(Short Story Criticism)

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Ernest Hemingway

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, nonfiction writer, memoirist, journalist, poet, and dramatist. See also, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" Criticism, The Old Man and the Sea Criticism and Ernest Hemingway Criticism.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is considered a prime example of Hemingway's craftsmanship and insight into the human condition. In this brief story, which was initially published in Scribner's Magazine in 1933, he evokes an atmosphere of despair and loneliness almost entirely with dialogue and interior monologue. Through these stylistic techniques Hemingway renders a complex series of interactions between an old waiter and his young colleague as the two men reflect on the ephemeral nature of happiness and the inevitability of death. Much of the critical commentary on the short story focuses on a series of unattributed lines of dialogue. For decades, commentators have speculated on Hemingway's stylistic technique in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” turning to the author's original manuscript and correspondence to determine the proper configuration and attribution of the dialogue of the story.

Plot and Major Characters

Rendered almost completely in dialogue, the main action of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is set in a small café in Spain, as two waiters prepare to close the establishment for the night. The place is empty except for a regular customer, a deaf old man drinking alone at one of the tables. Realizing that the old man is drunk, one of the waiters informs the other that the customer attempted suicide the week before. After the waiters watch a young man and woman pass on the street, the young waiter serves the old customer another brandy and voices his impatience to the old waiter, complaining that the old man is keeping him from his warm bed and the comfort of his wife. They discuss the old man's suicide attempt and his possible reasons for such a desperate act. When the old man gestures for another brandy, the young waiter tells him that it is closing time. After the old man pays his bill and leaves, the old waiter chides the young waiter for his lack of patience and empathy for the old man. He compares himself to the man, saying he understands the need for a clean, well-lighted place to be at night. After the café closes, the old waiter stops at a bar for a drink before he goes home, dreading his return to an empty room.

Major Themes

In his short fiction Hemingway depicted a disillusioning environment in which his protagonists address the precariousness of existence, the evanescence of happiness, and the universality of suffering. This is certainly true in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” as the old waiter shows a sensitivity to and understanding of both the young waiter's impatience to get home and the old man's utter hopelessness. Critics have noted a series of contrasts in the story: light and dark, clean and dirty, noisy and quiet, youth and age, and nihilism and religious idealism. In fact, many believe that the major thematic concern of the story is the conflict between generations. This is illustrated by the contrast between the two major characters: for many critics, the young waiter represents materialism and the callousness of youth and the old waiter symbolizes the perspective and wisdom of age, which is illustrated by his empathy for the old man's profound despair and alleged suicide attempt. Some critics have suggested that the old waiter's repetitive use of the term “nada” (translated as “nothing” or “nothingness”) suggests his nihilistic tendencies because he faces loneliness and advancing death like the old man. A few commentators have viewed the three main characters in the story as an implied progression from youth through middle age to old age.

Critical Reception

In 1959 controversy about the dialogue in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” began when two critics noted a few confusing and illogical passages of conversation between the two waiters. Hemingway rarely identified the speaker of each line of dialogue, and confusion ensued about which character was speaking each line. In fact, some of the dialogue seemed to be uttered by the wrong character. At first, commentators speculated that there was a mistake in the text: Hemingway or his publisher, Scribner's, had forgotten or omitted a line of dialogue, throwing off the entire exchange between the two characters. In 1959, Otto Reinert challenged the prevailing theory that Hemingway employed metronomic dialogue and that each indented line implied a new speaker. Instead, he theorized that Hemingway utilized anti-metronomic dialogue—allowing a character to speak consecutive lines of dialogue in a few places. This could explain the discrepancy and allow the dialogue to be logical and idiosyncratic.

A few years later, commentators began to challenge Reinert's theory. Joseph Gabriel contended that the dialogue was metronomic and that the resulting confusion was viewed as an integral aspect of the story. John Hagopian rejected these theories, maintaining that the confusion stemmed from a typographical error and urged a revision of the story. In 1965 the story was amended as recommended and reprinted in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. This revised version of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” unleashed a torrent of protest from critics who repudiated Hagopian's view and agreed with Reinert's theory of Hemingway's use of anti-metronomic dialogue. Many scholars furnished additional examples of anti-metronomic dialogue in Hemingway's short fiction and novels, discovering further evidence for Reinert's theory in the author's correspondence with friends and publishers, as well as the original manuscript of the story. In recent times, Reinert's view has become the prevailing theory, as many scholars have urged a republication of Hemingway's original version of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Three Stories and Ten Poems 1923

In Our Time 1924

Men without Women 1927

Winner Take Nothing 1933

The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories 1938

The Portable Hemingway 1944

The Old Man and the Sea 1952

The Hemingway Reader 1953

The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War 1969

The Nick Adams Stories 1972

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway 1987

The Sun Also Rises [Fiesta] (novel) 1926


(The entire section is 128 words.)

Charles A. Allen (essay date 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ernest Hemingway's Clean, Well-Lighted Heros,” in The Pacific Spectator: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. IX, No. 4, Autumn, 1955, pp. 383-89.

[In the following survey of the major characters of Hemingway's fiction, Allen asserts that anxiety is the defining feature of the characters in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”]

The Hemingway stories and novels are dominated by heroes who conduct a retreating battle with nature and the world's hostility. But they fight against their loss with pleasure, skill, and courage. The world of nature and humanity robs health, hope, and love, leaving in the end only nada, nothingness. Nothingness is opposed...

(The entire section is 2840 words.)

William B. Bache (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Craftsmanship in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in The Personalist, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, January, 1956, pp. 60-4.

[In the following essay, Bache contends that “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is “valuable both as a comment on and as a representation of Hemingway's craftsmanship and insight.”]

At first glance the short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”1 by Ernest Hemingway may seem slight; yet if it is slight, it is so only in length and not by any other standard. The intrinsic value of the story has been well recognized by Mark Schorer, who has said of it: “‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ is not only a short story, it is a...

(The entire section is 1678 words.)

Frederick P. Kroeger (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Dialogue in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in College English, Vol. 20, No. 5, February, 1959, pp. 240-41.

[In the following essay, Kroeger considers the confusing dialogue in Hemingway's story.]

Ever since the first printing of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” in Scribner's Magazine (March, 1933), there has been what appears to be an insoluble problem in the dialogue. Hemingway, or someone, has been careless enough about this story so that at one time one main speaker seems to have information about the old man's suicide attempt which the other one does not have, and at another time the situation is reversed. If the young waiter has the...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Otto Reinert (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hemingway's Waiters Once More,” in College English, Vol. 20, No. 8, May, 1959, pp. 417-18.

[In the following essay, Reinert perceives the inconsistent and confusing dialogue in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” as a result of Hemingway's utilization of anti-metronomic dialogue.]

In the February College English Mr. Kroeger and Professor Colburn find “confusion” and “inconsistency” in the distribution of speeches between the old and the young waiter in Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” I don't presume to know what “this generation of close readers has been doing” about the problem “all this time,” but I suspect they have...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

Joseph F. Gabriel (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Logic of Confusion in Hemingway's ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in College English, Vol. 22, No. 8, May, 1961, pp. 539-46.

[In the following essay, Gabriel revisits the confusion regarding the dialogue in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and contends that “there is no error made in the dialogue … in short, the inconsistency in the dialogue is deliberate, an integral part of the pattern of meaning actualized in the story.”]

Recent criticism of Hemingway's much admired and frequently anthologized “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has attempted to demonstrate that this story contains a damaging flaw. Indeed, two critics, F. P. Kroeger...

(The entire section is 4943 words.)

John V. Hagopian (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tidying Up Hemingway's Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. I, No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 140-46.

[In the following essay, Hagopian rejects earlier attempts to attribute Hemingway's dialogue in the story—particularly Joseph Gabriel's above—and considers the flaw in the dialogue as an obvious typographical error.]

Interpretation of Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has always been dogged by the problem of the confused dialogue between the two waiters, and it seems to me unfortunate that the discussion of it remains where Joseph F. Gabriel left it in College English (May, 1961). Gabriel was responding to three...

(The entire section is 3033 words.)

Warren Bennett (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Character, Irony, and Resolution in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays, edited by Jackson J. Benson, Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 261-69.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in American Literature in 1970, Bennett proposes that Hemingway's use of verbal irony provides insight into the main characters as well as evidence as to the attribution of dialogue in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”]

Interpretation of Hemingway's short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has always been confronted with the illogical dialogue sequence between the two waiters. Since analysis...

(The entire section is 3886 words.)

David Lodge (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hemingway's Clean, Well-Lighted, Puzzling Place,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXI, No. 1, January, 1971, pp. 33-57.

[In the following essay, Lodge contrasts the older and younger waiters in the story and concludes that Hemingway “deliberately encourages the reader to make an initially incorrect discrimination between the two waiters which, when discovered and corrected, amounts to a kind of peripetia.”]

‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ is one of Ernest Hemingway's best-known and most often reprinted short stories; yet until very recently its text contained a curious anomaly: curious, especially, in that it for so long apparently escaped the attention...

(The entire section is 8143 words.)

Charles E. May (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Is Hemingway's ‘Well-Lighted Place’ Really Clean Now?,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 326-30.

[In the following essay, May rejects John V. Hagopian's reading of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and offers his own interpretation of the dialogue of the story.]

“Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’”

—Joyce Cary, New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1950.

Everyone seems satisfied and perhaps a bit...

(The entire section is 2265 words.)

Scott MacDonald (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Confusion Dialogue in Hemingway's ‘Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: A Final Word?,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 93-101.

[In the following essay, MacDonald concurs with Charles Mays's interpretation of the dialogue in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” contending that Hemingway ignored normal dialogue conventions in several other fictional works.]

In his generally sensible, but somewhat precipitant article, “Is Hemingway's ‘Well-Lighted Place’ Really Clean Now?” Charles E. May shows how the long critical debate about the confusing dialogue in Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” resulted in Charles...

(The entire section is 3467 words.)

John Leonard (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Man of the World’ and ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: Hemingway's Unified View of Old Age,” in The Hemingway Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 62-73.

[In the following essay, Leonard considers the common thematic concerns of Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “A Man of the World.”]

Scholars and critics lately have put to good use the companion pieces among Ernest Hemingway's short fiction. Susan Beegel has achieved insights into “The Undefeated” and “A Lack of Passion” from side-by-side analysis of these two antithetical companion stories. Robert Fleming, in “Dismantling the Code: Hemingway's ‘A Man of the...

(The entire section is 5520 words.)

Lawrence Broer (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Iceberg in ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place,’” in Lost Generation Journal, Vol. IV, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 14-15, 21.

[In the following essay, Broer explores the bond between the old waiter and old customer in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”]

“I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg,” Ernest Hemingway said about his craft. “There is seven-eights of it under the water for every part that shows.” In drawing attention to the often unsuspected depths in his work, Hemingway provides the ground for instruction in one of the major aesthetic principles of modern fiction: the art of indirection. What most modern writers have...

(The entire section is 3042 words.)

C. Harold Hurley (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Attribution of the Waiters' Second Speech in Hemingway's ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 81-5.

[In the following essay, Hurley takes issue with Hagopian's attribution of the some of the dialogue in the story, maintaining that the dialogue should be “consistent with the characters as revealed elsewhere in the story.”]

John V. Hagopian's emendation of the much-disputed dialogue of Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” establishes that it is the older waiter, not the younger waiter, who knows of the old man's suicide attempt.1 Each of the waiters' statements can...

(The entire section is 2251 words.)

Hans-Joachim Kann (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Perpetual Confusion in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: The Manuscript Evidence,” in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual, 1977, pp. 115-18.

[In the following essay, Kann examines Hemingway's original manuscript and concludes that it was the author who inserted an uncharacteristic line of dialogue for the older waiter.]

Ever since the appearance of the first articles by F. P. Kroeger and William E. Colburn in 1959,1 it has been clear that, apart from the apparent ambiguity in the first dialogue, the third dialogue section of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is obscure (or even messy) at the end. Numerous attempts have been made2 to explain...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Warren Bennett (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Manuscript and the Dialogue of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, Vol. 50, No. 4, January, 1979, pp. 613-24.

[In the following essay, Bennett reiterates the importance of Hemingway's original manuscript of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and asserts that it shows “evidence of two mistakes, one by a typist or typesetter, and one by Hemingway himself; and it clarifies Hemingway's intention as to which waiter knows about the old man's suicide attempt.”]

The known manuscripts of Ernest Hemingway are in the possession of Mrs. Mary Hemingway, who on several occasions...

(The entire section is 4275 words.)

Steven K. Hoffman (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nada and the Clean, Well-Lighted Place: The Unity of Hemingway's Short Fiction,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. VI, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 91-110.

[In the following essay, Hoffman explores Hemingway's thematic concern with “nada,” or nothingness, in his short fiction.]

One of his most frequently discussed tales, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is justly regarded as one of the stylistic masterpieces of Ernest Hemingway's distinguished career in short fiction. Not only does it represent Hemingway at his understated, laconic best, but, according to Carlos Baker, “It shows once again that remarkable union of the naturalistic and the symbolic which is...

(The entire section is 11114 words.)

David Kerner (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Foundation of the True Text of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual, 1979, pp. 279-300.

[In the following essay, Kerner determines the possible sources for Hemingway's confusing and unconventional use of dialogue and urges a restoration of the author's original text.]

It is almost sixty years since Hemingway silently patented a small change in the way we arrange dialogue; but many readers still refuse to acknowledge the innovation, so that we have had, over the past twenty years, not only twenty conflicting articles on the dialogue of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” but even the publisher's unwarranted emendation of the...

(The entire section is 8084 words.)

David Kerner (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Manuscripts Establishing Hemingway's Anti-Metronomic Dialogue,” in American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, Vol. 54, No. 3, October, 1982, pp. 385-96.

[In the following essay, Kerner finds several examples of Hemingway's use of anti-metronomic lines of dialogue in his fiction and concurs with other critics who want to restore the original text of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”]

The one remaining step in the demonstration that two instances of anti-metronomic dialogue resolve the notorious crux in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is an examination of the manuscripts containing the forty other instances in the...

(The entire section is 4489 words.)

C. Harold Hurley (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Manuscript and the Dialogue of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: A Response to Warren Bennett,” in The Hemingway Review, Vol. II, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 17-20.

[In the following essay, Hurley maintains that Warren Bennett's “misinterpretation of the waiters' speech in the problematic exchange concerning the soldier and the girl compound rather than resolve the existing debate.”]

Working from a recently discovered manuscript of Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Warren Bennett resolves many of the questions concerning the story's much debated dialogue.1 As Bennett contends, the manuscript indeed “reveals how the illogical...

(The entire section is 2207 words.)

George H. Thomson (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: Interpreting the Original Text,” in The Hemingway Review, Vol. II, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 32-43.

[In the following essay, Thomson examines the controversy surrounding the waiters' dialogue regarding the soldier and the girl.]


Hemingway's story begins late at night in a café. An old man is drinking, watched by two waiters who are not differentiated. In Dialogue 1, comprising seven speeches, there is no way of knowing who begins the exchange, hence no way of knowing which waiter refers to the old man's attempted suicide and which asks questions about it. In...

(The entire section is 6686 words.)

Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wallace Stevens' ‘The Snow Man’ and Hemingway's ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, Vol. 2, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 61-3.

[In the following essay, Fleming speculates on the possible influence of the poet Wallace Stevens and his concept of nothingness on Hemingway's short story.]

The relationship between Wallace Stevens and Ernest Hemingway is best remembered for the one-sided fist fight between the two in February of 1936. According to a letter Hemingway wrote on 27 February 1936, Hemingway knocked Stevens down several times because he had insulted Hemingway's sister Ursula at a party....

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Paul Smith (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Note on a New Manuscript of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in The Hemingway Review, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 36-9.

[In the following essay, Smith heralds a typescript version of Hemingway's story, known as the “Delaware typescript.”]

Some three years have passed since the last article on the controversy over the two waiters' dialogue in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In March 1985 David Kerner returned to the argument he had entered in 1979, bringing further evidence—almost an anthology—of instances of “anti-metronomic dialogue,” including several from Hemingway himself, to argue that the text of the story should be...

(The entire section is 1553 words.)

Warren Bennett (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Characterization and the Dialogue Problem in Hemingway's ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in The Hemingway Review, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 122-23.

[In the following essay, Bennett compares Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.”]


“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” although long recognized as one of Hemingway's best short stories, has nevertheless been plagued by controversy because of Hemingway's proclivity for writing dialogue without identifying the speakers. The story was first published in Scribner's Magazine in 1933 and then republished the same...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

David Kerner (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Ambiguity of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 561-74.

[In the following essay, Kerner offers a “comprehensive demonstration of the accuracy of Hemingway's text.”]

Since Warren Bennett's 13,000-word defense—concluding, “All printings of [“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”] should, therefore—in fairness … most of all, to Hemingway—follow the 1965 emended text” (120)—has passed muster with Paul Smith,1 the earlier cries of “Enough!” were premature:2 a comprehensive demonstration of the accuracy of Hemingway's text is needed, lest we wake up one day...

(The entire section is 6561 words.)

David Kerner (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hemingway's Attention to ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in The Hemingway Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 48-62.

[In the following essay, Kerner rejects Warren Bennett's position regarding the dialogue controversy and interprets the questionable passages in the story as Hemingway's deliberate use of anti-metronomic dialogue.]

If our professed boredom with the controversy over the emendation in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is how we deny our evasion of Hemingway's challenge—for no one has explained the purpose of the clearly deliberate ambiguity in the dialogue—two new pieces of evidence may soften our reluctance to trust the unemended...

(The entire section is 7126 words.)

Ken Ryan (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Contentious Emendation of Hemingway's ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’” in The Hemingway Review, Vol. 18, Fall, 1998, p. 78.

[In the following essay, Ryan maintains that Scribner's 1965 emendation of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is invalid and should be retracted.]

For nearly forty years, a war of words has been waged, the battlefield being a short passage of dialogue in Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” originally published in Scribner's Magazine in March 1933 and reprinted in the short story collection Winner Take Nothing in October of the same year. The battle has revolved around an apparent inconsistency in dialogue...

(The entire section is 4978 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Campbell, Harry M. “Comments on Mr. Stock's Nada in Hemingway's ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’” Midcontinent American Studies III, No. 1 (Spring 1962): 57-9.

Finds fault with Ely Stock's translation of the term “nada” in Hemingway's story.

Kerner, David. “Counterfeit Hemingway: A Small Scandal in Quotation Marks.” JML XII, No. 1 (March 1985): 91-108.

Deems the amended version of Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” counterfeit.

Monteiro, George. “The Education of Ernest Hemingway.” Journal of American Studies VIII, No. 1 (April 1974): 91-9....

(The entire section is 242 words.)