A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Questions and Answers
by Ernest Hemingway

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How can you comment on character in a critical analysis of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" was considered, the best of the stories in his collection, Winner Take Nothing in 1933.

Winner Take Nothing wasn't well received by the critics, in terms of subject matter, who called it bitter and depressing.  An interpretation of the significance of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” was, at the time, agreed upon by critics as  “dumb ox” fiction. One of his contemporaries, Wyndham Lewis, in an essay entitled “The Dumb Ox: A Study of Ernest Hemingway” referred to Heminway's characters in this collection as dumb. Lewis thought of the characters in this volume as not worthing of story material. Even Frank O’Conner, a writer who admired Heminway said, “I.. .ask myself if this wonderful technique of Hemingway’s is really a technique in search of a subject or technique that is carefully avoiding a subject, and searching anxiously all the time for a clean well-lighted place where all the difficulties of human life can be comfortably ignored.”

People who love Heminway and citics who think he was a very serious talent say that "A Clean Well_lighted Place" expresses the doctrines of existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were two major proponents of the philosophy and claim that existentialist characters act with dignity and grace in a basically valueless or absurd  world. William Bennett--a philosopher-- highlighted this short story in a book on existentialism entitled Irrational Man. In addition Warren Bennett’s in “Character, Irony, and Resolution in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’", says Hemingway's characters' exhibit despair in the story which “is a negation, a lack.... [a] lack of life after death, [a] lack of a moral order governing the universe, [and a] lack of trustworthy interpersonal relations.”

The characters in this story can be best understood from an existential point-of-reference. What this means is even though their reactions are underplayed, in each scene, it is within the context of their belief in an existential world.

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Hemingway's widely anthologized short story is a celebrated story about contrasts: between youth and age, belief and doubt, light and darkness. To the younger waiter, the café is only a job; to the older waiter, it is a charitable institution for which he feels personal responsibility. Of course, he himself has need of it: it is his refuge from the night, from solitude, from a sense that the universe is empty and meaningless, expressed in his revised versions of the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer. The older waiter feels kinship for the old man, not only because the waiter, too, is alone and growing old, but because both men are apparently atheists. Willing to commit suicide, the old man (unlike his pious daughter) evidently doesn’t think he has any immortal soul to fear for.

At the heart of the story is the symbol of the café, an island of light and order surrounded by night and nothingness and the meaning and purpose it has for each of the three charcaters. Contrasting images of light and darkness begin in the opening paragraph: the old man, not entirely committed either to death or to life, likes to sit in the shadow of the leaves.

The story has been much admired for Hemingway’s handling of point of view. The narrator is a nonparticipant who writes in the third person. He is allknowing at the beginning of the story: in the opening paragraph we are told how the old man feels, then what the waiters know about him. From then on, until the waiters say “Good night,” the narrator remains almost perfectly objective, merely reporting visible details and dialogue. (He editorializes for a moment, though, in observing that the younger waiter employs the syntax of “stupid people.”) After the waiters part company, for the rest of the story the narrator limits himself to the thoughts and perceptions of the older waiter, who, we now see, is the central character.

It is clear all along, as we overhear the conversation of the two waiters, that Hemingway sides with the elder’s view of the old man. The older waiter reveals himself as wiser and more compassionate. We resent the younger man’s abuse of the old man, who cannot hear his “stupid” syntax, his equation of money with happiness. But the older waiter and Hemingway do not see things identically—a point briefly discussed in the text in a comment on the story’s irony.