The old man is drowning his sorrows in drink, and his sorrows grow out of loneliness, if we are to believe the old waiter (the old man lives alone, his wife now dead). However, lest this turning to drink be interpreted as weakness, the author is careful to depict the old man as being punctiliously neat and controlled in his despair. He does not, after all, spill a drop. Rather, the old man is a heroic drunk, one whose pursuit of oblivion is depicted as a reasonable, even noble course of action in a world which can be too much for certain souls to withstand. Where the younger waiter seems to feel not enough, this man seems to feel too much.
The older waiter, in contrast to the selfish younger one, is a sympathetic man. He knows the old man’s history and identifies with it. Like the old man, the old waiter is lonely, a little sad, and he takes pleasure in a quiet public place. The old waiter is not, however, as desperate as the old man is. He seems to endure his loneliness with a certain objectivity, realizing that although he is alone, he is not alone in suffering. The older waiter seems wise and resigned.
Set against the two mild and weary older men, the younger waiter’s personality seems acerbic, even cruel. We learn about an unspoken rule of service which dictates that a cafe only close when the last customer leaves voluntarily, and never because of a pre-established closing time. But it is very late and the younger waiter wishes above all else to go home to bed. Accordingly, he serves the old man in a churlish way, purposefully slopping his drinks, to make the old man feel unwelcome and unwanted. Then, as the two waiters discuss the drunk old man, the younger waiter has only nasty things to say. He is depicted as someone who does not follow the rules of good social conduct, and who considers his own wishes more significant than anybody else’s.
Loneliness and the search for meaning in the world are the main themes of the story, although other themes are subsumed in these two notions. The older waiter's compassion for the old man drinking by himself late into the night every night suggests loneliness. The older waiter understands implicitly what it may be like to be that customer, to live that customer's life. The younger waiter, who has a wife, a home, and a job, lacks the older waiter's perspective on life; he sees only his own immediate desire to go home and sleep, with no thought toward what may be haunting the customers he kicks out of the cafe night after night.
The older waiter represents many subjects: wisdom, reflection, compassion, and loneliness itself. Through the dialogue, Hemingway reveals the older waiter as a man searching desperately for something to cling to in his life, for some meaning. After trying to explain the reason why the drunk customers need the cafe, why the cafe, a lighted hovel, was much more meaningful than the dank, dark den of a bar or brothel, he sees the futility of relating his...
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