How might one compare Ernest Hemingway's story "A Clean, Well Lighted Place" with Raymond Carver's "Cathedral"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hemingway's and Carver's stories do, indeed, have similarities:



Both stories deal with the sense of isolation that men feel in the modern world.  The old man of "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" does not want to be home alone in the dark when he drinks, for there he despairs. Similarly, the older waiter likes a place with light, for he, too, understands the meaninglessness and alienation of one's life; a light provides him and the old man with some hope and communion with others. 

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. 

In "Cathedral" the narrator's contact with the blind man enables him also to understand the existential  dimensions of life. For, through the act of drawing and the usage of his imagination, the narrator attains communion with himself.  And, through his creativity the narrator is able to minimize his isolation from others indicated earlier in his  lack of understanding his wife's poetry, his refusal to mention her first husband's name, and his sitting apart and watching television while his wife and Robert talk. The spiritual experience of his imagination in drawing the cathedral with Robert's hand over his gives the narrator's life new meaning, just as the old waiter seeks meaning through his feelings of solidarity with the blind man.

Then he said, "I think that's it.  I think you got it....Take a look.  What do you think?"

But I had my eyes closed.  I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer.  I thought it was something I ought to do.

"Well?" he said. "Are you looking?"

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that .But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.

"It's really something," I said

With Existentialism as a belief that the universe is void of meaning except for what people's actions might provide, it is, thus, only through action that a person can triumph over meaninglessness. By acting on behalf of the old man, the older waiter gives meaning to his life; by engaging in a creative activity in communion with Robert, Carver's  narrator, in turn, lends significance to his actions, and gives meaning to his life.


In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the waiter concludes,

“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.’’

Here he exhibits faith; the light and cleanliness and order will provide some meaning to an absurd life. For the narrator of "Cathedral," creativity and imagination provide a spiritual communion between humans.


Both Hemingway and Carver use only the bare minimum for their narratives in terms of dialogue, scene, and action, seeking to avoid the mistakes of past styles with oniy the essentials.  Their use of short, stripped sentences and dialogue lacking in emotion are similar. Carver writes,

Now this same blind man was coming over to sleep in my house.

"Maybe i could take him bowling," I said to my wife.  She was at the draining board doing scalloped potatoes.  She put down the knife she was using and turned around.

And, Hemingway writes,

".... This old man is clean.  He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him."

There is, too, religious symbolism in both stories:  Carver's cathedral wherein spirituality abides, and Hemingway's allusions to the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

Read the study guide:
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

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