Like most of Ernest Hemingway’s stories, “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is full of dialogue and not much summary or description. Hemingway writes in a very plain, spare style that leaves more to the imagination of the reader than most writers would dare to do.
In “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” the reader is not given much information about the old man. He is sitting at a table drinking brandy. We learn from the waiters’ conversation that he comes in very frequently and often stays until he is drunk. They don’t want him to get drunk because sometimes when he does so he leaves without paying.
When one of the waiters says he wants the old man to leave so that he (the waiter) can close up and go home to be where his wife is, we learn that the old man once had a wife also. This is actually the only fact we get about the old man’s old life.
The implication, based on the waiters’ conversation, is that the old man is lonely because he no longer has a wife to go home to and that he likes the café more than he would like a bar. We do find out that he recently tried to commit suicide by hanging, but that was not part of his “old life” since it happened recently.
Hemingway actually seems more intent on describing the older waiter than the old man customer. We see that he has compassion for the old man, and that makes him a sympathetic character. However, we do not learn anything about the old waiter’s old life, only that he too has no one to go home to and suffers from insomnia.