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...
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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...
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Nada and the Clean, Well-Lighted Place
One of his most frequently discussed tales, ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place'' is justly regarded as one of the stylistic masterpieces of Ernest Hemingway's distinguished career in short fiction. Not only does it represent Hemingway at his understated, laconic best, but, according to Carlos Baker, ‘‘It shows once again that remarkable union of the naturalistic and the symbolic which is possibly his central triumph in the realm of practical aesthetics.’’ In a mere five pages, almost entirely in dialogue and interior monologue, the tale renders a complex series of interactions between three characters in a Spanish cafe just prior to and immediately after closing: a stoic old waiter, a brash young waiter, and a wealthy but suicidal old man given to excessive drink.
Aside from its well-documented stylistic achievement, what has drawn the most critical attention is Hemingway's detailed consideration of the concept of nada. Although the old waiter is the only one to articulate the fact, all three figures actually confront nothingness in the course of the tale. This is no minor absence in their lives. Especially "for the old waiter'' Carlos Baker notes, ''the word nothing (or nada) contains huge actuality. The great skill in the story is the development, through the most carefully controlled understatement, of the young waiter's mere nothing into the old waiter's Something—a Something called Nothing which is so...
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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 idealism and intellectual nihilism, a combination that surfaces in irony in several places in the story. This tension between two modes of viewing the world is developed through imagery that functions as a setting, through characterization, and, more abstractly, through a theme which I take to be the barriers against nada.
The most obvious source of imagery is the words of the title, the qualities of light and cleanness, to which one may add quietness. These terms admirably illustrate what Richard K. Peterson calls the ‘‘use of apparently objective words to express values;’’ they may be followed with profit throughout Hemingway’s stories, novels, and non-fiction. But in this story each of these qualities...
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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 troubled dialogue must still be preliminarily considered. Scribner’s claims that the dialogue inconsistency occurred when a slug of type was evidently misplaced in the first printing of the story in Scribner’s magazine in 1933, and since reprint plates were made from that printing and not from the original manuscript, which is no longer extant to anyone’s knowledge, the error was perpetuated until 1965. At that time Scribner’s issued a new edition of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway and made an ‘‘editorial’’ correction in the illogical sequence because the dialogue dictated it.
All texts from 1933 to 1965:
‘‘His niece looks after him.’’
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