As one grows old and death draws near one becomes more and more painfully aware of the meaninglessness, the nothingness-nada-of life. Religion which is meant to be a source of strength and comfort proves ineffective in the present situation. This is the tragic situation of the old waiter and the old drunken customer in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."
Hemingway reveals the thoughts of the older waiter through an interior monologue:"What did he fear? It was not a fear or a dread, it was a nothing he knew too well. It was all nothing and a man was a nothing too." A feeling of numbness which is worse than the fear of death overwhelms the older waiter and in a desperate attempt to overcome this feeling of numbness he tries to repeat the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary but ends up repeatedly using the word 'nada' and 'nothing,' thus foregrounding the ineffectiveness of these two prayers.
It is this overwhelming feeling of 'nothingness' which makes the older waiter sympathise with the old drunken customer. The well lighted cafe offers a temporary refuge from this cruel nothingness which has already driven the old man to attempt suicide.
Hemingway witnessed two world wars and lived in a time when people had lost faith in organised religion as a solution to their problems. One of the popular schools of philosophy during this time was 'Existentialism,' - which encouraged a cynical and pessimistic way of understanding the reason and purpose for one's existence on this earth. The existentialists believed that life had little or no meaning at all. This notion is best expressed in the thoughts of the waiter: "It was all nothing and a man was a nothing too."
Heminway, by portraying very poignantly the existentialist angst of the two old men in his short story reveals the tragedy and loneliness of old age in general.