouse prison.
Mr. Thomas is distraught over the wreckage. He becomes angry with the driver, who merely laughs in return. Mr. Thomas is angry, but the driver says he can’t help it. It’s funny.
“The Destructors” positions the wealthy class represented by Mr. Thomas in opposition to the working class represented by the Worsley Boys. In post-war Britain, the trappings of the upper classes have been destroyed by the ravages of conflict, and now groups of people who had very little to do with each other are forced to make their way together.
Mr. Thomas’s home is one of the last remaining reminders of the opulence some members of the public enjoyed. The Gang arrives to wipe away that reminder. Greene’s intention for his story is not to simply bask in the spectacle of destruction, but to highlight the need for change as irresistible forces work in our lives. The narrator of the story says, at one point, “destruction after all is a for of creation.”
Graham Greene is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His works were widely successful, both commercially and critically. His work often reflects his Catholic values, as well as his life-long battle with depression.
The 2001 film Donnie Darko includes a study of the story’s themes in an English class, and “The Destructors” is blamed on vandalism that occurs at a school in the film. In the movie, the idea that destruction is a form of creation is an important concept.
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.