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 disappointments, about the chaos that youthful confidence now allows him to ignore.
The older waiter is one of the initiated, one who understands the true nature of the world, who clearly sees the distinction between cafés and bodegas, between day and night, between values as they should be and harsh reality. He represents the so-called Hemingway code, which can be seen as a humanistic, as opposed to theological, effort to create a dimension of meaning. The Hemingway code character recognizes the seeming futility of man’s headlong rush toward death and, instead of despairing, attempts to create what meanings or values he can, as with the hero’s “separate peace” in A Farewell to Arms (1929). Thus, the older waiter wants to keep the café open because someone like the old man, like the waiter himself—someone bruised by the dark, disordered world—may need it.
The café, rather than nada, becomes the most important symbol in the story because it represents a kind of hope, pathetic though it may be. The old man’s despair at home leads him to try to hang himself; in the café he can drink his brandy with dignity. The older waiter recognizes this dignity: “This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk.” (The young waiter spills the brandy he pours for the old man.) The cafe is a place where those without the innocence of youth, the illusions of belief, can pass the time with dignity. It is a refuge from meaninglessness—but only a refuge, not an escape. The café must eventually close; all must go home. The older waiter finds the bodega to which he wanders “very bright and pleasant,” but the bar is unpolished. It is a temporary substitute for the café just as the café is a temporary respite from the chaos of the dark world outside.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” dramatizes modern man’s quest for dignity amid the destruction of the old values. The individual needs to escape his responsibilities while realizing that this escape is but momentary. The individual’s responsibility to himself is to find a clean, well-lighted place or create one of his own. The ironic paradox of the story is that meaning can be created only through an awareness of its absence.