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.
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.