What steps are important for semantic analysis of any short story, as applied to "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Hemingway?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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This is a broad topic as semantic analysis can take many avenues of consideration, though some are more relevant to literature. Semantic analysis follows parsing, which describes language, we'll say text, in terms of grammatical parts. Semantic analysis relates the parsing to meaning (semantics: the study of meaning) as it relates to cultural/social context. Semantic analysis determines how meaning in a defined context (i.e., social/cultural) is constructed by the speaker/writer, we'll say writer; is interpreted by the decoder (i.e., reader/listener); is illustrated or contradicted; etc.

Part of semantic analysis involves recognizing cultural elements of language, like irony, figures of speech, and idioms, and paraphrasing these to common generalized code, which incidentally alters the writer's style: "You talk like an old man" might become, "You sound as though you are in despair."

Some ways in which the parsed text--its words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs--may be related to the text as a whole are through analysis for connotation; for inference; for pragmaticism.

  • Connotation: cultural associations with a word that reflect emotional, experiential, or psychological reactions to a word.
  • Inference: what is meant without being said; the meaning the writer wants to convey without writing it.
  • Pragmatism in linguistics: a person's awareness of cultural conventions, etiquettes, mores, expectations that depend upon familiarity with the cultural.

A semantic analysis of any short story would include the steps that follow and start by relating the parsing to the cultural context of the story. In "Well-Lighted Place," you might note at the word level that the vocabulary is simple, for example, there are more English words than Latinate words. At the phrase level, you might note that verb phrases and noun phrase are very simple: had left, the cafe, the electric light, the day, was, a little drunk. At the clause level, you might note that the narrator uses many embedded clauses: an old man who sat; the street was dusty, but at night; at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit. At the sentence level, you might note that while the narrator uses long sentences, though simply composed, the characters use short sentences. At the paragraph level, you will note that the characters' culturally biased speech patterns create many short paragraphs, with the longest near the end of the story.

A cultural connotation applies to Hemingway's use of "despair":

"He was in despair."
"What about?"
"How do you know it was nothing?"
"He has plenty of money."

The connotation is that the old man's despair was existential--in a post-world war world--because his money was enough to have fixed anything that was wrong. When speaking of the soldier and girl, there is an inference that life is so given to despair that momentary physical pleasure is of the greatest importance:

"The guard will pick him up," one waiter said.
"What does it matter if he gets what he's after?"

The younger waiter's pragmatism may be said to fit in with his culture as his life agrees with the soldier's: "I have a wife waiting in bed for me." The older waiter's pragmatism--as well as the old man's--may be said to be out of accord with the culture as the older waiter holds ideas about the cafe and bodegas that do not accord with the cultural norm:

"Otro loco mas [You are very crazy]," said the barman [to the older waiter] and turned away.