In this story, Hemingway creates a classic opposition between light and darkness: the light in the café offers a temporary respite from the darkness outside. Both symbolically and physically, the old man takes refuge in drinking brandy in this pleasant atmosphere. The younger waiter has no real conception of the psychological or spiritual dimension of the customer’s activity; hence, all he does is complain about not getting to go home on time. But the older waiter can relate. He has more patience because he, like the old man, has stared into the Great Nada, the “nothing he knew all too well.”
At the end of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” we find the older waiter trying to convince himself that perhaps this awful void in his soul is not so bad after all, merely something he feels when he cannot sleep. But Hemingway’s taut prose implies a darker conclusion.