A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," what kind of tone and style of language does Ernest Hemingway use?

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"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is one of Hemingway's works of fiction which is set in Spain. In most of these works the dialogue is in English, but he wrote the dialogue in such a way that the reader understands the characters are speaking in Spanish. A large part of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" consists of dialogue between two waiters who obviously would not be speaking English. Hemingway had a special talent for writing this kind of dual-language dialogue. He showed that it was really Spanish by some of the vocabulary and by the construction of some of the sentences. A couple of examples from the story are:

"I wish he would go home. I never get to bed before three o'clock. What kind of hour is that to go to bed?"

"I don't want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work."

The novel in which Hemingway uses this English-Spanish to the extreme is For Whom the Bell Tolls. Many of his characters are uneducated peasants who would not be capable of speaking any English at all. They are usually speaking to the protagonist Robert Jordan, an American who can understand them because he is fairly fluent in conversational Spanish. The reader understands that the other characters are speaking in their vernacular but it is being translated into English through Jordan's mind. Other works in which Hemingway uses this technique include "Old Man at the Bridge," "The Undefeated," "The Old Man and the Sea," and The Sun Also RisesHe also does it with Italian and German in some short works. At the end of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Hemingway makes it clear that one of the waiters is only speaking Spanish by his interior monologue:

It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nada and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

Hemingway was speaking for himself as well as the old man. Hemingway seems to have been troubled all his life by this existential angst, which may explain his heavy drinking and his suicide.

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In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Hemingway uses a matter-of-fact, third-person style that slips into indirect discourse as the narrative focuses in on the older waiter. Throughout the story, the narrator relies on matter-of-fact ideas, primarily through the dialogue of the two waiters.

Throughout the story, the two waiters' attitudes are made clear through their speech. The younger waiters make his distaste for the older man sitting in the cafe clear by wishing him death, saying things like, "You should have killed yourself last week" to the older man.

Meanwhile, the older waiter shows much compassion toward the older man. He exhibits empathy through his speech by discussing the old man's virtues, including a reluctance to "close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe." 

As the story progresses, Hemingway slips into the mind of the older waiter via free indirect discourse as this man exhibits nihilistic tendencies, including the belief in nothing as made evident by his "Lord's Prayer," which replaces much of the  key words with the word "nada."

Throughout this story, the narrator's matter-of-fact tone and language usage draws the reader in, which allows for a greater connection with the story's nihilistic themes.

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