Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“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...
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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place (Magill Book Reviews)
The basic situation is that of two waiters--one older, one younger--sitting in a bar late at night, waiting for their last customer, a deaf old man, to leave. Most of the action consists of the dialogue between the two waiters in which the older waiter is sympathetic with the old man, while the younger one is impatient to get home to his wife.
The subject of the dialogue revolves around the knowledge one of the waiters has that the old man tried to commit suicide the previous week.
When the old man finally leaves, the older waiter, identifying with the old man, engages in a conversation with himself. He knows that the old man wanted to stay in the bar because it was clean and well-lighted, and that what the old man feared was not anything particular but rather a nothing. The old waiter emphasizes his own nihilism by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, in which for certain words he substitutes the Spanish word for nothing--nada: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name....”
The story is difficult, not only because the dialogue is confusing and the plot minimal, but also because the philosophic idea that underlies the story is a complex existential one. The old waiter knows that nothingness--the sense that there is no God or external value in the world--is the only ultimate reality. The clean, well-lighted cafe is a little island of order in the midst of the nothingness of reality; such concrete actualities constitute the only...
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Many things account for the rural or small town Spanish characters and scenery of Hemingway’s ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’’ First, as an expatriate artist living on the continent in the 1920s, Hemingway developed a passion for Spain. He was a lifelong fan of Spanish popular traditions. He enjoyed the festivals, and he keenly appreciated the bullfight. He went to Spain often to fish in the countryside, and so he came to know its plainer people.
In addition to this familiarity with Spain’s rural peoples, “plain folk” (e.g. waiters in small towns) provide an escape from the effete, or anything resonant of “civilization” which Hemingway scrupulously wishes to avoid in his art. This is so because the disaster that was WWI was a founding event and trauma in Hemingway’s life. His most admired novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), takes place around a Spanish popular festival and is about a wounded WWI veteran who is terribly in love but who has been made impotent by war injuries. This character’s situation is highly symbolic. He is the sterile scion of a disastrous past, which is like saying that civilization has progressed so far only to have progressed not at all. It is no wonder that Hemingway turns to folk. If civilization and progress has wrought such ugliness and pain, then where better to turn than to those whom progress has seemed to pass by or touched...
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The short story is set in a small, unnamed town, located somewhere in Spain. More specifically, the entire scene of the short story is set in a cafe and a street in a town that could serve as any town in the world. The town itself is a microcosm of the world, and the cafe represents man's shelter from the cold, inveterate world with all of its unknowns.
The setting is a vital factor in carrying the message of the story. Two waiters work at the cafe; one old, one younger. The younger man does not differentiate between the cafe where they wait tables and any other bar along the street as a place for drunks and misbegottens to spend their hours. However, the older waiter points out an important difference. He tries to explain to the younger waiter that a bar is not the same as a cafe, where the lights are on high, and the atmosphere is clean and friendly. He sees the cafe as a haven, as a shield against the sensation that the world is offering nothing to man, that man himself is little more than a speck moving along at an unsteady pace. The importance of the setting is that this cafe, this clean, well-lit establishment, provides the possibility of hope—if the man can discover a place where the insomnia of loneliness, from which the older waiter also suffers, can be forgotten, then perhaps there remains hope in an all-too-dark world.
"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also,...
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A short story as glaringly brief and simplified as this one is rightly called “minimalist” in its aesthetics (the word aesthetics refers to how the author tells his or her story). It uses the minimum building blocks necessary to accomplish the job of telling a story. Hemingway uses simple diction, usually monosyllabic words of Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to Latin, origin. Grammatically, he uses simple as opposed to complex sentences. There is little figurative language—no metaphor or simile, for example. Character and plot are minimized. These three characters do not even have names. All that happens is that the two waiters talk, the old man drinks, and then they all go home.
It is very clear to the reader what Hemingway does not do in this minimalist short story, but what does he do? One thing he does beyond the narrative minimum is repeat, or repeat with variation. For example, the story opens with an old man “who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” A bit further in the story the old man is said to sit “in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind.’’ And a few sentences later the old man is the one who is “sitting in the shadow. . . .’’ This repetition of the same with variation is the barest gesture at the figurative delights art can offer. In repeating, Hemingway seems to acknowledge the beauty of...
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Hemingway sorts through his tales with a razor blade: each sentence cuts into the story with its own purpose. Perhaps the most striking element of Hemingway's work is his sentence structure. However, other notable qualities abound in regard to his methods of telling a story.
In Hemingway's short stories, each sentence takes on a more pungent meaning, and all the more so in a story as compact as "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." The simple sentence structure belies a rich world of description, for it is through the very use of simplistic sentence structuring that Hemingway frees himself to offer the reader a clear picture of his scenes and characters. Take the following sentences: "After all, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it." These are the final two sentences of the story, and while they are short, simple, and clear, they tell readers a great deal. The older waiter has turned off the lights of the cafe and walked into a bar, where he had a drink and then left, rather disgusted. He decides that he will go home, and lie in bed, and wait for sleep. He has, throughout the story, been searching for meaning in the lives of the people he sees in the cafe and has been trying to connect with anyone near him—the younger waiter, the deaf patron at the cafe, the bartender at the bar where he goes for a drink. The last sentences of the story are deceptively uncomplicated: they reveal a deep longing for camaraderie. The older waiter lies awake, night...
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The human fear that life, in and of itself, does not have any intrinsic meaning is the most resounding issue broached in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." It is not often a pleasant issue to discuss with others, but it lies at the root of cognitive thought: Is there a higher order in the world? Does an individual life have meaning in and of itself? The older waiter hints at these thoughts throughout his dialogues with the younger waiter, the patrons at the cafe, and the bartender, but he brings these topics to the fore when Hemingway reveals the man's inner dialogue as the waiter ponders the need for light and cleanness and order. He says to the younger waiter, "You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves." The younger waiter ignores the conversation with a terse, "good night," and the older waiter is left alone to further ponder on the topic. He says to himself, "It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music." He is talking about his own desire to be able to claim some sense of order in the world around him, but in doing so, he is also trying to universalize his thoughts, to state his desires as those of all people. He recognizes his fear of "nothing"—"It was a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1920s: WWI is a notorious war. There was no clear villainous enemy, as in the fascists of WWII. It was terribly inefficient. It was considered then how the Viet Nam war is considered today, a fight that used soldiers sorely and traumatically. It ate up young men with all the efficiency of a giant thresher. The term ‘‘shell shock’’ was invented to name the hysteria and psychosis that the war induced in so many of the soldiers.
1990s: Countries like the U.S. which have technologically sophisticated warheads are now able to conduct “limited” wars. In contrast to WWI, the recent U.S. and European fighting against Serbia was conducted entirely from the air. Things and not people were the primary targets.
- 1930s: The Spain of Hemingway’s story suffered a great deal during the 1930s. The country, moving to more fully democratic rule, had elected a new government around the time Hemingway was writing ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’’ This latest election was ignored by the armies of Francisco Franco. Funded by fellow fascists Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy, Franco’s troops overcame the legitimate government in a bloody Civil War which lasted from 1936-39. The Spanish Civil War was a popular cause internationally. The world...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What are some the things that have happened in your life that have made you feel lonely? How have you alleviated this loneliness?
2. What is the significance of the cafe to the older waiter's life?
3. What is the significance of the cafe to the younger waiter's life?
4. Characterize the older waiter. Do you feel any sense of compassion for him? Why or why not?
5. What is the significance of the older waiter's speech about "nada," or "nothing?"
6. Characterize the younger waiter. Do you think that the younger waiter had good reasons for wanting to leave the cafe?
7. Explain how Hemingway uses his characters to define one another.
8. How would you describe the importance of community to these characters?
9. How are the metaphors of cleanliness and light—the cleanliness and brightness of the cafe—important to the story?
10. What are some ways Hemingway uses to infuse the story with humor?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. How realistic is the story? What is it like to work in a cafe?
2. What is it like to live in Spain?
3. Would this story have the same kind of dialogue if it were set in a bigger city? What are some of the differences between a big and a small city, with regard to the people who live there?
4. Would you consider the older waiter and the old patron to be friends? How would you define their relationship?
5. What might the younger waiter's history be? What kind of upbringing did he have, and how might he have come to be living the life he is living at the time of the story?
6. Why do people react so differently to other people's sorrows?
7. How does growing older change your perspective towards life and towards others?
8. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using an omniscient narrator?
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the famous U.S. brigade of the Spanish Civil War the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Which U.S. artists and writers fought or raised money for the Spanish Loyalists during this conflict?
- Examine the rise of fascism in the 1930s in Europe. How do historians account for the popularity or power of Mussolini, or Hitler and/or Franco? Or, research what platforms and positions characterize fascism. Hitler’s party, for example, was called the National Socialists. Why was it named this? What was “national” about it? What “socialist”?
- Explore theories about the “folk” that were circulating amongst artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance (1919-1935). Alain Locke’s 1925 essay ‘‘The New Negro,’’ a manifesto for this social and artistic movement, is a good place to begin. A seminal precursor text of the movement, also dealing with issues relating to “folk,” is W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.
- Examine Hemingway’s continued cultivation of Latin connections after his experiences in France and Spain. How was southern Florida and Cuba important to his life and development as a writer once he returned to the U.S.?
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"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" has not been adapted into any other version. But for those who enjoy the story, Hemingway wrote hundreds of short stories filled with the same kind of richness and lore. Specifically, stories to consider are "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber," "A Way You'll Never Be," "The Last Good Country," and "The End of Something." Any of these stories can be found in a complete compendium of Hemingway's short stories.
Hemingway also wrote many novels, a few of which garnered the Pulitzer and other prizes. The Old Man and the Sea tells the epic story of an old fisherman and his physical and emotional battle against a giant fish that he hooks onto his fishing line. A Farewell to Arms is a war-time love story set in the Spanish Civil War, in which Hemingway actually fought. Hemingway's style is relatively concrete from its inception, so any novel will give a fair representation of the core of his stylistic methods.
There is no other writer who writes in quite the same vein as Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a contemporary of Hemingway and addressed some of the same social issues, but it was Hemingway's style—short sentences, deceptively simple characters, the classic iceberg-style of revelation—that made him so wildly popular, even in his own day. One modern novelist who is sometimes consider to carry on Hemingway's tradition with some aplomb is Paul Fussell, a...
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What Do I Read Next?
- The Sun Also Rises (1926) is generally considered to be Hemingway’s best and most enduring novel. The main character has been maimed in WWI, and he is desperately in love with a woman he cannot have. The story recounts his and his friends cynical and disillusioned experiences in Spain during a festival.
- The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), by Paul Fussel, examines the literature and culture of WWI, the Great War.
- The Great Gatsby (1925) is a novel written by one of Hemingway’s contemporaries, F. Scott Fitzgerald. It takes place in the U.S. northeast, and the wild and desperate Roaring Twenties are beautifully captured.
- Winesburg, Ohio (1919) is a book of interconnected short stories by the U.S. writer who was Hemingway’s first inspiration and mentor, Sherwood Anderson. The stories are interconnected, as each covers yet more terrain in small town Winesburg.
- Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969), by Carlos Baker, is a definitive and widely respected Hemingway biography.
- Jacob’s Room (1922) is one of Virginia Woolf’s WWI novels, and it is about a young man who never returns from WWI. Jacob is evoked throughout this strange and haunting work...
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For Further Reference
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Thames & Hudson, 1999. Burgess's eloquent and anecdotal recount of the life of Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. This is the Finca Vigia Edition of all of Hemingway's published short stories.
Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999. This book chronicles the last fourteen years of Hemingway's life from a personal perspective and is the first book to reveal that Hemingway's 1961 death had been a suicide.
Phillips, Larry W., ed. Ernest Hemingway on Writing. New York: Touchstone Books, 1999. This book presents a selection of the author's thoughts on the craft of writing, culled from various letters, books, interviews, speeches, and an unpublished manuscript.
Ross, Lillian. Portrait of Hemingway. New York: Modern Library, 1999. First published in 1950 at the height of Hemingway's career, this living biography chronicled the writer's career to date.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bennett, Warren. ‘‘Character, Irony, and Resolution in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’” In America Literature, Vol. XLII, March, 1970, pp. 70-79.
Lewis, Wyndham. ‘‘The Dumb Ox: A Study of Ernest Hemingway.” In The American Review, Vol. III, June, 1934, pp. 302,312.
Perloff, Marjorie. ‘‘Modernist Studies.’’ In Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Studies, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1992, pp. 154-178.
O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Cleveland: World, 1963, pp. 156-69.
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion Books, Inc., 1959. This is a classic in American literary criticism, and it contains a well-known chapter on gender and sexuality in Hemingway.
Hemingway, Ernest. ‘‘The Nobel Prize Speech.’’ In Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 11, Summer, 1962, p. 10. Hemingway’s acceptance speech.
Ross, Lillian. ‘‘How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?’’ In The New Yorker, May 13, 1950. A bravura period piece written at the height of Hemingway’s popularity.
Stanton, Edward F. Hemingway and Spain: A Pursuit. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1989. An...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.
Padura Fuentes, Leonardo. Adiós Hemingway. Translated by John King. New York: Canongate, 2005.
Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Blackwell, 1986.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Homecoming. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
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