The critical literature on Ernest Hemingway is quite massive, and it is very diverse. His style and mechanics have been thoroughly analyzed, and he and his work have been the subjects of numerous studies by critics employing historical, biographical, psychological, feminist and other paradigms. His literary reputation has been strong ever since his fiction began to be taught widely in the 1950s. He is generally considered to be a talented, prolific, and disciplined writer whose early work was seminal in defining the sparer prose aesthetic that characterizes most twentieth-century anglophone fiction.
Any longer study of Hemingway’s fiction will inevitably touch on ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’’ It was considered, from the first, the best of the stories in the 1933 collection, Winner Take Nothing. Along with a few African stories (about big-game hunting), it is one of a handful of perennially popular stories by the writer. Hemingway is particularly well-known for stylistic minimalism, and this brief gem is considered to be a tour de force in this respect.
Hemingway’s major literary successes at the time this story was published were, from the point of view of the critics, the earliest sketches and stories of the 1920s and his first two novels (The Sun also Rises and A Farewell to Arms). Less favored was the nonfiction, and the collection Winner Take Nothing was not especially admired by critics. As a collection, it often received the epithets “bitter” or “depressing.” Critical interpretation of the significance of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is quite consistent. For those who think the story too slight to be great, it is just more Hemingway “dumb ox” fiction (or so his fiction is described by his acerbic contemporary, Wyndham Lewis, in an essay entitled “The Dumb Ox: A Study of Ernest Hemingway’’). By ‘‘dumb ox,’’ Lewis means Hemingway’s characters, and not Hemingway himself, no matter how confusing the title of his essay is. Lewis considers them beneath anybody’s notice. Less elitist critics fault Hemingway for a “dumb ox” aesthetic by contending that simplicity of this nature could only be found in the writer’s imagination, and that no one (not even a real rustic) is as simple as Hemingway’s characters are. Even Frank O’Conner (a well-known writer in his own right), who finds much to admire in Hemingway, expresses this frustration. In his The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, a chapter concerning Hemingway presents his fiction as far too “abstract.” He argues that is does not sufficiently capture the social and interpersonal complexity of life: ‘‘I . . . ask myself if this wonderful technique of Hemingway’s is really a technique in search of a subject or technique that is carefully avoiding a subject, and searching anxiously all the time for a clean well-lighted place where all the difficulties of human life can be comfortably ignored.’’
For critics who take Hemingway seriously, the story is often aligned to notions associated with the 1950s philosophical doctrine known as...
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