“The Destructors” is set in London, England in the early 1950s. World War II has ended less than a decade earlier, and the city and country are slowly emerging from the destruction of the war. England is not emerging unscathed or unchanged, however. The country is scarred by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its soldiers and the destruction incurred during the unprecedented German bombing campaign on British cities. England after the war is also witnessing drastic changes to its social and political orders as a result of the war.
Before the massive upheaval of the two World Wars, England’s social hierarchy was extremely rigid. The upper classes were held to be superior, and class was inherited, making it unusual for those lower on the social ladder to move up. At the time when the story is set, the chaos and destruction of the war have reduced the fortunes of many in the upper and upper middle class, while also allowing for greater mobility among those in the lower classes.
The boys in the Wormsley Common Gang do not remember the class world that existed before the war, but they seek to fight against any return to outdated assumptions about the superiority of the upper classes and place their faith in the survival of the new, more meritocratic society then emerging. This stance on the old class order is reflected in the inner workings of the gang, and especially in the way the gang determines the hierarchy among its members. For instance, when the gang learns that the new recruit’s name is Trevor, they recognize this name as one that is only given either to members of the upper class or the ambitious upper middle class eager to be accepted among members of the true upper class. Because they have no respect for these class norms, the boys know that calling T. by his full name is a surefire way to undermine him.
Resentment towards the idea of upper class superiority also helps to motivate the boys in their destruction of Mr. Thomas’s house. T.’s father tells him that Mr. Thomas’s house was designed by Christopher Wren, an architect who lived from 1632 until 1723 and built palaces for the royal family as well as the landmark St. Paul’s Cathedral. This pedigree makes Mr. Thomas’s house a relic of the pre-war era, when class distinctions were of huge importance, and it makes the boys’ destruction of the house a symbolic strike against that old social order.
Yet the story is not simply a tale of how a rough new social order is sweeping away an older, more genteel one. Indeed, the story deliberately portrays that old order as obsolete and ridiculous, as deserving to be wiped away, despite some sadness that goes along with that destruction. At the end of the story, when the lorry driver, who is clearly a member of the lower class, cannot help but laugh at the destruction of Old Misery’s home, we see that glee at the destruction of the old class order is not only an adolescent emotion, but shared by adults as well.
Mr. Thomas’s professional history shows that he comes from a time when a different, more rigid class order reigned. Mr. Thomas has the training of a decorator and builder, so he can take care of most parts of his house, but does not know how to fix the plumbing. Plumbers were drawn from a lower class than builders and decorators, and so this lack of practical knowledge is a sign of Mr. Thomas’s class pretensions. The fact that he refuses to spend money to fix his indoor plumbing and must, therefore, use an outdoor lavatory symbolizes all the concrete disadvantages that pretensions to being above manual labor has brought members of the upper class, along with the financial failure that has left him to pinch and scrimp. When the boys lock Mr. Thomas in his lavatory, it is the final sign that his ineffectual worldview has brought about his downfall.
Class and a Changing World ThemeTracker
Class and a Changing World Quotes in The Destructors
There was every reason why T., as he was afterwards referred to, should have been an object of mockery - there was his name (and they substituted the initial because otherwise they had no excuse not to laugh at it), the fact that his father, a former architect and present clerk, had 'come down in the world' and that his mother considered herself better than the neighbours. What but an odd quality of danger, of the unpredictable, established him in the gang without any ignoble ceremony of initiation?
He was just, he had no jealousy, he was anxious to retain T. in the gang if he could. It was the word 'beautiful' that worried him - that belonged to a class world that you could still see parodied at the Wormsley Common Empire by a man wearing a top hat and a monocle, with a haw-haw accent. He was tempted to say, 'My dear Trevor, old chap,' and unleash his hell hounds.
After a while it seemed to him that there were sounds in the silence – they were faint and came from the direction of his house. He stood up and peered through the ventilation-hole – between the cracks in one of the shutters he saw a light, not the light of a lamp, but the wavering light that a candle might give. Then he thought he heard the sound of hammering and scraping and chipping. He thought of burglars - perhaps they had employed the boy as a scout, but why should burglars engage in what sounded more and more like a stealthy form of carpentry?
'I'm sorry,' the driver said, making heroic efforts, but when he remembered the sudden check of his lorry, the crash of bricks falling, he became convulsed again. 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. He said, 'I'm sorry. I can't help it. Mr. Thomas. There's nothing personal, but you got to admit it's funny.'