There are times when a person would just want to find solace in a place where they can hang out and do nothing but feel they are just drifting over their weary existence in the outside world. It is just one of the nights when depression sets in and a clean and well-lighted place is just what you need to ease those frayed nerves and aching head. This place can somehow fill in the emptiness and the void. It’s not much grandeur as a theme of a popular story but it is what Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well Lighted Place” shares to all its readers. It is a poignant story of finding solace beyond all the harsh realities and complexities of the world. The simplicity and how readers can easily connect with the scenario in this story that makes this uplifting and unrelentingly heart-warming.
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Bearing similar characteristics of Hemingway’s other stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a brief story with a few characters and its external actions are minimal. In accordance with the early morning hour of the “action,” the dialogue is muted, much of it scarcely above a whisper. As all readers would immediately observe from its title alone, the story is concerned with the search for refuge and for transcendent meaning. In the story, we can find two waiters in a Spanish café as they watch an old man who sits outside in the shadows that the leaves make against the electric light. He’s a very old man—an image for pondering the ultimate significance of life in the face of impending death. Although he is deaf, the old man can feel the quietness of the late hour. Hemingway’s story is about such nuances, and deciphering nuance quickly becomes the primary challenge to its readers.
The opening line of dialogue and its tag define the challenge: “‘Last week he [the old man] tried to commit suicide,’ one waiter said.” The reader will have to hear more dialogue before deciding which waiter has broken the silence. The story asks that readers listen carefully. In only a few instances, the narrator will provide unequivocal identifications for the speaker of lines. However, Kerner (1992) thought that “the reply to ‘Why [did the old man try to commit suicide]?’—‘He was in despair” – indicated the speaker’s familiarity with “nothing” and therefore the older waiter must be the one answering the questions.
In this case, “listening” to the dialogue carefully in the story would tell readers eventually that the old waiter is the one answering the questions of the young waiter. With the older waiter, readers would not only sense the isolation of the old man, we also cherish his dignity. Sitting up late, looking into the darkness, the old man appreciates a clean, well-lighted place. He longs for order in a universe that seems to provide mainly darkness and chaos. Order lacking or minimal, he behaves as if he knows a sustaining code. When he leaves the cafe, he attempts the difficult feat, “walking unsteadily but with dignity.”
Moreover, opening line not only sets up this task for the reader, it foregrounds the religious dimension of the story. Suicide, against the backdrop of Christianity, is not the incidental topic that it seems to be to the speaker of the line. For the orthodox, suicide is the gravest of sins because it results from despair—the condition that denies God’s mercy and places the suicide beyond God’s mercy. Behind the suicidal tendencies, Bennet (1970) emphasized that “the structure of the story is based on a consistent polarity: ‘despair,’ characterized by depth of feeling and insight into the human condition, in opposition to ‘confidence,’ characterized by a lack of feeling and, therefore, a lack of insight.” Another take on the religious aspect on this story is the reduction of the Lord’s Prayer appearing on the late part of the story with “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name, thy kingdom nada, thy will be nada in nada”. This is the despairing prayer of an elderly waiter for whom only a “clean, well-lighted place” offers a refuge from the nothingness of existence (Clark 2003, p. 87). Similarly, Hoffman (1979) felt the “deft substitution of the word nada for all the key nouns (entities) and verbs (actions)” in the Lord’s Prayer suggested the “truly metaphysical stature” of this story. Hoffman (1979) believed that it is obvious that nada is a connotation of “a series of significant absences: the lack of a viable transcendent source of power and authority; a correlative lack of external physical or spiritual sustenance; the total lack of moral justification for action (in the broadest perspective, the essential meaninglessness of any action); and finally, the impossibility of deliverance from this situation”.
With all the religious connotations as a device by Hemingway, readers will come to understand that the old waiter is commiserating with the old man outside the café. Although the old man has not wished to inconvenience anyone, his presence has annoyed the younger waiter, who is eager to close the cafe and to get home to his bed and wife. Much of the story contrasts the young waiter’s impatience and his insensitivity with the empathy of the older waiter. The comparison tells a contrast evident long before the narrator that gave the impression that the young waiter could not care enough because he still a lot of time to live up his life. However, the older waiter pays careful attention not only to what the old man does, but attends carefully to what his companion says. Thus, in the text Hemingway published, it is the young waiter who breaks the silence in the opening dialogue, reporting on the old man’s attempted suicide. Attempted suicide is a topic that has more than passing interest for the older waiter—for he knows much about loss and isolation. For him, the explanation “nothing” has a philosophical meaning that his companion cannot grasp. He takes very long views, and he is looking to his own future as he looks at the old man—and as he observes, “He must be eighty years old.” Hemingway does not identify the speaker of the line nor the speaker of the line that follows it. But the “sound” of the next line (“Anyway I would say he was eighty”) resonates in that same gentle voice—a quiet line, one in marked contrast to the unmistakably impatient line of the young waiter that follows. As sometimes happens in plays and often in life, a character follows his own line. Here the older waiter speaks to himself as much as to the other character. This dramatic device, indeed, opened the memorable exchange: “He’s drunk now, he said. ‘He’s drunk every night.” Both of those sentences, are spoken by the impatient, increasingly disgusted younger waiter. They contrast with the meditative “double” speeches on the old man’s age.
On the other hand, David Lodge (1971) observed that the last sentence of the first paragraph presents the two waiters as a single unit of consciousness” (p. 49). Noting that Hemingway does not give any of the characters a name, William B. Bache (1956) finds that this absence implied “that these characters should be regarded not so much as identifiable persons but as symbols…. the three characters are actually parts of an implied progression from youth through middle age to old age” (p. 64). Furthermore, the line “An hour is the same” can be seen as uniting all three characters into one, if it is viewed as an assertion of man’s mortal nature. An hour is the same insofar as it brings each of them one hour closer to death.
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Another important aspect about this story is its irony that lightens up the desolate setting. For example, “nothing” has been earlier served as a set-up for a joke: “How do you know it was nothing? — He has plenty of money.” Because the older waiter could not think that anyone with “plenty of money” can have no reason to kill himself, Bennett (1970) is forced to construe “Nothing” as the later “nada.” But a premature, ambiguous “Nada” here, followed by an equally unenlightening, mocking hesitation to give an explanation about everything. Readers would soon realize the whole passage was a pointless, as well as a misleading and ambiguous take about the outcome of what life has to offer for both the old men. The response would also make the older waiter uncharacteristically glib and smug: it would be inconsistent with his patience as a teacher (“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café”), with his feeling for the old man, and with the fact that, as he begins his interior monologue, he is not out to explain the old man’s suicide attempt–he is asking, rather, why he himself has “never had confidence,” why does he “need a light for the night”. The older waiter’s response also reeks of fear for himself because for the first time he realizes his own troubles of growing old alone. If “nothing” were the older waiter’s reply and meant what Bennett (1970) claimed, this waiter’s next reply would make sense–for example: “How do you know it was [nada]? — He has a loving wife”.
Despite the desolation that this story represented, Hoffman (1979) felt that the facts in Hemingway’s story should “be enough to alert us to the possibility that tangible physical location is not sufficient to combat the darkness” by explaining that “the clean, well-lighted place that is, is not actually a ‘place’ at all; rather, it is a metaphor for an attitude toward the self and its existential context, a psychological perspective which, like the cafe itself with its fabricated conveniences and electric light, is man-made [and] artificial”. Readers will realize that the “cleanliness” is the metaphor that meant “a personal sense of order, however artificial and temporary, carved out within the larger chaos of the universe, a firm hold on the self with which one can meet any contingency”. With the “light”, Hemingway refers to this as “a special kind of vision, the clear-sightedness and absolute lack of illusion necessary to look into the darkness and thereby come to grips with the nada which is everywhere”. It also represented a different “vision” that “must also be directed at the self so as to assure its cleanness”. Thus, Hoffman (1979) revealed that the “cleanness and light” of the cafe is irrelevant but it is the ability to “internalize these qualities carries the clean, well-lighted place with him, even into the very teeth of the darkness”.
Beyond the nothingness, the void and the ambiguous conversations in the story, we entirely could not judge that this story is about hopelessness. Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has hope interspersed behind all the desolation about life’s uncanny difficulties. Hemingway definitely exercised his great skill in developing a short story through simple and controlled understatements. The young waiter’s mere “nothing” is matched with the old waiter’s “something”. Readers can understand that this something called nothing can be so enormous, terrible, overbearing, inevitable and omnipresent that once experienced that it can never be forgotten. That when the time comes when all of us arrive at the situation of the old man outside, we have a refuge like the clean and well-lighted place where we could have a flicker of hope, aiding us to turn away from our past and reflect about what our future holds.
Bennett, Warren. “Character, Irony, and Resolution in ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’.” American Literature. 42.1 (Mar. 1970): 70-79.
Clarke, Howard. Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”.
Hoffman, Steven K. “Nada and the Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Essays In Literature. 6.1 (Spring 1979): 91-110.
Kerner, David. “The Ambiguity of ‘A Clean Well-lighted Place’.” Studies In Short Fiction. 29.4 (Fall 1992): 561-574.
Lodge, David. “Hemingway’s Clean, Well-Lighted Puzzling Place,” Essays in Criticism, 21 (1971): 33-56.