A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Hemingway, what does the café represent for the two waiters?

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The younger waiter is fairly straightforward in his implied expressions of what the café represents for him. He has a wife, he has confidence, and he has a livelihood. The café both is and represents his job. On a more complex level, the café also might be said to represent his confidence. If it were not for his job, he would be out of work, his wife may reject him and he may waste his youth in searching or in despair. But for now with youth, confidence, a wife and a job, the café represents his life and his future--also that which keeps him up until 3 o'clock.

It is far more complicated to say what the café represents for the other, older waiter. In a sense, it represents a place where he can show compassion as he does to the old man. In a sense, it represents a place where he achieves a modest amount of fulfillment in life:

"You have youth, confidence, and a job," the older waiter said."You have everything."

"And what do you lack?"

"Everything but work."

"You have everything I have."

"No. I have never had confidence and I am not young."

In another sense, it represents for him the clean well-lighted place that drives away the "nothing" and the "nada" that causes the old man to try to take his own life; that drives the old man to the spot on the terrace in the dark of the leaves blocking the electric light; that keeps the older waiter awake in bed until dawn in a kind of insomnia of existential despair. In short, it may be fair to say the café represents the only thing, the light and order, that can subdue the angst of a meaningless and futile existence.

It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well.

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