“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a short story by Ernest Hemingway, portraying three people, different in age and possessed values — an elderly drunk and two waiters. Through the protagonists’ behavior in the café where the story is set, the author expresses the idea that all humans will inevitably fade into everlasting nothingness, as people’s values and aims are meaningless. From the perspective of a reader, the most important insight is that Hemingway’s existential story depicts people as creatures, who are searching for their “light in the darkness” in the simplistic and frightening reality. Two contrasting viewpoints on human existence are discussed: the young believe it should be a constant chase for goals, the older think that life is about the enjoyment of small moments: even though the young generation desires to be busy achieving heights, it seems that their focus must be shifted on simply daily delights.
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The Generation Gap and Fear of Confidence
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” starts with presenting drastically different perceptions of life by young and older generations and their fear of confidence. The older waiter and the old drunk man share the view that people should seek comfort, dignity, and enjoyment because life is meaningless. On the other hand, the younger waiter is always too hurried to enjoy the moment— he seems to think that through work or family, he can give meaning to his life (Hemingway 379). In contrast, the reader understands that Hemingway presents this difference not as an inherent characteristic of their personalities or beliefs, but as a difference dependent on their ages. It is possible to state that young persons do not possess enough experience to give up finding purpose, while older adults have already learned that the best way to live is to prioritize comfort and dignity. This short story must make it clear that knowledge naturally comes with age, and by their maturity, the perspective of the elderly should be taken seriously. In addition, a problem of false confidence is presented in the story. For example, the youngster is assured that his time is of utmost value because the waiter is often working or busy with family arrangements, whereas the patron’s life is senseless and passive (Hemingway 379). Since the waiter is no longer accountable for his actions due to his savagery and lack of self-analysis, the reader may suggest that this confidence means insecurity and self-disrespect.
Impatience as the Factor of Life Dissatisfaction
In the constant pursuit of new goals, the young waiter, who thinks there is no reason to stay in the café, derives purpose and meaning from clearly defined obligations. The youngster needs a break either from his job or his family, so he pushes the old drunk out of the café. Nevertheless, Hemingway seems to discourage readers from following the young waiter’s viewpoint by depicting the man as a brash, incredibly rude, and impatient person. It is noteworthy that the young man comes off as callous, aggressive, and even insensitive when he is working; the youngster informs that the old drunk “should have killed [ himself] last week” (Hemingway 376). For the readers, the youngster seems to share this sentiment simply because he is anxious to get home to his wife and rest. Henceforth, such behavior of the young man demonstrates his irresponsibility and impossibility to enjoy his life, which is expressed through impatience. This topic is especially important for young readers, who can recognize their behaviors in this short story and make corresponding conclusions about their life.
The meaninglessness of Life as the Reason for Suicide Attempt
Another message of the story is that life has no sense and that a person drowning in nothingness is an insignificant creature. The older waiter makes this notion as plain as he can when he says that “everything was a nothing, and man was also a nothing” (Hemingway 377). It is important to emphasize the fact that the origin of the patron’s desperation is not associated with isolation or deprivation. It is useful to become aware that the suicide attempt of the elderly gentleman and the fear of the old waiter derive from their mutual recognition that life is meaningless. Remarkably, both of them need a drink to accept this fact by behaving in a dignified manner. Therefore, it could be assumed that aging brings not only wisdom but also a depressing mood into people’s lives, which could later end up with self-murder. The significance of this topic lies in the necessity to be more attentive to the family, friends, and people around: sometimes, even a simple conversation can be beneficial to prevent suicide. The eternal pursuit of happiness and the meaning of life is presented in this short story, which makes it comprehensible and congenial to the reader’s personal experience.
In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, Hemingway suggests that the older men possess the right attitude towards the meaninglessness of life. They are not focused on goals or keeping busy; instead, both of the older men enjoy the moment they experience and search for the little pleasures that make them feel content in the face of nothingness. Besides, most importantly, the author urges readers to take the opinions of the older men seriously, as their life experience gives them insight into the fact that in the face of the meaninglessness of life, one should prioritize comfort and dignity.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Scribner, 1933, 379-383.