What is the moral lesson of the story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Each of the three characters in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway is in a different stage of life: the young waiter, the older waiter, and the old man. As in any work, several possible themes emerge; one of the prominent themes in this story is that we (mankind) will all age ourselves into despair and nothingness.

The young waiter is impatient with the old man who comes in to drink at this late-night cafe will not leave because the waiter wants to go home. He has no patience with the old man who is deaf and old and tried to commit suicide last week; the old man is drinking too much and too slowly to suit the impatient young waiter who just wants to go home. The young waiter thinks that happiness comes from having money and thinks the old man should have gone ahead and killed himself. He says, "I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing." The young man has reasons to live, for now, and gives no consideration to the fact that one day he, too, will be old.

The older waiter has lived longer and understands the despair and nothingness which life inevitably brings. He knows it is important to have a good place to spend the lonely late-night hours because he looks for such a place for himself once he gets off work. He tells the young waiter "this is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted." He knows the value of that for himself as well as for the old man. 

While the young waiter has not yet begun his descent into old age and therefore despair (in Hemingway's view, anyway), the older waiter is already well aware of the despair of living life too long. Religion (God) offers no comfort or hope, as the waiter prays to nothing:

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. 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.  

The older waiter, like the old man, is aware of the nothingness of existence when one gets older. "He knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada." He admires the old man, knowing he will be just as old one day. "This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk." The difference between the older waiter and the old man at the bar is that he can still articulate his despair, whereas the old man can only drink as late as he is able in "a clean, well-lighted place."

This story reflects Hemingway's own despair about the meaningless existence of old age. Obviously seeing life as an encroaching slough of despair is a choice, but it was Hemingway's choice, and he demonstrates that point of view here when he depicts living life too long and aging as a hopeless, meaningless nothingness. Undoubtedly this despair prompted Hemingway to take his own life before he became a truly old man. 

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

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