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In Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," that is what one can hope for: a clean, well-lighted place like the little cafe.
The story presents a realistic--some might say bleak--picture of reality and existence. In this world, the story suggests, one finds meaning in small ways. Bits of kindness or courtesy, peace, contentment, and comfortable surroundings are what one can hope for. The place where the old man drinks his brandy is all he has.
The world, as the speaker sees it, is bleak. The old man "Last week...tried to commit suicide." Why, or what about? "Nothing." Yet, though he is cut off and told he is "finished" by the inconsiderate of the two waiters, he leaves a tip and, when he leaves, walks "unsteadily but with dignity."
Meaning in the story is clutched from nothingness, and found in places like the little cafe.
The title "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" reveals not only irony but the major themes of solidarity and dignity in the face of the unknowable.
Irony: the title is an ironic description of the physical setting of the bar. It shows the public world of the old man and the two waiters. All three no doubt act one way in public: with dignity. One wonders how each act when they are in private. We must assume that all are lonely, whether young or old.
Themes: the title juxtaposes the "nada" at the end. So, we have a well-lit exterior world of things, but an empty dark world of character. The theme is implicit: old men can show real dignity in public even though they may privately feel empty. So says Enotes:
Hemingway is a writer obsessed by ethical conduct. The bulk of his writing is concerned with questions of good versus bad actions. In this fiction, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how you play the game. This is true, perhaps, because in Hemingway’'s fictional universe one rarely wins. The title of the collection from which “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ comes suggests this complicated stance. It is called Winner Take Nothing. If one has won nothing as a winner, then all one has done is played the game.
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