The word ‘allegory’ means that which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. These are typically moral or politically based works of… writing, in this case. ”The Destructors” explores and focuses on the former rather than the latter- the aforementioned ‘morals’. This is majorly done using microcosms to reflect on the condition of England and its people within the actions and thoughts of the characters. It may sound a bit complicated at first, but basically the things that the characters in the story do and see are symbolic of the state of England at the time- after the second world war.
Now, coming to the story itself- it follows the Wormsley Common Gang, a group of children living in Eastern London in 1956. The city is basically dreary, bleak, and lacks any type of warmth or compassion. Yep, it’s downright dreadful. “Beauty” is a thing of the past; unheard of! It is a word that belongs to the “class world”-which is now a joke, and “parodied”. This is where the new generation has grown up, and it is all that the children have known.
Greene begins the story in an almost childlike tone of voice, and establishes the sense of innocence that should be present in all of the children. But then he goes on to introduce the “gang” and their lives, forcing the reader to wonder about the circumstances which have led to these young boys acquiring qualities of “danger”, of the “unpredictable”. Greene then answers this question, going on to explain that the story is set in the place that has been the worst for wear- having been dealt the worst blow in the war- and will continue to suffer due to the aftermath of the war. Here he refers to “the first blitz”; a period when London was continuously bombed and left in a state of disarray. Again, this is the environment that the children have been brought up in (not a very healthy one) without even the memories of the prosperous times that they missed. This- the memory of better times- is a key element in the story and will develop later, so keep it in mind.
The gang consists of several characters with highly contrasting attitudes except for one shared sentiment (I’m sure you’ll be able to identify it as the story progresses). The most fascinating character is probably that of T., short for Trevor, who is introduced as “the new recruit”- someone of little importance- who “never wastes a word” and is a typically silent, yet cunning member. However, there are “possibilities about his brooding silence” that give him an element of mystery. It is important to remember that one important factor which differentiates him from the others is that he is well educated- an uncommon trait- which is indicated by the fact that he correctly identifies the shared style of architecture of two different buildings: a house, and a church.
Blackie is the leader of the gang in the beginning of the story. He is mature, practical, and a good leader, but lacks any form of refinement and is doubtful of his own capabilities. This is apparent when he replies to T.’s comment about St. Paul’s Cathedral with an indifferent “who cares?” Mike is the youngest of the group, very obedient and respectful, but only with the other gang members. He is not old enough to be scarred by the brutality of his city, but on the other hand he is not old enough to have formed a real bond with any of the other boys. He follows their orders not because he is driven to do so by motivation, but simply because he doesn’t know better- something we call naïveté. His innocence is the only somewhat comforting concept in a world where everything is broken and the one remnant of the past is the house of a man named “Old Misery”.
This house had been built by Wren, whose most famous construction- St. Paul’s- had also miraculously survived the horrors of the war. This makes the house seem even more of a foreign entity in the boys’ lives. “Old Misery” is the man Mr. Thomas, who lives near the impromptu car-park where the boys meet each morning. He is actually well meaning and kind, but the boys, who have only learnt to be distrustful, struggle to cast him in a negative light. When Thomas gives them chocolates for no obvious reason, they naturally assume the worst of him for it and believe that they are being bribed to stop bouncing their balls on the walls of his house. Therefore, they devote the entire following day on doing just that- bouncing their balls on the walls of his house- something that only Mike is “young enough to enjoy”.
The boys are obviously doing this out of spite for Thomas, and desire respect in the eyes of adults and the other gang members. Blackie once claimed that he had actually heard the first-blitz, but no-one notices that at the time of the bombing, even Blackie would have been only one year old. He said this in order to strengthen his position as the leader of the gang, and so the boys would respect him as an authoritative figure. T., whose name is actually Trevor, is referred to as T. but not because it is an endearment, but so that his ‘posh’ name wouldn’t set him apart from the other members of the gang.
However, Thomas does not mind these antics, for in the children he sees his own childhood and he has hopes that they will someday renew his country’s former glory. This is extremely ironic, considering that their behavior towards him completely contradicts this. The boys’ lack of empathy can be quite a bit associated with their parents’ examples, who had been forced to live through the war, and as a result becoming bitter and shrugging off their responsibilities. For instance, T.’s father had “come down in the world” and his mother considered herself to be “better than others”. We assume that he has had an unloved upbringing. Mike’s parents tell him to go to church on his own, as his mother “felt ill” and his father was “tired” (after a late night of drinking!) Mike recognizes these excuses and his impressionable mind gradually becomes influenced by lies. The boys are, in essence, left by themselves, and without the guidance of their parents, become hateful and aggressive.
Of all the members of the gang, T. is probably the most radical and frightening. At first, when he calls Old Misery’s house “beautiful” we are relieved to know that at least one of the children still appreciates beauty. Believe it or not, the other boys think the same thing, and rebuke T. for not stealing something while he had the chance. However, this statement is not one of appreciation. Far from it, it is an accusation! T. can identify beauty as something he never had a chance to experience, and he wants to make sure that no-one else appreciates it either.
He decides to propose that the boys tear the house down, as Old Misery is leaving for the weekend. Not only does he become the gang’s new leader with this suggestion, (remember the common emotion the boys share? Well, it’s jealousy. They are jealous of anyone who has experienced the happiness and compassion to which they are strangers and, as revenge, they want to destroy the few things that act as reminders of the past or can be described as ‘beautiful ‘. Hence the name Destructors) and the “fickleness of favor” is symbolic of the changing opinions in the society of London at the time.
When T. states that he doesn’t “hate” Old Misery, the reason behind his actions is unclear. But then he goes on to say how if he did, the demolition of his house would not be “fun”. He makes sure that the boys carefully destroy only the interior of the house, and goes so far as to burn all of Thomas’ savings! The efficient, militaristic manner with which the boys tear down the house is microcosmic of the efficiency with which Germany completely obliterated some parts of London. When Blackie enters the house at their first meeting, he immediately notices that the demeanor of the boys had changed from the “happy-go-lucky” ways of before to something greater than them all.
He gets the impression of “organization”. “No-one speaks” and there is a sense of “great urgency” as they carefully destroy the innocent man’s house (Greene almost makes the boys seem similar to terrorists in this way). They work “with the seriousness of creators” and stating that “destruction is a form of creation” only further supports the sentiment that man has become increasingly destructive, almost to the point of self-destruction, after the horrors of war and the resulting bitterness.
The words Greene uses to describe the condition of the house; “pillaged”, “ripped” and “smashed” are reflective of the appearance of the city after the bombings, and can also be linked to its description in the beginning of the story, where the entire lane was “shattered” and glass had all been “sucked out of the window frames”. When Summers, a skinny ‘yellow’ boy asks whether they have done enough, T. replies adamantly that they must utterly destroy the house until “there won’t be anything left”. They are later interrupted by Mike claiming that Old Misery is well on his way back, and T. states that “It isn’t fair” which is an ironic statement coming from him as Greene states that it “mimics the childhood he never had”. T. doesn’t want to leave the house as it is because there is still a possibility that it could be rebuilt, this time even more beautifully than before.
T. struggles to remain composed, and it is obvious that his authority has started to crumble under the immediate threat of discovery as he “begs” the boys to “please” give him a chance to “fix” this, which is an interesting choice of words as T. lacks the ability to create and would obviously lack the ability to “fix” as well. Surprisingly, it is Blackie who steps up to help T. and this action clearly portrays how to people, no matter how different in ideologies and opinions, can work together to achieve a common goal (here, this goal is destructive).The boys devise a plan to keep Old Misery occupied and T. manipulates Thomas into following him to the loo, where he claims that a boy has fainted.
The fact that Thomas follows T. not only hints at his trusting nature, but also his desire to help the boys to which they are oblivious. Not only does he do this, but T. even persuades Thomas to climb the wall of his own garden, even though he states that “It’s absurd”. His climbing over the wall shows a shift in control from the older generation to the younger generation, of which they take advantage. As Thomas opens the door of the loo, he is pushed inside and the door is bolted.
As he sits inside, occasionally receiving food and blankets, Thomas is aware that due to the Bank Holiday, everyone would have gone out and his cries for help would not be heard. As he wonders what is happening outside, Greene explains how the older generation is now trapped; they can only sit idly as they watch the new generation destroying their legacy, unable to protect their home. Meanwhile, the boys continue to “penetrate” into the house, leaving it “gutted” (These words create an effect of a process like ‘dissection’ taking place). Greene describes the house as “balanced on a few inches of bricks” and this is apt to describe the state of Britain’s economy; “in shambles”.
The fact that it is ultimately the driver who actually “destroys” the house shows that although the initial idea of destruction was the boys’, their plan is finally executed by the generation that is responsible for their destructive nature. The line “It’s nothing personal” is repeated twice in the story, once when Thomas is sitting in the loo, and once after the house has fallen, indicating that the driver did not feel the slightest hint of compassion for Thomas as he tries to control his laughter and for the children, who are responsible for the destruction of his house, it is an impersonal act borne of man’s aggressive nature.
However, to Thomas, who can still remember the Britain of old, it is the loss of ties to the past and the annihilation of any hopes for the future for the second time; first to Germany, and second to the children of his own country, for which he had such high hopes. The final act of destruction demonstrated the transition of power over the generations, and expresses how the bitterness of war causes bitterness to fester in man’s heart until he becomes what he ought to despise.