The Destructors by Graham Greene is an interesting short story which has allegorical touches. The story tells us how some unruly boys, vying with one another for leadership in their gang, go beyond all levels of evil and redefine it as a motiveless act.
There are three levels of characters in the story: Old Misery who owns the house, the gang of unruly boys and a truck driver. People at the church are also mentioned. The story happens near a car park overlooked by buildings which have been partly destroyed by ‘the last bomb of the first blitz’. The house owner Mr. Thomas whose nick name is Old Misery is actually nice to the children. But that doesn’t prevent Trevor, one of the boys, from proposing to the gang that they should destroy Old Misery’s house completely when he is away. This proposal impresses the others and Trevor is voted up as the next leader and the old leader Blackie has to step down. None could come up with a worse mischief they could enjoy during the week. The story reminds us of Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Houses have always been symbols of security and refuge. Hence they also stand for human institutions. Even the parliament is referred to as a house. House as a symbol appears in several parables in the Bible. Old Misery’s house stands for the established religions which were attacked more than a little by the two World Wars. People who had always been living in misery (old misery from the first sin?) had sought refuge in religions. But the religions lost their strength when the atrocities of war eroded many people’s trust in humanity and human kindness. This made e.e.cummings, a famous poet, coin the phrase ‘human unkind’ in place of human kind. The unruly gang is worse in its evil than those who steal or murder. They have no motive. It is motiveless malignity. They think there is no point in being vengefully evil. Insisting that nothing should be stolen from the house they are destroying, the hero of the story Trevor says about the house owner, “There’d be no fun if I hated him.”
The truck driver who sees Old Misery’s house being pulled down bay unseen hands laughs at it, not realizing that they might destroy his house the next day. At another level, those who passively watch the age-long institutions like religion and family disintegrate or made to disintegrate do not realize that the society and its institutions came into being to protect people and if they vanish we are again defenseless against evil.
More than the descriptions, it is in the dialogues that we find suggestions about the hidden meanings of the story.
“Wren built that house, father says.”
“The man who built St. Paul’s”
“Who cares?” Blackie said. “It’s only Old Misery’s.”
In these lines we hear the echo of Satan addressing the other fallen angels in the pandemonium. Through the name of Wren, the man who built St.Paul’s Church, we are reminded of the people who organized the religions. However, now the religions belong to the miserable masses.
“What do you mean a beautiful house?” asked Blackie. They all hate beauty and culture. They are things that flow along with the flow of life down the ages. It is interesting to see that they also consider the flow of things as a power against them. The pipes through which water flows are broken, the wires through which current flows are clipped and currency (that which moves around) is burned.
In very few words we are shown what we stand to lose when social institutions symbolized by Old Misery’s house are taken away from us. Old Misery’s helplessness is revealed when he wails over his disappeared house:
“He gave a sobbing cry. “My house,” he said, “Where is my house?” The truck driver is passive but still makes fun of him. “Search me,” the driver said.
Thus, it is easy to see that The Destructors has more to it than meets the eye. As we read the story, we also want to see the children being successful. If the destruction was checked at some point, most of the readers would be disappointed. Thus it makes the additional point that we are not free of aggression and destruction. The popular movies and novels are all about destruction though they uphold constructive values at some point towards the end. There is a basic instinct in man to revel in his own aggression and it is through culture, art, religion and other similar activities that we overcome such tendencies.