A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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Old Man
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.

Old Waiter
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.

Young Waiter
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.

Characters Developed

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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 fears to someone of a younger generation, and he grows reflective. Hemingway writes the following about the old waiter's thoughts, as he stares out the cafe windows:

It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.

Comically wrought, the thoughts of the older waiter reveal his ironic sensibility, and also cleverly introduces the notion of God and religion. Spain, where the cafe is located, is a strongly Catholic country, and The Lord's Prayer, which begins, "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed by Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven," is one that almost every person who has ever attended more than one Christian church service would have learned. Hemingway pokes fun at the meaning of religion, and at the human need to cling to a higher being in order to find meaning in the present life, by replacing all the religious references and words in the passage with the Spanish word, "nada," which translates to "nothing." God is nothing, the older waiter seems to be thinking. Many people do go about the world unquestioning, never asking about the meaning of life or ever asking the question of whether God exists, but here, Hemingway slyly brings the question to the fore.

The younger waiter holds a great disdain for age. He comments on one of the older patrons in the cafe and says, "I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing." The younger waiter also claims that, at the age the old patron has reached, "A wife would be no good to him now," shedding light on the relationship that he might share with his wife; he seems to regard a wife as someone with whom to share a bed, but not the larger questions of life. His blatant disregard for the humanity of his patrons reveals a bias in Hemingway, as well. Hemingway clearly paints the younger waiter as a callous man, interested in nothing beyond his own needs and family, while the waiter who is a bit older seems weathered in his temperament, more eager to understand the larger world around him.

Most unsettling, perhaps, yet comic in its sterility, is the younger waiter's disdain for that same old patron in the bar. The man apparently attempted suicide the week before, and the younger waiter complains to the older waiter that there could be nothing upon which the patron could base his despair because he "has plenty of money." This comment reveals an ignorance about human nature, and a certain naivete that comes from inexperience. The younger waiter, it would seem, has lived a very sheltered life. He wipes away discussion about the issue of the man's suicide attempt by talking about some passersby and then complains about his need to get to bed earlier and says of the old patron, "You should have killed yourself last week." Hemingway infuses the situation with comedy by having the man, who is deaf, react to the young waiter with "A little more," as he points to his brandy glass. While the younger man may hold his elders in low esteem, they still get what they want from him, and the waiter's complaints are spoken largely in vain.

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