In his novels and short stories, Graham Greene portrays ordinary people who have the capacity for both good and evil. They find themselves in situations in which these opposing impulses conflict, and they must make decisions about the path they will take. Many of Greene’s characters choose evil, but Greene often offers the possibility of redemption somewhere within the work. Perhaps this is the result of his conversion to Catholicism in his twenties. In the Catholic Church, there is always grace by which a sinner can receive redemption. By repenting, saying confession, and carrying out the instructions of the priest, a Catholic can receive forgiveness. More generally, by accepting Christ as the Messiah, Catholics believe there is always the possibility of forgiveness and acceptance back into God’s family.
In the disturbing short story “The Destructors,” a group of teenage boys willingly chooses the path of selfishness, cruelty, and evil when they victimize a helpless old man. Given Greene’s propensity to offer his characters the possibility of redemption, the reader may wonder if he has done so here.
In the story, redemption is at stake for two entities: the characters and England. First, there is the main character Trevor, or T., as he is called. He is described as never having really been a child, which suggests that his innocence was sacrificed long ago. He devises a plan that will result in the complete destruction of an innocent man’s house, and the reason for this plan is simply that T. wants to destroy the last vestiges of the old social order and the traditions of the past. He knows the house is beautiful, valuable, and the only home to an old man, but he is not the least bit swayed by any of this. As T. takes over leadership of the gang and begins to assign the members their duties, Greene writes, ”It was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his fifteenth year crystallized with the pain of puberty.” T.’s cruelty is part of his nature so there is little reason to believe there is redemption in his future. He is on a path that will only lead to more cruelty against other people, and his lack of remorse suggests that he is unaware that he should even be thinking about redemption.
Except for Blackie, the other members of the gang are followers. They are either incapable of making their own moral decisions or they are unwilling to do so. Blackie, then, is the most promising character in terms of redemption. He is basically a good person who rules the gang with fairness and dedication to keeping the group intact. While he enjoys mischief, he never suggests activities that will hurt another person. When he suggests breaking into Mr. Thomas’s house, he is clear that they should just break in and not steal anything. When T. assumes leadership, Blackie ultimately decides to rejoin the group, but he does so, not because he loves the idea of being so destructive, but because his ambition leads him back into participation. If the group gains notoriety for the deed, he does not want to be left out of the excitement. These characteristics suggest that for Blackie, there is the possibility of redemption because if he joins the right group (a constructive, positive group), he will become an asset to society rather than continuing to be a hooligan.
Because some of the boys seem to be hopeless in terms of the possibility of redemption, while Blackie stands out as a promising figure, it is unclear whether England is likely to be redeemed from this upset in the social balance of power. The characters make choices for themselves, but England is somewhat at the mercy of the decisions made by its citizens. Although England has emerged from World War II on the side of victory, the domestic costs are great: political, economic, and social instability and uncertainty. These are powerful factors that have the ability to destroy the country from the inside out, just as the boys destroy Mr. Thomas’s house. There is a fundamental clash between the old generation and the new generation. The old generation is portrayed, in the character of Mr. Thomas, as weak, nai’ve, and powerless; the new generation is portrayed as selfish, cruel, violent, destructive, disrespectful, and unconcerned with the future. Who, then, will lead the way as England recovers from the war and looks to enter the future with strength, certainty, and promise? Greene offers no answer to this important question, and the future of England looks bleak.
There is, however, another way to view the story that offers the possibility of redemption for England. The story can be viewed as a cautionary tale rather than as a harsh representation of an irreversible course. If the story is viewed in the tradition of Charles Dickens’s Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol, then the story portrays only one set of possibilities. It is a warning to a generation of readers who have the power to alter the outcome of England’s social challenges. In this light, Greene remains true to his tradition of offering the reader a way to foresee redemption and hope. Greene seems to signal to the reader that it is reasonable to remain hopeful that redemption will come because not every character is hopeless. If the gang is seen as a microcosm of the larger English society, there are many Blackies. This inference means that there is hope within the story, and there is hope beyond the story, for England, if the reader chooses to see its ending as only one of many possible outcomes.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Graham Greene – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “The Destructors,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.