On “The Destructors” and “The Pachuco and Other Extremes”
Introduction / Thesis
Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” is a short story that tells of the actions of a group of teenagers, known as the Wormsley Common Gang, who live in a devastated area of post-World War II England and whose only apparent purpose is to cause trouble, break rules and destroy. Octavio Paz’s “The Pachuco and Other Extremes” is an essay (from his book The Labyrinth of Solitude) in which he describes a subculture of rebellious Mexican-American youth, known as pachucos, who do not “belong” to (or identify with) either Mexican or American culture.
A closer look reveals that the two “gangs” are quite alike in some ways. They are destructive and amoral, and they share a certain aimlessness and lack of belonging. Actually, both groups can be seen as not just victimizers but victims. First, in Greene’s story, the kids of the Wormsley Common Gang are victims of the destruction and psychological devastation of war; their behavior can be read an unconscious act of rebellion against the older generation (and its values) that brought on the war. And similarly, in Paz’s essay, the Mexican-American youth are the victims of a society that had misunderstood, rejected (and not assimilated) them; their actions may be understood as an attempt to both deny the society that rejects them, and discover an identity of their own.
Graham Greene’s “The Destructors”
As stated, the Wormsley Common Gang may be seen as both victims and victimizers of society; put differently, the gang’s behavior reflects society and its flaws. Much of what is characteristic of the gang is also characteristic of the world around them. For example, within the gang, there is little room for individual identity. Jesse F. McCartney, in the essay “Politics in Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors,’ describes the story as depicting “a blitzed world in which the traditional values of beauty, grace, individualism, and class distinctions are succumbing to the new values of materialism, efficiency, democracy and group activity” (McCartney n.p.). Of particular interest is the implication that the individual has become like a cog in a machine: He now “exists” only as a component of a larger group, which operates as a single entity.
At the Web site of the University of Liege, there is a page titled “Paragraphs: Structure and Linking,” which points out, “The gang itself has the characteristics of a separate society; it has elaborate rules and punishes the breaking of them, it is disciplined, it elects leaders, and it is also self-policing, symbolised by the surveillance carried out during the game of stealing rides” (n.p). The gang is likened to “a hive in swarm” (46), which further suggests the lack of individual identity in the group. Even when control passes from Blackie to T., the former leader does not “take his loss of leadership personally” (“Paragraphs”). Acknowledging the “fickleness of favour,” he remains because he is “driven by the … ambition of fame for the gang” (44).
Loss of identity also figures into the story in other ways; for example, a number of the kids are known only by nicknames. Now and then, when someone is talking, it’s not stated which member is speaking; he’s only identified as a sort of representative voice of the gang. When specific members do speak, they show no capacity (or at least no willingness) to form any sort of moral opinions for themselves. Consider the gang’s mistrustful reaction to Trevor, when he describes Old Misery’s residence: “It’s a beautiful house” (42). The gang is leery of this description, and the narrator says of Blackie, “It was the word ‘beautiful’ that worried him” (42). However, it is not that exact word itself that creates friction. It is the fact that Trevor describes the house in a way that suggests a personal reaction to it. The “Paragraphs” page says that this is a problem for the Wormsley Common Gang because Trevor’s response suggests a “set of values” and “threatens the identity he has with the gang” (n.p.). This is further supported by the fact that Blackie could effectively ostracize Trevor from the group simply with the words, “My dear Trevor, old chap” (42); to them, his nickname of “T.” is what identifies him as part of the group, and his real name is a source of mockery and suggests dissociation from the group.
As far as the Wormsley Common Gang is concerned, their lives in a post-war world have no place for such things as morals, emotions or beauty. Life is dominated by chance and disorder. The gang meets in a bomb site now used as an “impromptu car-park” (39), “take[s] buses at random” (41) and forms an “impromptu court” (42), all of which suggest a lack of order, or at least the sense order that is expected in moral, civilized society. It is by chance that Old Misery returns early from his trip, and it is by chance that Mike happens to notice the old man returning on the train. (Intriguingly, the Gang "destroys" in an orderly manner—they are non-chaotic, systematic destructors.)
The world around them is lifeless and filled with evidence of ruin and of both spiritual and civil neglect. Mike avoids the church service because his parents simply tell him to go by himself (45). A parking lot is almost empty because “without an attendant there was no safety” (44). Old Misery’s house stands “jagged and dark between the bomb-sites” (51), and the nearby lav recalls a “tomb in a neglected graveyard” (46). The evergreens are “tired” and the sun is “stormy” (45). The story is also described by the color grey, which is associated with everything: life, the ruined landscape, and material possessions are all dull and colorless. The blanket given to Mr. Thomas is grey. “The grey wet common stretched ahead,” says the narrator, “and the lamps gleamed in the puddles” (51). When Blackie and Trevor burn the old man’s pound notes, “grey ash” falls onto the two kids’ heads (48). Philip Kolin, in the essay “Greene’s ‘The Destructors,’” says that “a vivid symbol of cultural identity … is transformed into the drab meaninglessness that gray suggests” (160). Most significantly, though, Trevor’s eyes are the same: They are “as gray and disturbed as the drab August day” (43). Kolin adds that the greys and blacks that pervade the story are “hues that symbolize the valueless world” of the gang (160). The colorless and ruined world around them reflects inner turmoil.
All of this is life in a cold, empty place where bombs have been dropped and where war has taken its toll. “The gang … has become so accustomed to seeing destruction around them that they easily become destructors themselves,” says Kolin (158). Even early on in the story, it becomes clear that such a life is the only one the teens knew growing up: Blackie says he remembers the bombing of the first German blitz, but “he would have been one year old and fast asleep on the down platform of Wormsley Common Underground Station” (39). Even as babies, then, the kids would have been underground with their families, taking shelter from the bombing above. They lived in a time of war, amidst all the destruction and psychological devastation it brought, and that destruction and chaos seems to be the only way of life they’ve known.
The kids’ destructive and valueless natures are a product of the society and the terrible war it engaged in, and the gang is responding to and rebelling against that older generation. It is an unconscious act of rebellion, of course, and Trevor denies that his actions are motivated by emotions, saying, “All this hate and love … it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things” (48). The flaws with and problems brought on by the previous generation are represented in Mr. Thomas (hence the name “Old Misery”) and his house, the only home left standing. John J. Stinson, in the essay “Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors’: Fable for a World Far East of Eden,” explains:
Old Misery, a man who insists on things being “done regular,” is the rationalist who refuses to see the world as it is and who, by his own naiveté, his own failure of moral vision, perpetuates “old misery.” … The man who fails to take proper heed of the lessons of World War II by seeing into his own and others’ heart of darkness, is morally culpable of giving the green light to further abominations. (Stinson n.p.)
Stinson asserts that the teens live in “a world devoid of moral values, decency, trust or beauty” (n.p.), though his indictment is focused on the old man and what his generation stands for. It is interesting that Stinson also makes another claim: “Without knowing it, of course, the boys actually do long deeply for the orderly security of absolute values, for a fixed universe in which they can see their place and to some reasonable extent control their destinies” (n.p.). If this is true, then the implication seems to be that this sense of order and meaningfulness—if it is ever found—will not have been found in the societal standards and values that the generation of Old Misery and his house represent.
But of course the gang never finds what Stinson suggests they actually wish for. For them, there are no absolutes, feelings, individuals (in their gang), nothing is certain, and almost nothing happens except by chance. “Chaos had advanced” in the destruction of the house, the narrator says at one point, and “destruction after all is a form of creation” (47). They have grown up seeing only destruction, not creation, and to destroy is itself a sort of futile rebellion against the powerlessness to do anything else. Near the end of the story, after the house is completely gone, the narrator reports, “There wasn’t anything left anywhere” (57). In absence of the power to do anything else, the gang has employed the only absolute possible for them—that of complete destruction. That destruction recreates and mirrors that which is the only thing they have known.
Octavio Paz’s “The Pachuco and Other Extremes”
Admittedly, the Wormsley Common kids and the pachucos do not share that many specific similarities as gangs. Greene’s short story tells of a gang of kids in the physical and psychological aftermath of World War II, whereas Paz’s essay addresses a subculture that did not originate during a time of war. The pachucos could be described as having “emerged” as a reaction to (in a nutshell) the difficulties of living a non-native country, especially one that does not seem to grasp the nature of another culture. Of the similarities that do exist between the two groups, though, probably the most immediately recognizable one is that both groups are teenagers. Even before discussing the pachuco, Paz identifies the teen years as a time of uncertainty and questioning (9). For Greene’s gang and the pachucos, though, those teens are not undergoing a natural process of transition; they are disconnected both from society and/or from an individual identity. (For Paz, the pachucos try to assert this uniqueness, but as long as they are torn between two cultures, their identity remains at best paradoxical, and they lack an identity as a recognized individual in either culture.) Both groups may be understood as both the victim and victimizer in society, and both groups are aimless and their actions strange or amoral, though for different reasons.
Loss of identity is common to both groups of kids, but the Wormsley Common Gang displays a sort of collective identity—including hierarchy and sense of teamwork—that the pachucos clearly lack. (That is, there is no identified “rhyme or reason” or structure to the gangs that pachucos form.) It is difficult to speculate on the reason (if there is one) for this difference, though Paz repeatedly emphasizes the notion that, above all else, the pachuco is marked by solitude and isolation. This is not to say that the pachucos do not belong to gangs (which Paz clearly says they do), but there is nothing to link them, save for certain traits of language and clothing.
Actually, the pachucos’ dialect and manner of dress set them apart from the Wormsley gang in another way, as well. The kids in Greene’s story, aesthetically and culturally devoid of character, are almost indistinguishable from one another. They have no unique style or way of speaking. But for the pachucos, this uniqueness—especially of dress—is representative of much more. In the essay “Border Crossings: Images of the Pachuco in Mexican Literature,” Javier Durán says that his study of the pachuco revealed two things:
In the first place, an attitude of desperation in face of the situation he confronted. And the answer was a revolt … a revolt that was somewhat like committing suicide, for there was no hope of it becoming anything. But anyway I found a rebellious attitude. Instead of saying let’s adapt to the Anglo-American world, they said we are going to be different from that world. … And that is what they decided to do. Instinctively, they dressed in an extravagant manner and used a special language, etc. (151)
In a way, then, such an exaggerated affirmation of personality is both a response to and rebellion against the hostile new environment. The clothes became a way of proclaiming one’s difference. They are also characterized by “petty crime, delinquency and drug-taking,” says Stuart Cosgrove in “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare” (n.p). But to understand the rebellious behavior, it also has to be clear why they too are victims of society. They have lost a sense of belonging or of cultural identity, and part of the explanation may be summarized by Paz’s remark: “I believe that the North American’s irritation results from his seeing the pachuco as mythological figure and therefore, in effect, a danger. His dangerousness lies in his singularity. Everyone agrees in finding something hybrid about him, something disturbing and fascinating” (16).
The pachuco as an individual, who feels connected to neither culture, is a unique character who has adopted traits that are not exclusive to either culture; instead, those traits are a sort of distorted hybrid of the two. In this way it is an affirmation of individuality, but also of continual exclusion, because as Durán says, the pachuco “becomes de-territorialized from both Mexican and U.S. culture due to an aesthetic and linguistic hybridity, which becomes a menace for essentialist and monolithic visions of the nation” (142). (To unpack the terminology a bit, “essentialism” here basically refers to certain characteristics one is expected to possess to be identified with a particular group or culture, and “monolithic” suggests rigid uniformity.)
Separated from his Mexican heritage, and certainly not accepted by American culture and its ‘standards’ of American identity, the pachuco sees himself as belonging to neither. Paz feels that the pachuco’s Mexican identity has been lost: his “language, religion, customs [and] beliefs” (15). And with this loss of Mexican culture, Paz argues, arises a distorted system of values: “When you talk with them, you observe that their sensibilities are like a pendulum … that has lost its reason and swings violently and erratically” (13). The pachuco cannot express himself in his native language or traditions, and neither is he able to adapt to this new civilization as long as it rejects him.
“The purpose of his grotesque dandyism and anarchic behavior is not so much to point out the injustice and incapacity of a society that has failed to assimilate him as it is to demonstrate his personal will to remain different,” argues Paz (14-15). But is this a logical claim? He denies that there is any reason to determine what causes this conflict, much less seek a solution. What Paz does not seem to realize is the somewhat circular reasoning of his own argument here: The pachuco’s will to remain different is the only “recourse” against, or response to, the very society that refuses to accept him in the first place.
The pachuco remains both a victim and victimizer of society, which Paz does correctly point out (16), but he suggests that the role of victim is entirely willingly assumed. It might be more accurate to say that the pachuco uses his role as victim to at least be recognized by American society and as a reason to rebel against it, but a great deal of blame still lies with the society that rejects him and fails to understand a different culture.
A comparative discussion of the two works does not mean that the two are able to be analyzed in the same way. Graham Greene’s piece is a fictional story whose characters and their aimless, destructive behavior is best understood as a psychological “product” of the bloody war that they constantly saw as they grew up. Octavio Paz’s piece is an essay whose subjects exhibit similar behavior (to the Wormsley gang) but who are best understood as being torn between two cultures and belonging to neither. Greene’s piece provides a more “tangible” portrait of its gang, their actions and the motives behind them, and how the world around them reflects their own qualities. Comparatively, Paz’s piece, while it certainly identifies certain physical characteristics and behaviors of its gang, is more abstract and focuses on considering how one’s identity—or lack thereof—can be torn between two cultures, particularly when one (or both) refuses to accept him.
As stated before, the Wormsley Common kids and the pachucos interact with society as both victims and victimizers, the oppressors and the oppressed. The gangs show both profound similarities and nuanced differences, which is partly due to the fact that the two groups exist in different times and are shaped by different “events”—namely, the destructiveness of war versus cultural transition. They are both driven by a sort of rebellion; for the Wormsley gang, it is an unconscious but still deliberate act, and for the pachucos it is alienation that has nowhere to turn except to rebellion. Rebellion does not, by definition or necessarily, mean that one does the opposite of whatever or whoever it is that one is rebelling against; that is, just because Person A rebels against Person B’s values, that doesn’t mean that the Person A is necessarily adopting values that are the opposite of Person B.
In fact, “The Destructors” bears this out somewhat: The Wormsley Common kids are rebelling against one generation and its values, but their rebellion is executed in a way that precisely mirrors the destruction they have come to know for so long. The gang has turned society’s own corrupted ways back on itself. As far as the pachucos are concerned, the victim-victimizer link is a bit more problematic, but when the Mexican-American youth can neither retain their “heritage” nor be accepted into a new culture, the rejection is turned back on the society that has denied them. Their “exaggerated” appearance and immoral behaviors call attention to them (and the society they can only partially adapt). In terms of both readings, though, what still unites them is the question of identity (both as an individual and within a culture or society), the loss thereof, and how the victims become the victimizers. The situations are different, but in both cases, the same basic occurrence is taking place: The youth rebel against a certain generation, set of values or society, and ironically, the only way they know how to rebel is an almost exact reflection of the society and its values they are opposing. After all, that is what they have been exposed to for so long.