“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is one of the best examples of Hemingway’s distinctive style: objective point of view; short, active declarative sentences; frequent repetition of key words; heavy reliance on dialogue in which the characters speak in short, clipped sentences or fragments, an impressionistic representation of everyday speech: “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”
In A Moveable Feast (1964), Hemingway identifies one of the key elements of his technique as recognizing that what is left out of a story is just as important as what is included, as when Nick Adams’s recent return from the chaos of war is not directly mentioned in “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925). This approach can be seen in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” in which there is no overt reference to the disappointments the young waiter will certainly experience, the nights he will not be so eager to run home to his loving wife, there is no explanation of why the old man attempts suicide, no evidence of what has specifically taught the older waiter about nada. Considerable dramatic tension, as well as universality, is created by revealing so little about the characters and the time and place.
A corollary to this technique is that everything in the story must be there for a reason. A brief reference early in the story to a soldier and girl, apparently a prostitute, passing by the café is significant to illustrate the younger waiter’s concern only with the practical, the immediate: “He had better get off the street now. The guard will get him.” The older waiter’s view is more worldly: “What does it matter if he gets what he’s after?” As the couple pass, “The street light shone on the brass number on his collar.” By ignoring the rules, the soldier has captured a moment in the light. Ironically, he is similar to the young waiter so restless to join his wife in bed. Such economic, perfectly controlled storytelling is the epitome of Hemingway’s style at its best.