1) how does setting function in a story?
2)What is the theme of the story? What in the story suggests this theme?
3)What role does setting play in the story? Does it function to simply set a tone, or does it work more directly to suggest the theme?
1. Setting has a wide range of functions in a story. It can create possibilities or limitations on what takes place, such as by setting the story on an island or in winter. It can also contribute to the mood, particularly if the reader brings an understanding of the setting into the story; for example, an observant reader will create their own extended mental picture if a story is set during World War 1, compared to, say, a very young reader who is unaware of the war. Setting can also draw upon our own preconceptions and expectations to communicate a theme; in the context of a cafe, we have expectations related to this setting. For example, a successful cafe serves food and has a reasonable amount of business; changing or adjusting these aspects of the setting, such as by removing all of the customers except the old man, changes the way we perceive the cafe. Even though the setting is still "a cafe", by focusing upon only three people in it, the cafe becomes as much an idea as it is a place.
2. The theme is arguable, and I don't think there is necessarily only one. Certainly the story has to do with the perpetual dichotomy between youth and old age. Clearly the young waiter is intemperate and unable to think abstractly, whereas the older waiter is more of a moderator; he has seen the same youthful side of life as the young waiter, and now knows that he will one day be like the old man as well.
Another theme, expounded upon in the link below, is the idea of a meaningless universe, or "nothingness". This is suggested in the story by the mocking prayer, "our nada who art in nada" - implying there is no God, no heaven, and no purpose to the prayer itself. The cafe, as a refuge from meaninglessness, is an illusion that allows us to distract ourselves from the terrifying and depressing concept that there is no purpose to the universe and no existence after death.
3. The cafe certainly sets a tone, but it functions more to set the theme by way of our cultural assumptions and expectations of a cafe. As the waiters discuss, the cafe is a cleaner, happier place to drink at night than one of the bodegas, and provides temporary shelter from the meaninglessness of life. In a sense, the cafe is functioning as a replacement for a church; in light of Hemingway's pessimistic existentialism, and the effects of the first World War, all that can really be asked for is a simple, clean place to be by oneself at night, when the horrors of reality have a way of sneaking up on us.
Here are some additional observations on setting and theme:
The significance of the setting of Hemingway's story is certainly suggested in the fact that it is given the priority of being the title. The "clean, well-lighted place" serves the lonely old man as a refuge from the nothingness of life and the bleakness of his own life. He is reluctant to leave the cafe because he feels sheltered from the "nada" while he is in the lighted and clean cafe, and he can forget temporarily his alienated condition. This condition the old waiter understands as he, too, has nothing as a way of life:
It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.
He tells the young waiter, "Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe." For, cleanliness, light, and order act as defenses against the horror of the "nada," the nothingness to life. And, coming to the "clean, well-lighted place" as a routine gives some meaning to the old man.
Certainly, setting is the most important element of this story since it carries implications that extend to both character and theme.
After the disillusionment and destruction of World War II, Hemingway feels that the future can only find value if new and better values, purer values could be established from the disorder of the world. This is the meaning of the parody of the "Our Father":
Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada ournadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing....
Out of nothing, perhaps, ethical conduct and order can be re-established. For, without attachments, humanity may be able to attain a level of virtue, and thus, nothing can become the only "order."
Another interpretation of the old man is that he is symbolic of the old values and psychology. Now effete and in despair, like the Germans and Allied Forces alike, the old man comes to the well-lighted place in order to clear his mind of the dark confusion of thought in the aftermath of war. Unable to make sense of the horrors of war, all that the old man (the war-weary countries) can do is hold at bay the "nada"--the negative experiences--that threatens to disillusion and overcome him.