Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Two waiters in a Spanish café are waiting late one night for their last customer, an old man, to leave. As they wait, they talk about the old man’s recent suicide attempt. The younger waiter is impatient to leave and tells the deaf old man he wishes the suicide attempt had been successful. The young waiter has a wife waiting in bed for him and is unsympathetic when the older waiter says that the old man once also had a wife. The old man finally leaves when the younger waiter refuses to serve him further.
The older waiter argues that they should have allowed their customer to stay, that being in the café is not the same as drinking at home. He explains that he is also one of those “who like to stay late at the café. . . . With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.” He is reluctant to close because there may be someone who needs the café. When the young waiter says there are bodegas open all night, the other points out that the bright atmosphere of the café makes it different.
After the younger waiter goes home, the older one asks himself why he needs a clean, pleasant, quiet, well-lighted place. The answer is that he requires some such semblance of order because of “a nothing that he knew too well.” He begins a mocking prayer: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.” He then finds himself at a bodega that is a poor substitute for a clean, well-lighted café. He goes home to lie awake until daylight may finally bring him some sleep: “After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
One of Hemingway’s most frequently read and anthologized short stories is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” an amazing tour de force in that it is largely a story of setting rather than character or action. Only five pages long, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” takes place late at night in a small Spanish restaurant. The only customer, an old man, has attempted suicide a week earlier.
The two waiters, a young one and an older one, talk about the customer, The young waiter wants to close the place and put the old man out. The older waiter thinks they should not, but the young waiter prevails. The older waiter reflects on the difference between a well-lighted establishment such as his and a dark, smoky bodega, and in doing so touches on many of life’s deeper mysteries.
In the most dramatic incident in this restrained story, the old waiter recites the Lord’s Prayer, but in doing so, he substitutes the Spanish word nada (nothingness) for all the significant nouns and verbs in the prayer. In writing this passage, Hemingway captured much of the nihilistic sentiment that was abroad in the 1920’s and 1930’s and that T. S. Eliot had reflected earlier in The Waste Land (1922) and two years after that in his story “The Hollow Men.” Hemingway’s story does not really move toward anything, but its directionlessness, reminiscent of the directionlessness of the lost generation as reflected in The Sun Also Rises, is perhaps a human condition.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is another minimalist piece of writing that moves toward essentialism. It has the same sort of careful control of theme, style, character, and setting that Hemingway later achieved so successfully in The Old Man and the Sea.