What is Hemingway's attitude toward his characters in  "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and how is it revealed?

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator
What is Hemingway's attitude toward his characters in  "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

What is Hemingway's attitude toward his characters in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place and how does he reveal his attitude?

Hemingway treats his two older characters with more sympathy than he expends upon the young waiter. They are united in their nameless despair. We don't hear the old man speak, but in the words of the older waiter, we can see that he understands the old man and feels empathy for him. He understands why the old man drinks and why he needs the cafe rather than a bar. The older waiter wants to let him stay longer. The older waiter hates to close the cafe because he is afraid that others might "need it."

The younger man, however, is not old enough to understand the loneliness of the others. He is confident to the point of cockiness, although his confidence in the faithfulness of his wife is suspect. He is impatient and rude. When the old man insists upon having more brandy poured into his glass, the young waiter fills it to overflowing and it runs down the sides of the glass. The young waiter is both petty and petulant; he sulks; he wants to go home early. The two older men are treated much more gently in the story.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's tricky to say what Hemingway's attitude is, unless you assume the narrator is Hemingway's voice. Hemingway took two narratorial approaches. Sometimes, as in the Spanish Civil War stories, the narrator is clearly Hemingway. Other times, as in the Nick Adams stories, the narrator is a persona and not Hemingway. If examined from both perspectives, one might say that the narrator has a sympathetic, compassionate, understanding attitude toward each of the three character, even toward the impetuous young husband who is dissatisfied with getting home to his wife at 3 a.m. One might also say that, if the narrator is Hemingway's voice, Hemingway has an attitude of particular empathy (as well as sympathy) toward the drunken old man; of deeply understanding compassion for the old insomniac waiter; and of nostalgic good will toward the waiter with the wife.

gbeatty eNotes educator| Certified Educator

That is a good but complex question. In this classic story, Hemingway's style is very restrained (even for him). It has been called minimalist, and in truth, sections of this story are almost a play script with stage directions (except for the eruption of the internal late in the story). If I had to sum up a single attitude, I'd say it was respect for existential despair. Hemingway shows how austere their lives are, and how they lack metaphysical foundation here:

"Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine."

So, they pray to nothing, and they get nothing-but they smile and go on anyway. That's a kind of respect.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps Ernest Hemingway, in his unstated way, merely portrays the young waiter as the typical youth who is so full of life and the desires of life that he does not yet recognize the void and the absurdity of life.  It is when one is an old man, alone, that he becomes, then, much more aware of life.  As death draws near, the older men realize what little their lives have held.  Alone, each must listen to his thoughts; alone he must admit "It was a nothing that he knew too well."  Hence, the parodic prayer: 

Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada nour nada and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada;pues nada.
accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would agree with #4. As hard as it is to identify Hemmingway's attitude is, as #5 points out, I think that from what we know of Hemmingway's own life and his own sense of despair and insignificance, we can see that the narrator shows more sympathy for the older characters, the old, drunk man, and the older narrator, than he does for the younger waiter who wishes that the old man had killed himself so he could get to bed sooner. In addition, I think that the older waiter's understanding and empathy for those that need cafe's as a refuge against their sense of despair and loneliness, and the way that he is blind to how he himself is lonely, makes him worthy of most sympathy.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree.  Hemingway is clearly more sympathetic to the older characters in the story.  The young waiter is eager to leave, rushing the old man and looking at him through completely unsympathetic and impatient eyes.  The old man is dilatory and doing his best not to have to go home to his lonely room.  This, of course, is to contrast the eager, callous youthfulness with the tragic loneliness of old age. 

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

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