The limitation of short stories prompts authors to focus on the essential contents of their narrative, stripping away unnecessary descriptions and explanations. One of the best examples of such a prudent approach to writing is the short story by Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” written and published in 1933. The story covers the events of a single evening, and three nameless men are at the center of the audience’s attention.
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A Spanish café is opened late, and a deaf old man sits alone, drinking brandy and appreciating the evening’s calm and tranquil atmosphere. Two waiters, a younger and an older man keep watch on him and discuss his life. The dialogue opens with one of the waiters telling the other that the old man tried to commit suicide, although the waiter does not see a reason for this and states that the man is rich. Here, the first conflict is established, as the reader can clearly see that one of the waiters dislikes the old man, while the other does not seem to mind his staying at the café late. Next, the dialogue between the waiters shifts to the discussion of loneliness.
The young waiter claims that he is not lonely and he has a wife to whom he wants to return after quickly closing the café. He expresses no desire to accommodate the old man, but the older waiter stands up for their guest and is empathetic to his need to be in a clean and well-lit place. In the end, the younger waiter refuses to serve the old man another brandy, closing the café and leaving. In comparison, the older waiter visits a bodega for a drink, before coming home and thinking about his own need for a clean and well-lit place and his inability to sleep at night. The short story benefits from its simple style, spare use of descriptions, and vague time passing and presents the discussion of loneliness, existentialism, and nothingness.
Style, Tone, and Genre
First, one has to acknowledge the language and tone Hemingway uses to tell the story. The author starts with a succinct description of the location, time, scenery, and characters. The appearance of people or the café is omitted, thus showing their irrelevance to the story. Next, the dialogue starts, and Hemingway includes only the words that the characters say – one can only guess which waiter says which phrase and their age does is not mentioned from the beginning, which makes the audience unsure of their initial stance on the situation.
The majority of the story is told in this dialogue, which suggests a dialectical approach to approaching the central theme – loneliness. Both waiters exchange short sentences, but the younger waiter is much harsher in his wording, while his older colleague is more philosophical and empathetic. The waiters argue, “I want to go home to bed. / What is an hour? / More to me than to him. / An hour is the same” (Hemingway 8).
This short exchange demonstrates the significant differences in characters, and one can clearly understand which waiter is speaking without any additional information. This economic approach is further enhanced by the lack of background information about any of the characters. Interestingly, the last part of the story shifts the focus on the older waiter, showing his dialogue and his thoughts, in which he contemplates on the evening’s events and his attitude towards loneliness and nothingness. The whole story, however, remains close to real life, making it realistic fiction.
Setting, Imagery, and Symbols
Similar to the language of the short story, the environment is incredibly simple. The time frame that is described is rather short (one evening), and the author focuses on a small number of characters and locations. The primary site, the café, also acts as a symbol for the narrative. As Hemingway writes, it is “a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted” (9). These two main descriptors, clean and well-lighted, are the basis of the imagery – the contrast with dirtiness and darkness can be applied to the characters’ lives. The old man and the older waiter want to spend time in a pleasant atmosphere that is different from their dark and lonely home.
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The younger waiter does not understand why visiting a bodega would not suffice for the old man, as there is alcohol there, and it is open all night. The older waiter, however, sees that the environment is the main reason for the old man to prefer one over the other – the café allows the visitor to retain some class and order in his life, and he remains dignified even when leaving somewhat drunk. This need for a light and neat environment is further brought up later, when the older waiter goes to a bar, leaving after one drink because the place does not provide him with solace.
As noted above, the main ideas in the short story revolve around loneliness, nothingness, and the passage of time. First of all, the older waiter thinks about nothingness in the final part of the story, wondering what he fears, dreads, and wants. His mangled prayer, where every other important word is replaced with nada (nothing), aligns with the philosophy of existentialism, which is based on the lack of meaning in one’s life. The waiter recites, “our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name” and so forth to mock the purpose that some people may find in religion – to him, everything feels like nothing (Hemingway 10).
As he goes to the bar and home, the dread of nothingness persists. Nonetheless, the waiter, although knowing that his inability to sleep has to be connected to this emptiness, says to himself that it is only insomnia. He finds some peace in thinking that “many must have it,” which can also be connected to another theme – loneliness. One’s relationships are a significant part of the waiters’ discussion. The young waiter has a wife, and his behavior is motivated by his desire to return home sooner.
He does not understand the need for a company that the other two characters feel, possibly due to his age or a lack of concern for others. Moreover, he may not recognize that his future can also leave him craving companionship. Here, the idea of time and youth is interwoven with the story’s pacing. Although the old man is said to be spending much time at the café, the interactions between the waiters appear to be quick. As a result, the reader may not realize that significant time passes between the moments the old man asks for another brandy.
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
Finally, it may be beneficial to analyze the story’s ethos, pathos, and logos. It is especially relevant to the dialogue between the waiters who argue about closing the café and the old man’s life and death. The younger waiter does not appeal to the older waiter’s feelings or ethical principles when proposing to close the café. Instead, he bases the argument on his own needs and beliefs. In contrast, when standing up for the old man, the older waiter uses these techniques.
First, when one waiter explains that he is no lonely and he has “a wife waiting in bed for [him],” the other answers that the old man “had a wife once too” (Hemingway 7). In this case, the older waiter aims to show the other man some resemblances between all characters and the potential for loneliness that all people have. Furthermore, is phrase “an hour is the same” is another appeal to both one’s emotions and sensibility (Hemingway 8). The story does not use logical arguments to depict the fear of nothingness; it describes it through feelings instead.
The short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Hemingway is devoid of unnecessary knowledge, complex language, or an intricate plot. Nevertheless, by omitting most of the information, the author is able to focus on the core elements and themes. The genre of the short story is realistic fiction – the location and characters described by Hemingway are indistinguishable from that which may appear in real life. The central theme, nothingness, is further enhanced by the frugal use of adjectives and short descriptions. Furthermore, the characters cannot clearly express how they feel about the feeling of dread as well, which leads to a stronger appeal to one’s emotions rather than logic.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Edited by Raymond Soulard, Jr., Scriptor Press, 2003.