Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is very simple story. An old man, aged about eighty years, tries to spend his night by drinking brandy in a Spanish café, but the young waiter becomes impatient, as he wants to join his wife at home and enjoy a sound sleep. At the deeper level, Hemingway has very skillfully put many interesting ideas about human life, particularly the differences in perception when life moves from youth to old age. Age not only takes away all human enthusiasms, but also makes time a burden. In the story, the old is shown as a hindrance to the desires of the youth, and the young is depicted as impatient and intolerant to the old. This paper is a critical analysis of the story, giving focus on the problem of age in it. Contrast is the most powerful literary devise used by Hemingway in the story to bring out the differences which age imposes on human perception. The old man has nothing left out in his life except death, and his attempt to commit suicide was once foiled by his niece. The young and impatient waiter, on the other hand, is eager to rush through life. The second waiter is older and unmarried, and he tries to balance the extreme qualities of the old man and the young man. The contrasting urge for life among the married and the unmarried is also shown through these two characters. The most powerful symbol, however, is light. The young waiter hates the artificial light at night. He wants to be with his wife. The light which his wife radiates is something which the older waiter has not experienced or understood. The old man is identified with shadow, because life no more gives him light. The café is a place of duty for the young waiter, a place which enables him to make his life with his wife easier. His wife and home are quite natural for him as the café and brandy are very natural to the other two characters. The life in the cafe is linked to insomnia, and the peaceful married life is directly related to comfort, confidence, and peace for the youth. The young waiter becomes impatient and upset when this reality is disturbed. In the same way, the old man’s peace is disturbed when he is denied of brandy and is asked to quit. What is home for the old man is a hell for the young. “An old man is a nasty thing”, says the young waiter (Hemingway). Taking all these conflicting views between the old and the young, one can see that the story at a deeper level deals with appearances and reality. What is reality for the young man is sure to turn into an illusion when he reaches old age. It may be this fear which prompted him to say “I wouldn’t want to be that old”. The story also touches upon meaning and meaninglessness of life, as seen by men of different ages. The old man does not argue or protest when he is asked to go. Instead he gives tips to the young man and silently leaves the place. He knows the limitation in existential choices. On the other hand, the old waiter tries to argue and convince the young waiter, though he also knows it is futile. The old waiter says, “It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too… deliver us from nada; pues nada” (Hemingway). A sense of nothingness pervades the story.
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Old men in Hemingway stories are mostly “code heroes”, and the old man in this story is also a tutor leaving many things for the young to learn. He has already lived his life and the cool acceptance of death he shows is a fine example for the young to imitate. He is ready to leave the world as the way he leaves the café. The young waiter in the story is not a drinker, or a bull fighter, or a boxer, wasting his life in brothels like his counterparts in other Hemingway stories. Aging is a theme Hemingway always liked to deal with, and he is a master in that. His style in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is conversational and he uses understatement, as is the case in all his stories.