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The older waiter in the story who speaks of nothingness (“it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada”) reflects Hemingway's own worldview that was tempered into a belief in the nothingness of existence through the trauma and tragedy of World War I. Indeed, WWI and the Spanish Civil War instilled in Hemingway a preoccupation with suffering and dying. This preoccupation is reflected in the Old Man who sits and drinks brandy on the terrace in the lonely hours of morning following midnight. Some critics who have disliked this story associate the contrasts between the old and young waiters with what they call Hemingway's masochism and suggest this is reflected in his muscular masculinity and his preoccupation with hunting and world travel: detractors accept this notion while admirers do not.
The story’s setting in Spain reflects his own love of Europe. He particularly loved Spain where bullfighting reflected his own feeling about life as an encompassing nothing that physical challenge turned into a something. Hemingway lived in Europe, settling in Paris with other revolutionary post-WWI fiction writers who questioned, rejected, and innovated in a similar fashion as Hemingway. A favorite haunt of his and his group’s was cafes; the cafe in the story reflects his own appreciation of and comfort in cafes in Paris. In sum, Hemingway's life is reflected in this story in that his belief in life's nothingness and his Paris association with cafes are threads that undergird the story of the old waiter, who has lost all passion for life (which the young waiter still possesses) and has replaced it with cafe places that are clean and well-lighted and offer something worth having, even if it really is a nothing not worth mentioning.
[It] was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. ... A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing.
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