In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” dialogue functions in a number of ways, particularly as a complement to the story’s point of view. Among the ways in which dialogue functions are the following:
- Although the opening paragraph of the story discusses the old man from a fairly objective, even somewhat distanced point of view, the narrator of the story also has some insight in the old man’s thoughts and feelings, as when the narrator says,
the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. [emphasis added]
All the italicized words here suggest that the narrator knows what the old man is thinking and feeling. Similarly, the opening exchange of dialogue between the two waiters suggests that they also see the old man from both a literal and figurative distance but that one of them, at least, also has some insight into his thoughts and feelings. Thus, when the older waiter notes that the old man recently tried to commit suicide, the younger waiter asks why, to which the older waiter responds simply, "He was in despair.” Somehow, the older waiter knows – or at least thinks he knows – something about the old man’s motives. The older waiter does not go into any great detail about the old man’s thoughts and feelings, just as the narrator himself also shows a similar restraint in his use of point of view. He does not delve deeply into the old man’s soul or psyche, but he is not completely ignorant about these.
- The narrator presents the old man from a somewhat sympathetic point of view. The narrator does not ridicule the old man or mock him but instead helps us understand why he acts as he does. In the dialogue between the young waiter and the older waiter, the older waiter seems to adopt a point of view that resembles that of the narrator. He seems to understand the old man’s motivations and to sympathize with them. Even the younger waiter, although he is initial frustrated with the old man and even secretly abusive toward him, finally adopts a more balanced, more mature point of view. When the older waiter says that buying a bottle of alcohol and drinking at home “is not the same” as what the old man does, the younger waiter concurs:
"No, it is not," agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.
The second sentence quoted here, if read as a comment on the young waiter rather than simply as a report about his feelings, suggests that the narrator himself is capable of understanding the thoughts and motivations both of the old man and of the younger waiter. The narrator’s point of view, then, seems balanced, mature, objective, and sympathetic. The dialogue between the older waiter and the younger waiter is also balanced, and during the course of that dialogue the younger waiter becomes less judgmental, less immature, and more sympathetic than he had been at the beginning of the tale.
In all these ways, then, the narrator’s point of view complements the dialogue between the two waiters. The narrator’s point of view about the old man closely resembles the point of view expressed, in the dialogue, by the older waiter.