Study Guide

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Hemingway's Modernist Minimalist Narrative

What stands out about ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ is its minimalism. Known for simple sentences and simple diction, Hemingway positively outdoes himself in this famous short story. In the most pared down English imaginable, three nameless and unexceptional characters rehearse a brief, nocturnal scene. Thus, this story ostentatiously extols the virtues of the simple. This minimalism is so very dramatic, in fact, one feels that complexity or sophistication is not simply precluded, but actually written against. In writing such stripped-down prose and narrative, Hemingway counters the era which precedes him. Nineteenth-century prose and narrative is, by contrast, the epitome of ornateness and complexity. The extreme minimalism of a ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ connotes a turning away from the past, from history and progress, war and technology.

In ‘‘Modernist Studies,’’ a review essay in a collection called Redrawing the Boundaries, Marjorie Perloff states that ‘‘modernism perceived its own mission as a call for rupture.’’ By ‘‘rupture,’’ Perloff means that modernists dealt with what appeared to them to be a disappointing history by searching for completely transformed ways of going about politics and life. The idea was to break with a civilization that had not yielded the positive social progress it had so believed in and so loudly proclaimed it was delivering. This bleak sense of western culture not living up to its best promise was felt already before World War I but the shocking carnage of the Great War, in terms of the sheer number and sheer horribleness of deaths and injuries, intensified and galvanized this feeling. This war left the west, but particularly Europeans, reeling. What had been an energetic movement in the arts before the war became deadly serious after it. Some modernist artists experimented with their prose (e.g. Virginia Woolf), or their painterly techniques (e.g. Picasso’s cubism), in an effort to point to and usher in the transformations in social relations they so strongly desired. Others—Hemingway is preeminent in this group—chipped away at language and action to shuck off and scrupulously avoid the no longer desired. ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ is glaring proof of this. No ‘‘fancy’’ or sophisticated words or situations weighted with undesired history or civilization are of interest to him. Hemingway is after the truly enduring and noble underneath the destructive and suffocating clutter of civilization and history.

‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ rests on the dramatic information of the old man’s attempted suicide, and the difference between the two waiters. An old man sits alone, far too late into the night, drinking steadily. This is a scene of pathos. This is pathos, however, in which much is made of pathos contained, or reigned in. The man is known to be very drunk, but he is ‘‘clean,’’ neither belligerent nor messy. By not calling attention to himself or his suffering, he avoids making of it or himself an event. This story about quietly endured pain connotes the idea that suffering is indeed so common, so mundane, no commemoration of it is necessary.

In the rather tragic universe of the cafe, there are two waiters. One of them sees a single customer sitting alone, someone who has been the last customer and has been sitting there alone for a long time. He decides he wants the person to leave so that he can close up and go home. This prosaic situation and wish is set against the older waiter’s argument that they should not close up in case the man is finding solace in this ‘‘clean, well-lighted place.’’ His having tried to kill himself, and his being in the cafe drinking at all, seems to suggest this. The older waiter’s argument is a plea based on the simple question of ‘‘Wouldn’t you want to be here if you were him?’’ The younger waiter must grudgingly agree, finally, that it means something to drink in a clean, well-lighted place, instead of at home alone. Nevertheless, he...

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The Ambiguity of “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”

Since Warren Bennett's 13,000-word defense—concluding, ‘‘All printings of [‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’] should, therefore—in fairness . . . most of all, to Hemingway—follow the 1965 emended text’’—has passed muster with Paul Smith, the earlier cries of “Enough!” were premature: a comprehensive demonstration of the accuracy of Hemingway’s text is needed, lest we wake up one day to find the emendation enshrined in the Library of America. The need is evident too when Gerry Brenner can write: ‘‘must we know which waiter answers the question ‘How do you know it was nothing?’ with ‘He has plenty of money’? I think not.’’ One cannot take this answer away from the younger waiter without redistributing 19 other speeches; and to think that this can be done without damaging the intention in a story that so sharply differentiates the two waiters is to reveal once again that the story being read is not yet the one Hemingway wrote.

Anyone drawn to the notion that in Hemingway’s text, whether by accident or design, there is an inconsistency that cannot be resolved has failed either to consider or to study the context of the crucial disputed line. No one, when first reading the story, can know which waiter is saying, as the dialogue opens, ‘‘Last week he tried to commit suicide.’’ The deliberateness of the uninformative ‘‘one waiter said’’ is undeniable, for in the second short dialogue (about the soldier), critics will never agree that it is possible to know which waiter is saying what. The third dialogue continues the challenge, as the younger waiter begins:

‘‘He’s drunk now,’’ he said.

‘‘He’s drunk every night.’’

‘‘What did he want to kill himself for?’’

By habit we assign this question and the succeeding ones to the younger waiter, so we are surprised, some lines later, to find the older waiter saying, ‘‘You said she cut him down,’’ for he, it would seem, has been answering the questions. But since this apparent inconsistency complements the riddling ‘‘one waiter said’’s, the context of controlled ambiguity assures us that when Hemingway decided to insert ‘‘You said she cut him down,’’ he knew that his assignment of this indispensable line was decisive, and consequently he knew which waiter he was giving it to. The function of this dual ambiguity is clear even before we know it is dual: once we have heard about ‘‘nada,’’ the withholding of identification throws a spotlight on the opening ‘‘Nothing’’:

‘‘What [was he in despair] about?’’

‘‘Nothing.’’

Then, after we have detected the apparent inconsistency, we realize that without the disputed insertion, we might decide that this ‘‘Nothing” (whose overtones Hemingway must have been aware of before he began) is the older waiter’s ‘‘nada,” and the insertion is there to tell us we would be mistaken. But it tells us ambiguously, not immediately ending the puzzle of the ‘‘one waiter said’’s, prodding us to see why ‘‘Nothing” cannot be the older waiter’s ‘‘nada” and must be the younger waiter’s line. If the opening ‘‘Nothing” were the older waiter’s line, there would be no reason for the web Hemingway took pains to weave. In pulling that web apart without studying it, the emenders, like surgeons cutting blindly, destroyed its function and lopped off an organic part of the story’s meaning, for the younger waiter’s ‘‘Nothing” opens up a kind of flanking attack that turns out to be the central location of the battle.

Bennett argues that the reply to ‘‘Why [did the old man try to commit suicide]?’’—‘‘He was in despair’’—indicates the speaker’s familiarity with ‘‘nada,” and therefore the older waiter must be the one answering the questions. True, in the whole story this ‘‘despair” is the one word that can make us hesitate, but what follows it only supports our seeing the younger waiter throw up his hands mockingly as he replies, ‘‘He was in despair’’; for, coming from him, these words are a vacuous formula, forcing the questioner to repeat his question, and the mockery is confirmed when we see that the proffered answer ‘‘Nothing” is a set-up for a joke:

‘‘How do you know it was nothing?’’

‘‘He has plenty of money.’’

Because the older waiter could not think that anyone with ‘‘plenty of money” can have no reason to kill himself, Bennett is forced to construe ‘‘Nothing’’ as the later ‘‘nada.” But a premature, ambiguous ‘‘Nada” here, followed by an equally unenlightening, mocking deflection of the appeal for an explanation, would make the whole passage a pointless, as well as a misleading, anticipation, and it would also make the older waiter uncharacteristically glib and smug: it would be inconsistent with his patience as a teacher (‘‘You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café.’’), with his feeling for the old man, and with the fact that, as he begins his interior monologue, he is not out to explain the old man’s suicide attempt—he is asking, rather, why he himself has ‘‘never had confidence,’’ why does he ‘‘need a light for the night,” ‘‘What did he fear?,’’ as though he is only now, for the first time, naming his trouble. If ‘‘Nothing’’ were the older waiter’s reply and meant what Bennett claims, this waiter’s next reply would make sense—for example:

‘‘How do you know it was [nada]?’’

‘‘He has a loving wife.’’

That is what but ‘‘nada” can explain the suicide attempt when even such affection fails? The hypothetical answer helps us see the actual answer as a coarse joke; but that it is such a joke and stays a joke, Hemingway makes clear when the persistent questioner asks, ‘‘What did he want to kill himself for?’’ The new answer is not an explanation of ‘‘nada” but a callous dismissal—‘‘How should I know’’—which shows us again that behind the answer ‘‘Nothing” there was no idea the speaker might expand on; he now openly shrugs the question off, as though saying, ‘‘What are you asking foolish questions for? What difference does it make? Who cares?” Three times the older waiter has asked ‘‘Why?” and three times there has been no genuine answer. This persistent rebuff of a serious question is not the way of the older waiter. Bennett is insensitive to the tone of ‘‘How should I know’’ when he hears in it the older waiter’s ‘‘existential un-certainty,’’ not the crude impatience that Hemingway helpfully suggested by removing the question mark and restoring the period with which he had originally ended the line (MS 3). And since the opening ‘‘Nothing” was meant as a set-up for a wise-guy answer, the older waiter cannot be said, in his monologue, to be expounding already, with stunning eloquence, on the ‘‘‘despair’’’ he had just ‘‘‘learned’ about from’’ his insensitive colleague.

The principal argument, however, against attributing ‘‘Nothing” to the older waiter is in what Hemingway meant by contriving this line for the younger waiter. Bennett asserts that since the older waiter ‘‘knows and understands the ‘nothingness’ behind suicidal thoughts,’’ he ‘‘could not ‘stupidly’ ask ‘Why [did the old man try to commit suicide]?’’’ This distortion makes us think immediately of Hemingway’s suicide. We are still asking ‘‘Why?”—as Hemingway himself asked, more than once, about his father (Winnerw; Bell). In Darkness Visible William Styron concludes that clinical depression, even when it does not end in suicide, is an ‘‘all but impenetrable mystery.” The older waiter’s persistent return to the question ‘‘Why?”—an effort to learn what may be known—reflects the compassionate, intelligent involvement behind his pursuit of the subject—‘‘How did he do it?,” ‘‘Why did they do it [cut him down]?’’ (emphasis added). But the more important mistake in Bennett’s distortion here is his failure to realize that the older waiter neither says nor implies that ‘‘nada,” as he defines it, causes suicide. His monologue laments the loss of the traditional image of a fatherly God; what it says is what Freud says in The Future of an Illusion (had Hemingway read it?), though Freud, arguing, like the waiter, ‘‘light was all it needed’’ exhibits rather more confidence in the café he had opened. In this context, ‘‘a man was nothing too’’ has two meanings, which Hemingway, with grim humor, had recently explained in ‘‘A Natural History of the Dead,” puncturing the rhetoric of Mungo Park: our individual survival means nothing to the universe, and what happens to an untended corpse ridicules our exalting ourselves above natural law. No more than Hemingway there does the waiter here connect this atheism with suicide. Rather, he is raising the question, What are we (the human race), now that the God who marks the sparrow's fall is gone and we are no longer immortal? The answer, ‘‘a man was nothing too,’’ means we are only another kind of animal, so that our ‘‘place” now is merely a refuge, a sort of wildlife sanctuary, like the café for the old man. The symbolic meaning of this refuge is not the older waiter’s—he is too modest (‘‘it is probably only insomnia’’); behind him, it is Hemingway who is suggesting that religion—and every other kind of home we carve for ourselves out of this harsh cosmos that doesn’t know we are here—is no more than such a refuge.

But the story does not stop with the monologue: having shown us how different the waiters are, Hemingway has maneuvered us into going back to see what he is up to with those ‘‘one waiter said”s—a challenge that is reinforced when, as we puzzle over it, we detect the apparent inconsistency; and now we discover that the younger waiter’s role is to dramatize how ‘‘a man was nothing too,’’ in the way his behavior answers ‘‘What are we?’’ with the complementary question ‘‘Who am I?’’ His bristling when his colleague teases, ‘‘You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?,’’ implies that under the boast ‘‘I am all confidence” is a man who does not know himself, and who is fated, like Oedipus, to find out who he is, disastrously. This ominous ignorance is equally noticeable when he tells the deaf old man, ‘‘You should have killed yourself last week”: such self-satisfied callousness is excessive, a gratuitous display of this waiter’s assurance that he has nothing in common with the...

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Survival through Irony: Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ has with justice been considered an archetypal Hemingway story, morally and aesthetically central to the Hemingway canon. But its crystalline structure and sparse diction have led many critics to judge the story itself a simple one, either about nothingness, ‘‘a little nada story,’’ or about the author’s positive values, a story ‘‘lyric rather than dramatic.’’ I would like to suggest that it is in neither sense simple, but that the feelings and ideas which lie behind it are complex and are expressed dramatically, chiefly through the characterization of the older waiter. The latter is a man of enormous awareness continually torn between what might be called religious...

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Character, Irony, and Resolution in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Interpretation of Hemingway’s short story ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ has always been confronted with the illogical dialogue sequence between the two waiters. Since analysis probably became stalled on the question of which waiter knew about the old man’s attempted suicide, interpretation has tended to center on either the older waiter’s nada prayer or the problem of the illogical sequence itself. The result seems to be a partial misinterpretation of the character of the younger waiter, a failure to see the wide play of irony in the story, and the absence of any interpretation of the story’s ironic resolution.

However, before these latter matters can be successfully dealt with, the story’s...

(The entire section is 3303 words.)