What Is the Major Theme for the Short Story "The Destructors"?
Published in 1954, Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” focuses on a gang of teenagers who decide to destroy an old man’s home. Greene’s complicated story introduces multiple themes and interpretive possibilities, but the major theme of the story centers around the conflict between the gang, the Wormsley Common Gang, and the elderly occupant of the home they decided to destroy, Mr. Thomas, or “Old Misery.” This theme can be broken down into four sub-themes relating to how each side of this conflict is changed by the destruction of the home.
Loss of Innocence
As with other stories written about post-WWII children -- most notably, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” -- “The Destructors” deals extensively with the gang members’ slow, but inevitable loss of innocence. The story’s main protagonist, Trevor, called "T" by the other boys, is a prime example of this, having moved into the neighborhood after his family’s sudden loss in social status. "T" is presented as having already lost his innocence, which is why it is he who suggests destroying Mr. Thomas’ home. The gang’s former leader, Blackie, is shown in the process of losing his innocence, as he starts out the story proposing relatively petty and victimless shenanigans for his group to accomplish. By the end of the story, however, Blackie is fully supportive of the plan to destroy Mr. Thomas’ house.
Destruction and Creation
One of the story’s most famous lines -- “Destruction, after all, is a form of creation” -- also identifies one of the story’s main themes. Set in post-WWII England, the short story itself suggests the possibility of creation in the face of destruction, specifically the widespread German bombings of London. Mr. Thomas’ house itself stands between two structures destroyed by the air raids. Further, in destroying Mr. Thomas’ house, the gang create for themselves new -- albeit, more criminal -- identities that they acknowledge will get them noticed by all the other gangs, including adults ones. And in destroying his house, the boys inadvertently create for Mr. Thomas the possibility to move beyond his “Old Misery” by eliminating the anchor tethering him to a difficult past.
“The Destructors” is rife with class struggles, particularly in regard to the protagonist, Trevor. In describing him, Greene reveals that he and his family had once had more money but were forced to move to Wormsley Commons for unexplained financial reasons. Trevor’s name, common in upper-class England, is a marker of his formerly affluent lifestyle, something about which all the other boys are aware. Thus, their go-too insult for “T” is simply to refer to him by his given name, which would instantly signify that he was no longer welcome in their gang. As a demonstration of his legitimate status in the gang and in their social class, Trevor makes a spectacle of burning all of Mr. Thomas’ hidden life savings, thus demonstrating his disregard for wealth. In this way, Trevor clearly aligns himself with the boys’ and their social class.
Absurdity of Life
Greene’s short story also reflects on the absurdity of life and the meaningless randomness of misfortune. In this way, Greene’s short story fits into a larger body of existential literature, ranging from Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” to Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” In making young boys the main impetus behind all the actions of the plot, Greene reveals that oftentimes the clearest understanding of life emerges from immature and fickle minds. This is most strongly revealed in the final scene of the story; a motorist stands next to Mr. Thomas as they both gaze over his thoroughly demolished home. As the motorist laughs, the reader is left to wonder if there is any more significance to the destruction of the two homes that once stood next to Mr. Thomas’.
- "The Destructors"; Graham Greene; 1954
- Graham Greene's "The Destructors": A Study Guide from Gale's "Short Stories for Students" (Volume 14, Chapter 6); 2013
Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.