Essay on The Destructors from Stories of Ourselves for the Cambridge IGCSE Anthology. Find the story here.
Explore how Graham Greene presents the shifting power within the group as leadership passes from Blackie to T.
From the first sentence, Greene establishes the power shift: as the ‘latest recruit’ becomes ‘leader’ the alliteration emphasises the antithesis, and the shock that the newest member suddenly gains power. This creates tension, begging the question, how, and why? The story deals with the twin themes of power, and destruction against a background of Blitzed London. The gang meets on the bomb site of the ‘last bomb’ of the ‘first blitz’, the words ‘first’ and ‘last’ suggesting a deeper symbolism to this meeting place, and the work of the gang. Greene gives echoes of Hitler’s leadership which wrought so much destruction over Europe, the childish destructors finishing off the larger task begun by adults which is symbolised by Mr Thomas’ house. It is on a ‘shattered’ street and stands out alone, ‘jagged’, ‘crippled’. Though it has ‘suffered’ damage, it somehow survived, one of the landmarks of the gang’s world.
In the first part of the story, the gang is shown to be democratic, ‘drawing lots’, and make plans on ‘suggestion’. In the first part of the story, Blackie dominates the speech and actions of the gang. He claims to have heard the bomb fall, and no-one dares contradict him. Greene refers to him a ‘the leader’ and he is the one who here, ‘proposed’ all their plans, the last word giving some suggestion of parliamentary democracy. In some ways, T. seems like the house. He stand alone in ‘brooding silence’, spare, from a father who has ‘come down in the world’ and a mother who ‘considers herself better’. He seems a candidate for bullying, as where Greene says he ‘should have been an object of mockery’. Yet his very ‘odd quality’ and ‘unpredictable’ nature are the things that later ‘established’ him. As he takes root, evil creeps in. The shift is subtle. But the possibility of bullying gradually subsides, and T. no longer ‘looked at the ground, as though he had thoughts to hide.’ Through this, Greene explores the transfer of power. Blackie reacts as if T is ‘treading on dangerous ground,’ but it’s ambiguous what the danger is. It’s almost as if Blackie feels sorry for him, as if T. will make himself weak. The danger seems to be in the gang, who form ‘an impromptu court’ as if to ‘try some case of deviation’, showing the power of the masses in Blackie’s eyes. Yet the real danger is in T’s nature. When they take him as leader, it’s on a ‘vote’. Are we more disturbed by T. or by the fact he, like Hitler, is democratically elected?
The mood is tense from the start, of ‘teeth tightly clamped’, emphasising the shock shift in the dynamics of power, when a more compelling story overwrites an old narrative. Here, the more compelling story is destruction of something ‘beautiful’, for ‘fame’, and for pleasure, carried out in a disturbingly organised way by someone who is clearly aware that what he is destroying is ‘beautiful’. Greene makes the point T speaks little, but one of the longest speeches is where he says “Wren built it… The man who built St. Paul’s’. Hitler famously tried to destroy St Paul’s, and the boy lingers over descriptions over the architectural wonders of Mr Thomas’ house: ‘a staircase two hundred years old like a corkscrew. Nothing holds it up.’ Both boys marvel at the magic of it and T. continues to detail the panelling with almost as much loving care as when he demolishes it, piece by piece. It’s bleakly ironic that his appreciation of this beauty happens at the same time that he forms his plan, with eyes ‘as grey and disturbed as the drab August day’, to “destroy it.” He is a symbol of evil, reframing them as ‘worms in an apple’, symbol of corruption, decay, a terrible juxtaposition with their youth which ought to symbolise innocence. Or perhaps it is the snake in the garden of Eden.
This is a new type of monster from Blackie’s old regime, with empty bluster: breaking in, but not wanting to get caught, with games of ‘snatched’ bus rides. The kids’ efforts are like games, trials referred to as ’exploits’. When T has them destroy the house, it is terrifyingly methodical, more like ‘work’. T. stands apart as he won’t steal the money: he ‘burns’ it - a man’s entire life’s savings. He claims a disturbing moral superiority, perhaps like Hitler destroying the art treasures of Europe as he retreated. The child, like the man, is a psychopath. He has an inner vision obscure to the others, which compels them almost because it is obscure. While the boy is disturbing, what’s more disturbing is the ease with which he gains power, and how easily the others march to his tune.
The author, Melanie Kendry, is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.