A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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What is the significance and symbolism of the title "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

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The title is significant because the old man and the younger waiter both have a deep fear of the nothingness that surrounds them. The older waiter thinks that there is no meaning to life, but he still wants to cling to his dignity. He cannot do this if he allows himself to fall into the darkness.

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The famous short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway tells of an old man who sits late at a cafe drinking brandy and the two waiters who serve him. One of the waiters is young and impatient to get home to his wife. The other waiter is older and sympathizes with the old man in his loneliness. The story is told in Hemingway's minimalist style, in which much is implied but not directly stated. We don't know the names of the characters, for instance, or their backgrounds.

Some clues throughout the story help us understand the significance of the title. In the beginning, when the waiters are talking together, we learn that the old man tried to kill himself in despair. When one waiter asks why, the other says it was over nothing. Later, after the old man has left, the older waiter parodies the "Our Father" prayer by substituting "nothing" for most of the words.

The old man once had a wife but doesn't have one anymore. Apart from his loneliness, he probably feels useless, and he is coming close to the great darkness of death. He comes to the cafe to feel less lonely and to keep the darkness away, at least temporarily. It is important for the place to be clean and well-lit because this gives him a feeling of security, safety, and dignity. The cleanliness and light defend him from the nothingness, darkness, and despair of life. The old waiter shares the problem that the old man faces. He doesn't like the bar that he stops at because it is not clean, and he is unable to sleep because he fears the darkness. He is only able to fall asleep when the light of dawn comes.

In conclusion, the clean, well-lighted place symbolizes the security, safety, and dignity that the old man needs to keep away the darkness, despair, and nothingness that he would otherwise feel.

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The importance of the title lies in the way that it is used to describe the cafe that forms the setting of this short story. The story is set against a backdrop of suicide, meaningless life and the struggle for significance in a universe that seems to be defined in this short story by one word alone: the Spanish word "nada," meaning nothing. This bleak despair is something that even the bartender himself experiences as he contemplates his life and the "nothing" that his life represents. What is important about the cafe then is the way that it acts as something of an antidote to the nothingness of life and the bleak chaos it represents. This is why, the short story suggests, the cafe provides something of a shelter to those who suffer from their awareness of the oppressive nothingness of life, a place where nothingness can be forgotten. Note what the waiter thinks as he contemplates the cafe:

It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order... He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing.

Cleanliness, light and order are shown in this story therefore to be important through the way in which they can act as a defence, albeit temporary, to the horror of nothingness and the bleak despair that can ensue and dominate a person's life, and indeed which threatens to dominate the life of the older waiter as he contemplates going back home and the fear that he suffers from. The cafe seems to give the older waiter hope, or at least it is an anchor that allows him to not let his life become unhinged by despair. The importance of the title therefore is based on its description of the cafe and the symbolism of this setting set against the theme of nihilism and nothingness that is explored in this short story.

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