Orwell introduces the reader to the bistro at the foot of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. A small basement-like bar, it is a cheerful spot where regulars gather to sing songs, play dice, and engage in scandalous acts of public love-making. On this particular visit, Orwell and a small audience hear a story that Charlie, a dissolute and pig-like young man from a well-off family, tells about the happiest day of his life. The day begins with Charlie and his brother, whom he hates, having dinner together. Charlie’s brother, a well-to-do lawyer, passes out from drinking and Charlie empties his pockets. Newly rich and in the company of a sophisticated young man he meets on the street, Charlie takes a taxi to a brothel where an old woman leads Charlie to the blood-red basement and informs him he is free. He is entirely free to do whatever he pleases, so he rapes a young prostitute repeatedly, finding intense joy in the act of overpowering her. The woman tries to escape and cries out in fear for mercy, but Charlie does not relent.
Unlike the majority of his audience, Charlie’s relative poverty is not of the dire variety. He is from a respectable family and lives off a regular allowance from his parents. By robbing his brother, he is quite suddenly well off. His decision to spend his newfound wealth on a prostitute reveals his character even more than the robbery itself. In the story he relates to the bistro, Charlie represents the rich, the young prostitute the poor. Charlie’s cruel treatment of her is analogous to the many ways the rich subjugate the poor. Working out of what is in effect an elegantly-appointed jail cell, the prostitute is a slave to men’s desires and whims, unable to defend herself or change her position in life.
Charlie even considers murdering the young woman to prolong his pleasure, but he refrains because he knows he would be arrested for the act. Love, he declares, is short-lived. It lasts only an instant—a second really—leaving one in possession of nothing more than dust and ashes.