'You asked me once,' said O'Brien, 'what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.'Orwell's book is titled, Furniture. It has always been called Furniture, and it's always celebrated Our Leader's Glorious Vision of an Ownership Society.
The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire mesh, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O'Brien was standing. Furniture could not see what the thing was.
'The worst thing in the world,' said O'Brien, 'varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.'
He had moved a little to one side, so that Furniture had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire mesh cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were insects.
'In your case,' said O'Brien, 'the worst thing in the world happens to be insects.'
A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Furniture as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. But at this moment the meaning of the mask-like attachment in front of it suddenly sank into him. His bowels seemed to turn to water.
'You can't do that!' he cried out in a high cracked voice. 'You couldn't, you couldn't! It's impossible.'
'Do you remember,' said O'Brien, 'the moment of panic that used to occur in your dreams? There was a wall of blackness in front of you, and a buzzing sound in your ears. There was something terrible on the other side of the wall. You knew that you knew what it was, but you dared not drag it into the open. It was the insects that were on the other side of the wall.'
'O'Brien!' said Furniture, making an effort to control his voice. 'You know this is not necessary. What is it that you want me to do?'
O'Brien made no direct answer. When he spoke it was in the schoolmasterish manner that he sometimes affected. He looked thoughtfully into the distance, as though he were addressing an audience somewhere behind Furniture's back.
'By itself,' he said, 'pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable -- something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be destroyed. It is the same with the insects. For you, they are unendurable. They are a form of pressure that you cannot withstand, even if you wished to. You will do what is required of you.
'But what is it, what is it? How can I do it if I don't know what it is?'
O'Brien picked up the cage and brought it across to the nearer table. He set it down carefully on the baize cloth. Furniture could hear the blood singing in his ears. He had the feeling of sitting in utter loneliness. He was in the middle of a great empty plain, a flat desert drenched with sunlight, across which all sounds came to him out of immense distances. Yet the cage with the insects was not two metres away from him. They were enormous insects.
'Insects,' said O'Brien, still addressing his invisible audience, 'are vicious automatons. You are aware of that. You will have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town. In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The insects are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.'
There was an outburst of buzzing from the cage. It seemed to reach Furniture from far away. The insects were fighting; they were trying to get at each other through the partition. He heard also a deep groan of despair. That, too, seemed to come from outside himself.
O'Brien picked up the cage, and, as he did so, pressed something in it. There was a sharp click. Furniture made a frantic effort to tear himself loose from the chair. It was hopeless; every part of him, even his head, was held immovably. O'Brien moved the cage nearer. It was less than a metre from Furniture's face.
'I have pressed the first lever,' said O'Brien. 'You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These angry insects will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen an insect go for the eyes? They will fly straight into your eye and bore directly into it.
The cage was nearer; it was closing in. Furniture heard a succession of shrill cries which appeared to be occurring in the air above his head. But he fought furiously against his panic. To think, to think, even with a split second left -- to think was the only hope. Suddenly their buzzing overwhelmed his senses. There was a violent convulsion of nausea inside him, and he almost lost consciousness. Everything had gone black. For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal. Yet he came out of the blackness clutching an idea. There was one and only one way to save himself. He must interpose another human being, the body of another human being, between himself and the insects.
The circle of the mask was large enough now to shut out the vision of anything else. The wire door was a couple of hand-spans from his face. The insects knew what was coming now. One of them was flying against the partition, the other, a fierce alien-like being, was madly biting at the mesh. Furniture could see the jaws and the serrated mandibles. Again the black panic took hold of him. He was blind, helpless, mindless.
'It was a common punishment in Imperial China,' said O'Brien as didactically as ever.
The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then -- no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment -- one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.
'Do it to my child! Do it to my child! Not me! the child! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! my child! Not me!'
He was falling backwards, into enormous depths, away from the insects. He was still strapped in the chair, but he had fallen through the floor, through the walls of the building, through the earth, through the oceans, through the atmosphere, into outer space, into the gulfs between the stars -- always away, away, away from the insects. He was light years distant, but O'Brien was still standing at his side. There was still the cold touch of wire against his cheek. But through the darkness that enveloped him he heard another metallic click, and knew that the cage door had clicked shut and not open.
A previous reading from Orwell's Furniture.