Over the years the published interpretations of Graham Greene's "The Destructors" would have us read the story in remarkably different ways. First one scholar (Clarke) tells us the story is a parable about "the creation by destruction of a perfect anarchist state"; and then another scholar (Gorecki) tries to tell us the story is clearly "a parallel to Milton's Paradise Lost". In between those two crazily different extremes of political theory and religious symbolism several other critics tell us that "The Destructors" is the "most ambiguous" of Greene's stories. Even if these critics are presenting sensible views of the story, most new readers know too little about the anarchist movement and its political theories or about the details of John Milton's epic poem to recognize the presence of such specialized interpretations. Evidently, hardly anyone nowadays is really sure what the story is about. It seems that what is needed is a fresh start, one that approaches the story through familiar analytical categories such as characterization, irony, and symbolism. Perhaps we will end up with an interpretation that rings true in our present Age of Terrorism.Works Consulted:
One giant step toward understanding the story is understanding the central character, Trevor. He is described as a character capable of "brooding silence," a character capable of intimidating the other members of the gang by this silence, a character who does the unthinkable -- i.e., he joins a gang without going through an initiation and becomes the leader of the gang almost immediately. As Greene puts it,What but an odd quality of danger, of the unpredictable, established him in the gang without any ignoble ceremony of initiation?Who ever heard of joining a gang without going through an initiation? Later on in the story, when Trevor cold-bloodedly burns up the life savings of "Old Misery," seventy one-pound notes -- about equal to three thousand dollars in today's currency -- we see just how dangerous and unpredictable he can be. As he burns the last of the bank notes, he saysAll this hate and love. . .it's soft, it's hooey. There's only things, Blackie.Isn't he saying that spiritual values don't exist? Isn't his rejection of emotional values akin to the cold-bloodedness of the 911 terrorists who killed nearly 3000 innocent people?
Clearly any reasonable interpretation of the story must also comment on the obvious irony of a highly organized work crew dedicated to destruction rather than construction. Like the firemen in Ray Bradbury's well-known anti-utopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, the firemen whose job is no longer to put out fires but to burn books, the Wormsley Common Gang has been similarly perverted by Trevor into an efficient work crew whose mission is not to build but to destroy. Also, there is obvious and chilling irony in the fact that Trevor is the son of an architect, an unemployed architect in a ravaged city that needs rebuilding. It is as if Greene is trying to create a nightmare vision of the modern world as a place where the torch is being passed from the generation of the builders to the generation of the "destructors."
Most importantly, however, we must consider the symbolic implications of the story. Anyone who has seen photographs of the destruction wreaked in London during the Blitz realizes that the great civilization that London represented was very nearly destroyed during World War Two. For Trevor to organize the complete and total destruction of "Old Misery's" house is in symbolic terms equivalent to completing the task the Germans left unfinished. Trevor's gang, it seems clear, embodies the same disregard for what civilization has accomplished as the German rocket scientists who hurled V-1 and V-2 rockets into the heart of London. In the end, symbolically speaking, the destructive forces that led to the Blitz are still alive and well. They have been passed on to the next generation.
This interpretation of the story probably resonates well in a world where terrorist attacks are daily news. But we are left with a question. Why are we laughing with the lorry driver in the final scene? The house collapses into a pile of rubble and we burst into laughter. Why do we think the collapse of "Old Misery's" home is so funny? Could it be that Greene is reminding us that civilization is only skin deep? Is there a tendency below the surface in each of us that is drawn toward barbarism and destruction? Is it possible that somewhere deep inside us we are just like the terrorists of 911?
Clarke, Peter P. "Graham Greene's 'The Destructors': an Anarchist Parable,"English LanguageNotes, March 1986, Vol. 23, Issue 3, p.60.
J. Gorecki, "Graham Greene's 'The Destructors' and Paradise Lost," Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1985, Vol. 21, Issue 3, p. 336.