A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Summary

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is a short story by Ernest Hemingway in which two waiters must wait for their last customer to leave before they can close up.

  • A young waiter is impatient to get home to his wife.

  • When a deaf old man who previously attempted suicide doesn't leave even after the restaurant closes, the young waiter screams that he wishes the old man had succeeded in killing himself.

  • The old man leaves, but a different waiter keeps the café open, realizing that he, too, needs this clean, well-lighted place in order to cope with the nothingness that haunts him.

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Two waiters in a Spanish café are waiting late one night for their last customer, an old man, to leave. As they wait, they talk about the old man’s recent suicide attempt. The younger waiter is impatient to leave and tells the deaf old man he wishes the suicide attempt had been successful. The young waiter has a wife waiting in bed for him and is unsympathetic when the older waiter says that the old man once also had a wife. The old man finally leaves when the younger waiter refuses to serve him further.

The older waiter argues that they should have allowed their customer to stay, that being in the café is not the same as drinking at home. He explains that he is also one of those “who like to stay late at the café. . . . With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.” He is reluctant to close because there may be someone who needs the café. When the young waiter says there are bodegas open all night, the other points out that the bright atmosphere of the café makes it different.

After the younger waiter goes home, the older one asks himself why he needs a clean, pleasant, quiet, well-lighted place. The answer is that he requires some such semblance of order because of “a nothing that he knew too well.” He begins a mocking prayer: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.” He then finds himself at a bodega that is a poor substitute for a clean, well-lighted café. He goes home to lie awake until daylight may finally bring him some sleep: “After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”

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