Destruction or Creation?


Review of “The Destructors”

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What sets man apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is more than an opposable thumb or the ability to form oral language: it is the innate paradox of good appearing as evil and evil being veiled as good. In Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” this complex mechanism is illustrated through the language, events, and characters. With his powerful short story, Greene uses children to examine a darker side of humanity that adults must take responsibility for.

The mood of “The Destructors” is saddening and anxious; throughout the story, the reader is made to both condemn the devastating actions of the boys but, simultaneously, to fear for their punishment. Greene makes it frighteningly clear how desolate the boys’ environment is and how little supervision is provided by adults or authority figures. Rather than insipidly squandering their hours away in self pity or starving of loneliness, the boys seek out the company of their peers and, in a microcosm of adult society, they attempt to bring order, structure, and productiveness (since, after all, “destruction is a form of creation” (337)), to a situation where there is none. Another positive aspect of humans that is revealed in the story is the necessary but unfortunate ability to compartmentalize emotions in an effort to survive. This is most clearly demonstrated when “T” tells Mike that “all this love and hate, it’s soft, it’s hooey… there’s only things” (338). The abandonment and apparent poverty that the boys are growing up in make cloudy the value of emotions. Both love and hate are hurdles in the quest for survival and efficiency, and as Trevor has learned and Mike is learning, it is the tangible aspects of life that can provide stability and continuity.

More prevalent in “The Destructors” is the criticism of human nature. Primarily, Greene reviles the need to acquiesce to leadership without assessing it. The gang in the story is lead by the smartest member; in the beginning, that was Blackie, but the leadership role is taken over by Trevor when he exhibits more awe-inspiring ideas. Although it seems reasonable that leadership is necessary to avoid chaos, the gang follows blindly as Trevor leads them down a path of destruction and apathy rather than evaluate the reasons for their dismantling of an innocent man’s house and the repercussions of such an action. Not only does the gang cause the boys to commit harmful and unreasonable crimes, but it perpetuates the “fickleness of favor” (333) that is so intrinsic in all types of politics. This hypocrisy of conditional loyalty is clear when the less powerful boys in the group need nothing more than a change of vocal tone before turning on their supposed leader.  Furthermore, the endless capacity for adaptation allows for the intellectual ability to twist seemingly reasonable principles into bad action. Trevor explains that they must destroy Old Misery’s home because “it’s a beautiful house” (330) and that “nothing holds it up” (330). The need to destroy what is beautiful is common in times of trouble and dissatisfaction; beauty seems to mock the unfortunate and dismiss their suffering. The house itself represents the boys since it has little support. If they can conquer this structure, perhaps they might gain some control over their own situations.

Rife with symbolism, Greene uses language to emphasize the characters and the plot. Trevor loses his name to the code “T” upon entering the gang, a practice not unique to him. The loss of his true name represents the superficiality of a person within the gang. Just as his name is transient, his position is, and once involved in the majority-minded group, nothing is certain. On page 334, Mike, the youngest member of the group, explains that he has to be late to the meeting of destruction because he has “got to go to church.” Greene uses this to comment on the hypocrisy of religion and its inability to provide solutions in times of trouble. Mike ends up skipping Church; this might seem sinful, but in reality, it is more genuine than any other action he could have made because it is, at the very least, consistent with the rest of his behavior. The lack of innocence, another theme in the story, is shown. Trevor ascertains that a “child’s saw” (334) is not to be used, reminding the reader that they are, in fact, children. Later, on page 339, Trevor “protest[s] with the fury of the child he had never been” against the abandoning of his project.

Regardless of their redeeming qualities, cruelty stemming from cynicism is at the heart of the story. “One moment the house had stood there with such dignity between the bomb-sites like a man in a top hat, and then, bang crash, there wasn’t anything left- not anything.” For Trevor, this description validates his insecurities that not only emotions are unstable, but objects are, as well.  In the end, all the characters are left with gaping voids; the gang has no empathy and Old Misery has no home, but he has a newfound bond with the younger generation.

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