What is the tone/attitude toward the old man in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Considered a tour de force of the minimalist style, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" presents the pathos of twentieth-century man. After two World Wars, Western civilization has gone awry, and man must reject tradition and history, accepting a certain nothingness as the beginning because death and destruction is in the past.

The old man who sits and drinks knows and recognizes this nothingness as he drinks. He has rejected all else and desires a clean place that has light because it will prevent his thoughts from straying to the nothingness that is modern life. With no understanding of what the old man has faced in his private moments, the young waiter callously says, 

"He'll stay all night...I'm sleepy now. I never get into bed before three o'clock. He should have killed himself last week."

But, the older waiter who has lived and suffered, also, understands the old man; moreover, he empathizes because he, too, senses the "nada":

I 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.

The older waiter knows that man must start from scratch and remake his existence, unfettered by history and tradition which have wrought destruction and chaos. There is only the "nada" and man must find light where he can create some order and meaning of his own.

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

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