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...
(The entire section is 621 words.)
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One of the most touching aspects of this short story is the older waiter’s expressed solidarity with the old man. While the young waiter is all “youth” and “confidence,” the old waiter and the old man seem overwhelmingly lonely and tired-out by life. This communality structures the older waiter’s consistent thoughts of solidarity with the old man. He understands and defends him; he too prefers a clean, well-lighted cafe to a bar or bodega; he too seeks out such a place to forestall his own despair that night. The climax of this theme of solidarity is the climax of the story itself. It comes in its final line: ‘‘He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he went home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.’’ It is the “many” of the final sentence of the story with which the story is concerned. Against the singular and selfish young waiter, the coupled old men signify the group or community that hangs together out of loyalty and a sense of common cause. Hemingway’s fiction around the time of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” frequently thematizes solidarity, undoubtedly because this principle of conduct was highly valued at the time. Much political advance was achieved in the first three decades of the century...
(The entire section is 1101 words.)