Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
One of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has been the subject of considerable critical analysis, much of it focusing on the significance of nada, or nothingness. This concept of nada is clearly central to Hemingway’s worldview; characters obsessed by death, by the apparent meaninglessness of life, appear throughout his fiction. In a century in which religion, politics, and various philosophical stances have failed for so many, modern life has devolved into spiritual emptiness and moral anarchy. Nada in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” becomes a metaphor for this modern chaos; the older waiter’s nothing represents an absence of light—including that word’s associations with reason and belief—of order, of meaning.
What is important for a Hemingway character, however, is how to respond to this seemingly meaningless universe. Hemingway dramatizes this dilemma through contrasting the two waiters; as the older one explains, “We are of two different kinds.” The young waiter is selfish and cynical, lacking in empathy, inexperienced at life without realizing it. “I have confidence. I am all confidence,” he tells the older waiter. He is like many young people who think that they and their world are as they should be and will always be the same. The older waiter responds ironically, “You have youth, confidence, and a job. . . . You have everything.” This “everything” will last only until experience, as it must, teaches the young waiter about life’s...
(The entire section is 621 words.)
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