What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

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The tone of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by American writer Ernest Hemingway is a matter-of-fact, direct tone. It is an unbiased reporting by Hemingway of this story stored in his mind, as if it was a real incident and he was relaying “Just the facts ma’am.” (With apologies to Jack Webb on the TV series Dragnet).

Hemingway is reporting, dryly and without emotion, a moment in time in a café one night. The tone is almost deadpan, as if told by a poker player with a straight face not wanting to reveal anything, especially emotion or any sense of real concern.

The style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is one of unembellished discourse. It is a factual account of what is happening in this clean café. It does not mean that this is a true account, though.

Hemingway, through the eyes of the two waiters is giving a factual account of what is happening in the moment in the cafe. Nevertheless, do the waiters really know the whole truth about this old man? Do they really know the truth of his life and what brought him to this point? Do they really understand his life with his niece? Do they know for sure what caused this old man to try and kill himself?

This unadorned style of writing makes the reader concentrate on the heart of the story. There is no flowery language to distract the reader from the harshness of this story. The harshness is the way the old man is confronting and dealing with old age – all its challenges in what can be a very cruel world.

Furthermore, this plain style mimics the austereness of this simple café on a dusty street. The austere writing also mimics the stark reality of a man in his eighties having to drink alone in some café/bar and having to stumble home somewhat after he’s imbibed too much.

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The tone of Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Ligthed Place" is completely dispassionate.  Using his journalistic objectivity  and minimalist style, Hemingway simply reports what the waiters do and say in staccato dialogue. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the "waiter who is in a hurry breaks the rules of orderliness and adds to the chaos when he speaks

with that ommission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners. 'No mor tonight.  Close now.'

That Hemingway disapproves of the waiter who hurries the old man is apparent in the question and description of the second waiter:

'Why didn't you let him saty and drink?' the unhurried waiter asked.

'I want to go home to bed.'

'What is an hour?'

'More to me than to him.'

'An hour is the same.'

The young, hurried waiter tells the other that he talks like an old man himself, for he can just buy a bottle and drink at home.  But the older waiter argues, "It's not the same.'  The younger waiter agrees.  For, even he knows that there is no order to this taking a bottle home.

So, while the tone is dispassionate, there is yet an undertone of an existential act of order. The older waiter speaks of the ceremony of order to the younger waiter:

You do not understand.  This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted.  The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.

After the young waiter goes home, the older one continues the conversation with himself: 

It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

This orderliness is what sustains a person; a "clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing."

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The telling or narration of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" lets the reader to understand the depth of what the characters are saying. The story is mostly dialogue, and a lot of nothing or nada.  "nada nada nada" Hemingway style is referred to as the understatement which presents a tale, stripped of it's emotion and reactions; as a result the reader is jolted to recognize the power of the situation. He does not overtly judge his characters; for example, when waiter tells the old man, "You should have killed yourself last week", another style of writing would use adjectives to display the rudeness of the waiter.  Hemingway, however, just leaves the dialog and simple understated, style stand for itself: "'You should have killed yourself last week,' he said."

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Hemingway's style for this short story is called "minimalist" because it is brief and simple in every aspect of the story. The sentences are simply, clearly written, there is very little in figurative language (similes/metaphors), and the diction, the writer's choice of words, consists of words with only one or two syllables. The only description we get of the setting, the cafe, is what the title tells us, "clean" and "well-lighted". The characters aren't fully described either. Because the story is simplistic, the reader must be careful not to overlook any of the words and sentences in it because everything in the story becomes important to understanding it.

Throughout the story, we get a sense of loneliness and desperation from the older waiter who wonders if his life has ever been meaningful. He never sleeps at night, but as he's lying in bed that night, he has some hope that he's not alone in his feelings. Somehow, he feels better thinking that other people are having the same doubts and fears he does.

Go to the links below to read much more about this story.

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