A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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Hemingway's Modernist Minimalist Narrative

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What stands out about ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ is its minimalism. Known for simple sentences and simple diction, Hemingway positively outdoes himself in this famous short story. In the most pared down English imaginable, three nameless and unexceptional characters rehearse a brief, nocturnal scene. Thus, this story ostentatiously extols the virtues of the simple. This minimalism is so very dramatic, in fact, one feels that complexity or sophistication is not simply precluded, but actually written against. In writing such stripped-down prose and narrative, Hemingway counters the era which precedes him. Nineteenth-century prose and narrative is, by contrast, the epitome of ornateness and complexity. The extreme minimalism of a ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ connotes a turning away from the past, from history and progress, war and technology.

In ‘‘Modernist Studies,’’ a review essay in a collection called Redrawing the Boundaries, Marjorie Perloff states that ‘‘modernism perceived its own mission as a call for rupture.’’ By ‘‘rupture,’’ Perloff means that modernists dealt with what appeared to them to be a disappointing history by searching for completely transformed ways of going about politics and life. The idea was to break with a civilization that had not yielded the positive social progress it had so believed in and so loudly proclaimed it was delivering. This bleak sense of western culture not living up to its best promise was felt already before World War I but the shocking carnage of the Great War, in terms of the sheer number and sheer horribleness of deaths and injuries, intensified and galvanized this feeling. This war left the west, but particularly Europeans, reeling. What had been an energetic movement in the arts before the war became deadly serious after it. Some modernist artists experimented with their prose (e.g. Virginia Woolf), or their painterly techniques (e.g. Picasso’s cubism), in an effort to point to and usher in the transformations in social relations they so strongly desired. Others—Hemingway is preeminent in this group—chipped away at language and action to shuck off and scrupulously avoid the no longer desired. ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ is glaring proof of this. No ‘‘fancy’’ or sophisticated words or situations weighted with undesired history or civilization are of interest to him. Hemingway is after the truly enduring and noble underneath the destructive and suffocating clutter of civilization and history.

‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ rests on the dramatic information of the old man’s attempted suicide, and the difference between the two waiters. An old man sits alone, far too late into the night, drinking steadily. This is a scene of pathos. This is pathos, however, in which much is made of pathos contained, or reigned in. The man is known to be very drunk, but he is ‘‘clean,’’ neither belligerent nor messy. By not calling attention to himself or his suffering, he avoids making of it or himself an event. This story about quietly endured pain connotes the idea that suffering is indeed so common, so mundane, no commemoration of it is necessary.

In the rather tragic universe of the cafe, there are two waiters. One of them sees a single customer sitting alone, someone who has been the last customer and has been sitting there alone for a long time. He decides he wants the person to leave so that he can close up and go home. This prosaic situation and wish is set against the older waiter’s argument that they should not close up in case the man is finding solace in this ‘‘clean, well-lighted place.’’ His having tried to kill himself, and his being in the cafe drinking at all, seems to suggest this. The older waiter’s argument is a plea based on the simple question of ‘‘Wouldn’t you want to be here if you were him?’’ The younger waiter must grudgingly agree, finally, that it means something to drink in a clean, well-lighted place, instead of at home alone. Nevertheless, he defends his actions and so essentially revels in the unthinking and selfish power of youth that cannot see ahead to the weakness of its own old age. Against this waiter, the second waiter exemplifies solidarity with the old and with all those who suffer on this earth.

This primal expression of solidarity and suffering characterizes the mood of Hemingway’s modernism. As for his modernism itself, the substance of it can be approached through an examination of the story’s transformation of the Catholic prayers ‘‘Our Father’’ and ‘‘Hail Mary.’’

By the time the older waiter thinks his crazily modified versions of the prayers, the younger waiter has expelled the old man from the cafe, the waiters have closed up, and the reader has learned that the older waiter is an insomniac. He is, like the old man, ‘‘[w]ith all those who need a light for the night.’’ In fact, the older waiter intends to find himself a clean, well-lighted place of his own in order to consummate, as it were, his solidarity and pact with the old man. The older waiter has sunk into his own thoughts, and at some point in his physical transition from the cafe to the late-night bar to which he goes, he asks himself:

What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was nada y pues nada y pues nada. [the modified ‘‘Our Father’’ and ‘‘Hail Mary’’ prayers now begin:] Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

If the reader feels this short story pulls off this litany of ‘‘nadas,’’ the reader smiles with the old waiter. Indeed, if the story had not been called what it is, ‘‘Nada” or ‘‘Nothing” would have been a good second choice as it is the single-most important word in the story. Its importance is established, indeed, at the story’s start, when the older waiter is asked by the younger why the old man tried to kill himself:

‘‘Last week he tried to commit suicide,’’ one waiter said. ‘‘Why?’’ ‘‘He was in despair.’’ ‘‘What about?’’ ‘‘Nothing.’’ ‘‘How do you know it was nothing?’’ ‘‘He has plenty of money.’’

Once it is learned that the older waiter sympathizes with the old man, this ‘‘nothing’’ takes on major significance. How can he sympathize with someone so completely if he feels that the man killed himself for no reason? What, then, does this ‘‘nothing’’ really mean? We are given a clear and obvious clue. Nothing is what is left over after money is taken care of: ‘‘‘How do you know it was nothing?’’’/ ‘‘‘He has plenty of money.’’’ What that means is that all the man’s physical wants must be guaranteed, so all that could be plaguing him are intangible yearnings. Or, to put this another way, what is plaguing the old man are not wishes for things he needs like food and shelter, but rather thoughts about profundities. ‘‘Nothing’’ is the old waiter’s way of referring to the most important things in life after one’s bodily wants have been satisfied. Thus, it is not surprising that the old man inserts a series of ‘‘nadas’’ into a prayer; a prayer, after all, is a significant event. To pray is to indicate a belief in a religion, in a system and an order for life, to indicate, in short, that one has a map to life’s profundities. But the reader knows from the story’s opening that this is precisely what the older waiter does not have. Profundities are precisely that for which he has no name. Thus, it comes as no surprise that what he does in his praying is utilize a ‘‘form’’ (a prayer) but then deny its ‘‘contents’’ (Catholicism). He borrows the structure of the ‘‘Our Father” and the ‘‘Hail Mary,” but inserts ‘‘nada” into any place that matters. In these prayers, the values upon which the religious faith of the west are based are not so much denied, as ‘‘nothing’’ is put in their place. Thus, this story by Hemingway could be said to desire belief or faith, in its gesturing toward the ‘‘forms’’ of faith and belief, but as to what those beliefs or values might or could be, the story is overwhelmingly silent (‘‘nada’’). What Hemingway’s minimalism is ultimately designed to achieve is precisely this refusal or forestalling of values or valuation. If western civilization has gone wrong, this modernism seems to convey, then it is best to hold off believing for a time in order to discover new and better beliefs and values.

The twentieth-century had dawned fully industrialized and fully armed for the bloodiest of wars. Like many of his ‘‘lost generation’’ (so named by the writer Gertrude Stein), Hemingway in this story exemplifies a disaffection with, and avoidance of, tradition and history. Hemingway’s ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ is a preeminent, representative example of modernist minimalist narrative. In utilizing only the bare minimum for narrative, in terms of language, character, scene, and action, Hemingway tries his best to skirt the traps and habits of the past. Modernists, thus, are as attached to notions of progress as their nineteenth-century predecessors, it is simply that they decide that the best way to get ahead is to start from scratch.

Source: Carol Dell’Amico, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

The Ambiguity of “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”

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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’’—has passed muster with Paul Smith, the earlier cries of “Enough!” were premature: a comprehensive demonstration of the accuracy of Hemingway’s text is needed, lest we wake up one day to find the emendation enshrined in the Library of America. The need is evident too when Gerry Brenner can write: ‘‘must we know which waiter answers the question ‘How do you know it was nothing?’ with ‘He has plenty of money’? I think not.’’ One cannot take this answer away from the younger waiter without redistributing 19 other speeches; and to think that this can be done without damaging the intention in a story that so sharply differentiates the two waiters is to reveal once again that the story being read is not yet the one Hemingway wrote.

Anyone drawn to the notion that in Hemingway’s text, whether by accident or design, there is an inconsistency that cannot be resolved has failed either to consider or to study the context of the crucial disputed line. No one, when first reading the story, can know which waiter is saying, as the dialogue opens, ‘‘Last week he tried to commit suicide.’’ The deliberateness of the uninformative ‘‘one waiter said’’ is undeniable, for in the second short dialogue (about the soldier), critics will never agree that it is possible to know which waiter is saying what. The third dialogue continues the challenge, as the younger waiter begins:

‘‘He’s drunk now,’’ he said.

‘‘He’s drunk every night.’’

‘‘What did he want to kill himself for?’’

By habit we assign this question and the succeeding ones to the younger waiter, so we are surprised, some lines later, to find the older waiter saying, ‘‘You said she cut him down,’’ for he, it would seem, has been answering the questions. But since this apparent inconsistency complements the riddling ‘‘one waiter said’’s, the context of controlled ambiguity assures us that when Hemingway decided to insert ‘‘You said she cut him down,’’ he knew that his assignment of this indispensable line was decisive, and consequently he knew which waiter he was giving it to. The function of this dual ambiguity is clear even before we know it is dual: once we have heard about ‘‘nada,’’ the withholding of identification throws a spotlight on the opening ‘‘Nothing’’:

‘‘What [was he in despair] about?’’


Then, after we have detected the apparent inconsistency, we realize that without the disputed insertion, we might decide that this ‘‘Nothing” (whose overtones Hemingway must have been aware of before he began) is the older waiter’s ‘‘nada,” and the insertion is there to tell us we would be mistaken. But it tells us ambiguously, not immediately ending the puzzle of the ‘‘one waiter said’’s, prodding us to see why ‘‘Nothing” cannot be the older waiter’s ‘‘nada” and must be the younger waiter’s line. If the opening ‘‘Nothing” were the older waiter’s line, there would be no reason for the web Hemingway took pains to weave. In pulling that web apart without studying it, the emenders, like surgeons cutting blindly, destroyed its function and lopped off an organic part of the story’s meaning, for the younger waiter’s ‘‘Nothing” opens up a kind of flanking attack that turns out to be the central location of the battle.

Bennett argues that the reply to ‘‘Why [did the old man try to commit suicide]?’’—‘‘He was in despair’’—indicates the speaker’s familiarity with ‘‘nada,” and therefore the older waiter must be the one answering the questions. True, in the whole story this ‘‘despair” is the one word that can make us hesitate, but what follows it only supports our seeing the younger waiter throw up his hands mockingly as he replies, ‘‘He was in despair’’; for, coming from him, these words are a vacuous formula, forcing the questioner to repeat his question, and the mockery is confirmed when we see that the proffered answer ‘‘Nothing” is a set-up for a joke:

‘‘How do you know it was nothing?’’

‘‘He has plenty of money.’’

Because the older waiter could not think that anyone with ‘‘plenty of money” can have no reason to kill himself, Bennett is forced to construe ‘‘Nothing’’ as the later ‘‘nada.” But a premature, ambiguous ‘‘Nada” here, followed by an equally unenlightening, mocking deflection of the appeal for an explanation, would make the whole passage a pointless, as well as a misleading, anticipation, and it would also make the older waiter uncharacteristically glib and smug: it would be inconsistent with his patience as a teacher (‘‘You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café.’’), with his feeling for the old man, and with the fact that, as he begins his interior monologue, he is not out to explain the old man’s suicide attempt—he is asking, rather, why he himself has ‘‘never had confidence,’’ why does he ‘‘need a light for the night,” ‘‘What did he fear?,’’ as though he is only now, for the first time, naming his trouble. If ‘‘Nothing’’ were the older waiter’s reply and meant what Bennett claims, this waiter’s next reply would make sense—for example:

‘‘How do you know it was [nada]?’’

‘‘He has a loving wife.’’

That is what but ‘‘nada” can explain the suicide attempt when even such affection fails? The hypothetical answer helps us see the actual answer as a coarse joke; but that it is such a joke and stays a joke, Hemingway makes clear when the persistent questioner asks, ‘‘What did he want to kill himself for?’’ The new answer is not an explanation of ‘‘nada” but a callous dismissal—‘‘How should I know’’—which shows us again that behind the answer ‘‘Nothing” there was no idea the speaker might expand on; he now openly shrugs the question off, as though saying, ‘‘What are you asking foolish questions for? What difference does it make? Who cares?” Three times the older waiter has asked ‘‘Why?” and three times there has been no genuine answer. This persistent rebuff of a serious question is not the way of the older waiter. Bennett is insensitive to the tone of ‘‘How should I know’’ when he hears in it the older waiter’s ‘‘existential un-certainty,’’ not the crude impatience that Hemingway helpfully suggested by removing the question mark and restoring the period with which he had originally ended the line (MS 3). And since the opening ‘‘Nothing” was meant as a set-up for a wise-guy answer, the older waiter cannot be said, in his monologue, to be expounding already, with stunning eloquence, on the ‘‘‘despair’’’ he had just ‘‘‘learned’ about from’’ his insensitive colleague.

The principal argument, however, against attributing ‘‘Nothing” to the older waiter is in what Hemingway meant by contriving this line for the younger waiter. Bennett asserts that since the older waiter ‘‘knows and understands the ‘nothingness’ behind suicidal thoughts,’’ he ‘‘could not ‘stupidly’ ask ‘Why [did the old man try to commit suicide]?’’’ This distortion makes us think immediately of Hemingway’s suicide. We are still asking ‘‘Why?”—as Hemingway himself asked, more than once, about his father (Winnerw; Bell). In Darkness Visible William Styron concludes that clinical depression, even when it does not end in suicide, is an ‘‘all but impenetrable mystery.” The older waiter’s persistent return to the question ‘‘Why?”—an effort to learn what may be known—reflects the compassionate, intelligent involvement behind his pursuit of the subject—‘‘How did he do it?,” ‘‘Why did they do it [cut him down]?’’ (emphasis added). But the more important mistake in Bennett’s distortion here is his failure to realize that the older waiter neither says nor implies that ‘‘nada,” as he defines it, causes suicide. His monologue laments the loss of the traditional image of a fatherly God; what it says is what Freud says in The Future of an Illusion (had Hemingway read it?), though Freud, arguing, like the waiter, ‘‘light was all it needed’’ exhibits rather more confidence in the café he had opened. In this context, ‘‘a man was nothing too’’ has two meanings, which Hemingway, with grim humor, had recently explained in ‘‘A Natural History of the Dead,” puncturing the rhetoric of Mungo Park: our individual survival means nothing to the universe, and what happens to an untended corpse ridicules our exalting ourselves above natural law. No more than Hemingway there does the waiter here connect this atheism with suicide. Rather, he is raising the question, What are we (the human race), now that the God who marks the sparrow's fall is gone and we are no longer immortal? The answer, ‘‘a man was nothing too,’’ means we are only another kind of animal, so that our ‘‘place” now is merely a refuge, a sort of wildlife sanctuary, like the café for the old man. The symbolic meaning of this refuge is not the older waiter’s—he is too modest (‘‘it is probably only insomnia’’); behind him, it is Hemingway who is suggesting that religion—and every other kind of home we carve for ourselves out of this harsh cosmos that doesn’t know we are here—is no more than such a refuge.

But the story does not stop with the monologue: having shown us how different the waiters are, Hemingway has maneuvered us into going back to see what he is up to with those ‘‘one waiter said”s—a challenge that is reinforced when, as we puzzle over it, we detect the apparent inconsistency; and now we discover that the younger waiter’s role is to dramatize how ‘‘a man was nothing too,’’ in the way his behavior answers ‘‘What are we?’’ with the complementary question ‘‘Who am I?’’ His bristling when his colleague teases, ‘‘You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?,’’ implies that under the boast ‘‘I am all confidence” is a man who does not know himself, and who is fated, like Oedipus, to find out who he is, disastrously. This ominous ignorance is equally noticeable when he tells the deaf old man, ‘‘You should have killed yourself last week”: such self-satisfied callousness is excessive, a gratuitous display of this waiter’s assurance that he has nothing in common with the despairing old man; and the excess, like a neurotic symptom, is a measure of the strength of the anxiety the waiter is hiding from himself. Our understanding of this defensiveness is enlarged by Mr. Frazer’s interior monologue at the end of ‘‘The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,’’ which Hemingway was finishing around the time he wrote ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’: life, Frazer thinks, is surgery without anesthesia—what Dr. Adams does in ‘‘Indian Camp’’ is how the universe operates—and we block the pain openly, with alcohol or other drugs, or covertly, with the protective coloration or identity we assume. Frazer’s catalogue of such identities includes the macho facade—the anxiety-pacifying use of ‘‘sexual intercourse’’—that is the younger waiter’s ‘‘opium.’’ Hemingway leaves it to us to figure out that the incident of the soldier hurrying with the girl is meant to give this waiter the rope to hang himself, when he says, in a display of his own sexual powers, ‘‘What does it matter if he gets what he’s after?’’ We hear the choral commentary on this line when Frazer, learning that the nun wants to be a saint, tells her, ‘‘You’ll be one. Everybody gets what they want. That’s what they always tell me.’’ Behind the restrained, good-humored irony of this speech is Frazer’s knowledge of how we disappoint ourselves (the rodeo rider ‘‘now, with a broken back, was going to learn to work in leather and to cane chairs’’). The younger waiter needs to delude himself that he is ‘‘of those’’ who get ‘‘what they want,’’ he ‘‘gets what he’s after.’’

So when the old man’s ‘‘despair’’ is said to be about ‘‘Nothing’’—and we listen carefully, rereading, because the ambiguity has forced us to wonder what this means (Is it a contemptuous dismissal? Is it the older waiter’s ‘‘nada’’?)—the conjunction of these alternatives, now that we have seen what thin ice the younger waiter is on, suddenly makes him the concealed subject of the inquiry when his unwitting ‘‘Nothing’’ explodes into a revelation of a second kind of ‘‘nada’’: since he is ‘‘of those’’ who ‘‘lived in it and never felt it,’’ we realize that the cause of his eventual despair, when his macho conception of himself collapses, will not be the older waiter’s metaphysical, outer ‘‘nada,’’ but a psychological, inner ‘‘nada’’—the younger waiter’s own nothingness that, unconsciously, he is anesthetizing with his sexual persona—which we are being asked to hear in the resonance of that spotlighted ‘‘Nothing,’’ as though Hemingway, whose symbolism looms behind the older waiter’s monologue, could here be heard murmuring in the wings, like Bugs in ‘‘The Battler,’’ ‘‘‘Nothing,’ eh? Ah, Buster! You’ve ‘got a lot coming to’ you.’’ With this, we have discovered the initial purpose of the ambiguity: we have been driven to see that the story is a tale of two ‘‘nada’’s. The conclusion ‘‘a man was nothing too,’’ which is contestable when the older waiter infers it from the silence of the cosmos, is reached unarguably from below, in the human condition the younger waiter’s insubstantial identity reveals; for it is this inner ‘‘nada’’ that turns out to be fundamental, since it still takes its toll when the outer ‘‘nada’’ is vigorously denied (as in Hemingway’s view of his father’s suicide, for Dr. Hemingway was a lifelong devout Christian).

The initial purpose of the ambiguity is joined by a corollary purpose when we realize the relation between the two ‘‘nada’’s. The young waiter’s ‘‘bogus self-assurance,’’ as Steven Hoffman has observed, is matched in ‘‘Indian Camp’’ when little Nick Adams, with ‘‘willed ignorance,’’ feels ‘‘quite sure he would never die.’’ Hoffman does not explore where this leads. In ‘‘Three Shots,’’ the discarded original opening of ‘‘Indian Camp,’’ three times we are told that ‘‘Nickie’’ (like Mr. Frazer) tries to avoid thinking, about either his shame or his fear. A few weeks before, the hymn ‘‘Some day the silver cord must break’’ had made him realize for the first time ‘‘that he himself would have to die sometime,’’ and he had sat up all night in the hall, reading. That is no small feat for a little boy—it expresses intolerable anxiety, which returns now when he is alone in the tent, where no ‘‘silver cord’’ ties him to his source. ‘‘Nickie’’ here—can he be more than 10?—knows nothing of ‘‘the death of God’’; the absence frightening him is that of his earthly father, for his fear goes away, and he falls asleep, as soon as he fires the signaling shots, since he has complete faith his father will return at once, and the firing itself identifies him with his father—which shows that the threat facing the boy was not death but separation, the inescapable demand that he be himself, with an identity of his own to protect him. So his concluding denial of how he must end expresses his unwillingness to relinquish the Nirvana of his ‘‘silver cord’’ beginnings.

In little Nick this childish denial is healthy; in the younger waiter it has become a sick denial that exposes his whole character structure as a defense against the reactivation of an intolerable indelible infantile threat. Hemingway’s appreciation of this threat is clear in Frazer’s belief that we are being operated on without anesthesia when we are stripped of the illusory identity that is all we have. And since, from the older waiter’s mock prayer and ‘‘A Natural History of the Dead,’’ we see that for Hemingway, as for Freud, the God who marks the sparrow’s fall can be nothing but a projection of the infant’s experience of omnipotent parental protection, then the older waiter’s sense of cosmic desolation is a recapitulation of the primal psychological loss the younger waiter has unsuccessfully buried. Astonishingly, we now gather that the ambiguity, by leading us to entertain the possibility that either waiter might be saying certain significant lines, has as a corollary purpose a dreamlike blurring of the explicit difference between the waiters: though the older one says, ‘‘We are of two different kinds,’’ we are meant to see that the younger one’s overpowering need to deny the residue of his smoldering infantile helplessness makes his blustering ‘‘confidence’’—his assurance that the old man’s despair is ‘‘a way [he’ll ] never be’’—an illusion, which may well be identified before long as the mask of the first stage of the depression that, when catastrophe strikes, may overwhelm him with the older waiter’s insomnia, and may in the end bring him too to suicide (just as little Nick’s confidence ‘‘he would never die’’ presages that he too will one day suffer the Indian husband’s unanesthetized anguish). This psychological relation between the waiters does not, of course, make their speeches interchangeable. The older waiter himself—with his protesting ‘‘What did he want to kill himself for?’’—does not yet realize where he is heading. The three characters in the story are an allegory for the stages of our encounter with our inner ‘‘nada’’—a post-theological pilgrim’s progress that Hemingway’s life has mapped for us.

The ‘‘clean, well-lighted place,’’ then, insofar as it symbolizes a refuge one can achieve for oneself, is only a resting place, a holding action, as Hemingway intimates by the sly echo when Frazer attributes his climactic discovery (‘‘Bread is the opium of the people’’) to ‘‘that well-lighted part of his mind that was there after two or more drinks in the evening; . . . (it was not really there of course).’’ In ‘‘Big Two-Hearted River’’ Nick Adams builds ‘‘the good place’’ of his own tent and camp, his ‘‘home where he had made it’’—he has learned how fishing can control his anxiety, whatever its roots; but when Frazer concludes, ‘‘He was thinking well, a little too well,’’ it is not fellow-traveling book reviewers he is afraid of, if he lets them read, in 1933, his judgment on the Russian revolution—he is afraid that in another minute he will be asking himself why he has omitted fishing and hunting from his catalogue of opiums (for the story is autobiographical), and his next question would be, Why did he omit art—his stories? Does the ‘‘clean, well-lighted place’’ his talent makes available certify his salvation? Hemingway does not have to identify for us the personal failings implied in ‘‘Usually [Frazer] avoided thinking all he could, except when he was writing’’—such failings are universal, and Hemingway could be a merciless judge of his own, as in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’ In ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’’ which too is autobiographical, Harry’s dream of heavenward flight as he dies—a remorse-inspired illusion rising from his betrayal of his talent—is only one of the story’s echoes of Tolstoy’s ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych,’’ perhaps the most devastating story ever written about inauthentic identity as a defense against the anxiety radiating from the buried soul. For though the loss of the parental God has again brought our professed identity into question, the unique willingness of the human animal to submit to judgment survives. ‘‘Fear for his soul’’ on the lips of the younger waiter is part of the Sophoclean irony. He does not know what danger his own soul is in, since he has not permitted himself to learn that the soul is no imaginary religious atavism—it is still, as it always was, inescapably, the self we create by our choices (insofar as we have them). That Hemingway, after his affair with Jane Mason (following his choice of Pauline Pfeiffer), could make the younger waiter a withering caricature of his own macho bristling, and then imagine for himself an inauthenticity that evoked for him ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych,’’ reinforces the allegory revealing the ‘‘clean, well-lighted place’’ as hardly more secure than the heaven that has dissolved like a mirage.

But we have yet to see the range of Hemingway’s insight into the younger waiter’s insubstantial identity as representative of the human condition. The younger waiter unwittingly betrays himself by overeagerly proclaiming that he is something (he is not ‘‘nothing too’’), while Hemingway, behind the older waiter, is telling us that our need to establish a ‘‘clean, well-lighted place’’ of our own is due to the failure of our social institutions to live up to their claims that we are something (they have provided us such well-lighted mansions of meaning as the one that sustained Mungo Park in the desert); and this parallel between the younger waiter and civilization—a bristling ‘‘confidence’’ in the solidity of a shaky identity—is what gives the story its fundamental unity, climaxing the significance our attention to the ambiguity has found in the younger waiter. The range of the parallel is immense—it takes us immeasurably back and forward. For the older waiter’s ‘‘What are we now?’’ is not new—it goes back to the emergence of the human race, when there was no question of ‘‘the death of God’’ or the ‘‘meaninglessness’’ of life: we alone among animals had to ask ourselves what we were, now that we’d been ejected from the closed programming of our animal Eden; we were already bristling, like the younger waiter, the first time a tribesman shrouded his head and trunk in an animal hide to reassure himself (and all others concerned) who his ancestors were; and the problem is permanent, as Hemingway learned from the collision of Oak Park with the twentieth century, which we see in ‘‘Soldier’s Home.’’ In ‘‘Winner Take Nothing’’ Frazer’s monologue is followed immediately by the first paragraph of ‘‘Fathers and Sons,’’ where ‘‘the traffic lights’’ ‘‘would be gone next year when the payments on the system were not met.’’ As an allusion to Prohibition (the story before ‘‘The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio’’ is ‘‘Wine of Wyoming’’), this introduces a bristling theocratic eagerness to overregulate; for Dr. Adams’s contribution to the sexual education of his son advises us that a system of rules telling us when to stop and when to go, permitting us to go about our business without slaughtering each other, must be inspired by a mistaken image of ourselves when it comes at a price we cannot afford (Dr. Adams will pay with his life).

In ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ Hemingway faces us with such a system in the injunction against suicide, the dereliction the girl’s uncovered head represents, the hurry of this couple, the curfew, and the patrolling police. As ‘‘Fathers and Sons’’ opens, a detour sign has not been removed, though ‘‘cars had obviously gone through,’’ so Nick Adams does not detour; but the soldier’s graceless infraction classes him with the drunks the Fontans turn away in ‘‘Wine of Wyoming.’’ What his hurry exposes (emphasized by the contrast with the ‘‘very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity’’) is less a self than a sexual urgency that we are invited to see as an inner uniform—a biological herding that pacifies us with an illusion of identity; and this implicit metaphor explains why ‘‘walked out to the old man’'s table’’ in the holograph (3) was changed to ‘‘marched’’ in the typescript (2). We are not told precisely how the younger waiter’s macho uniform will one day explode, but the strength his behavior leads us to attribute to the unresolved threat he has buried urges us to realize that when a man murders his estranged wife and her lover and then kills himself (a news item we’ve seen often), he has found that losing her robs him of his identity—without her he is nothing—and this is a danger that makes death preferable. In ‘‘The Battler’’ Bugs says of Ad Francis’s wife, ‘‘one day she just went off and never come back. . . . He just went crazy.’’ But whether or not the crazy violence with which the punch-drunk ex-fighter hallucinates his old identity in the ring may be expected, in one form or another, from the similarly dependent younger waiter, his double, the soldier, is there so that we may ponder the possible imminent collision with the police, which adumbrates the younger waiter’s problem in its broadest, tragic significance; for the state or culture, when its uniform—its bristling profession of a deep-rooted illusory identity (like the primitive animal hide)—is seriously threatened, knows no restraint, and lesser groups often claim such juggernaut authority. In this way, the younger waiter’s desperate flailing when he feels his identity escaping him becomes a microcosmic suggestion of the suicidal extremes that erupt in all racial, religious, ethnic, and political hostilities where persecution of a scapegoat is needed to shore up a precarious identity.

This is what Frazer is thinking in 1933 when he sees patriotism as ‘‘the opium of the people in Italy and Germany’’: the ‘‘doctor,’’ it would turn out (in Scribner’s Magazine the story was called ‘‘Give Us a Prescription, Doctor’’), was prescribing, for those people’s tranquility, 50 million deaths. Every culture struggles, with its back to the wall, against the realities threatening the identity it claims. For Socrates wisdom begins when we admit we do not know; but society, denying to the end what its professed identity will not permit it to admit, must bristle like the younger waiter, and self-destruct. From the older waiter’s rejection of the bodega, with its ‘‘shining steam-pressure coffee machine,’’ we gather that Hemingway foresees no salvation in the identity technological civilization offers. Our effort to discover what the human race is turns out to be back-breaking Sisyphean labor—a cruel joke—if our vaunted openness to cultural development is an endless, savage turmoil of one self-deception after another. But Hemingway does not believe it endless. Whether justifiably, or only reflecting his own depression, he gives us, in his next book, Green Hills of Africa, his opinion of our ability to solve our problem. He compares what the human race will leave behind—after ‘‘the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone’’—to the five loads of garbage dumped on a good day outside Havana, turning the Gulf Stream to ‘‘a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms’’: ‘‘in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow.’’ There, for Hemingway—after the floating debris is gone (‘‘the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves’’) and as long as the sun rises—is the lasting ‘‘clean, well-lighted place.’’

Source: David Kerner, ‘‘The Ambiguity of ‘A Clean, Well-lighted Place,’’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 561-74.

Survival through Irony: Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

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‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ has with justice been considered an archetypal Hemingway story, morally and aesthetically central to the Hemingway canon. But its crystalline structure and sparse diction have led many critics to judge the story itself a simple one, either about nothingness, ‘‘a little nada story,’’ or about the author’s positive values, a story ‘‘lyric rather than dramatic.’’ I would like to suggest that it is in neither sense simple, but that the feelings and ideas which lie behind it are complex and are expressed dramatically, chiefly through the characterization of the older waiter. The latter is a man of enormous awareness continually torn between what might be called religious idealism and intellectual nihilism, a combination that surfaces in irony in several places in the story. This tension between two modes of viewing the world is developed through imagery that functions as a setting, through characterization, and, more abstractly, through a theme which I take to be the barriers against nada.

The most obvious source of imagery is the words of the title, the qualities of light and cleanness, to which one may add quietness. These terms admirably illustrate what Richard K. Peterson calls the ‘‘use of apparently objective words to express values;’’ they may be followed with profit throughout Hemingway’s stories, novels, and non-fiction. But in this story each of these qualities exists also in its negative aspect, its shadow side.

Light provides the most striking image pattern. The cafe has an ‘‘electric light’’ that the older waiter eventually turns off. A street light is picked up by the brass number on a passing soldier’s collar. The older waiter is ‘‘with all those who need a light for the night.’’ The cafe where he works is ‘‘well lighted;’’ its ‘‘light is very good.’’ In the bodega where he buys coffee ‘‘the light is very bright and pleasant.’’ After going home he would be able to sleep ‘‘with daylight.’’ Obviously, light is not only the antithesis of darkness but an effective barrier against it, or, rather, as Randall Stewart puts it, the light ‘‘at any rate, must be made to do.’’

But it is stated twice that the patron, the old man, ‘‘sat in the shadow of the leaves,’’ and the older waiter likes the cafe not only because its light is good but because ‘‘now there are shadows of the leaves,’’ Further, the old man particularly liked sitting in the cafe at night because ‘‘the dew settled the dust’’ of the day and ‘‘it was quiet and he felt the difference,’’ though he was deaf. Here shadow clearly has a positive connotation, in the sense of shade, of protection from the glare of the light, perhaps because the light is artificial but more likely because any direct light hurts the eyes and exposes the person. In addition, the night is clean and quiet, positive values contrasted to the day’s dirt and noise.

The older waiter is equally concerned that his ‘‘place’’ be clean. He contradicts the younger waiter’s remark that ‘‘an old man is a nasty thing’’ with ‘‘this old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk.’’ In contrast to the younger waiter, who wipes ‘‘the edge of the table with a towel’’ to emphasize that the old man should leave, but earlier had poured brandy so that it ‘‘slopped over and ran down the stem into the top saucer of the pile,’’ the older waiter emphasizes several times the necessity of cleanness. Bars and bodegas are open all night, and they have light, but one cannot ‘‘stand before a bar with dignity, with correctness.’’

Its natural occurrence, however, is at night, when ‘‘the dew settled the dust.’’ Its negative aspect is even more evident in that statement of the younger waiter that ‘‘an old man is a nasty thing,’’ which, as a generalization, the older waiter does not contradict. Since age, as opposed to youth, is specifically associated in this story with greater awareness and sensitivity, in Hemingway terms ‘‘imagination,’’ cleanness may be linked with ignorance and insensitivity.

The third positive quality of the cafe is its quietness; the old man, in addition, is deaf. There is the suggestion that another thing wrong with bars is that they may have music, but, in any case, ‘‘you do not want music. Certainly you do not want music.’’ Any form of noise, then, like darkness and dirt, is to be avoided.

In this quality is the negative side of all three most evident. The old patron not only cannot tolerate direct light and can be classified with ‘‘nasty things,’’ but also he is actually deaf so that no sound even has relevance for him. That the shadow side of quietness is its extreme, in the form of a negation of one whole sense faculty and a major art form, reminds the reader that all three qualities are in some sense negations. Light functions as an absence of darkness, cleanness as an absence of dirt, quietness as an absence of sound. Yet all three are posited as barriers against the ultimate negation, against Nothingness itself—perhaps, for once in literature, a genuine paradox, but certainly a major source of irony in this story.

Other images are less important but function in the same way. Liquor, the ‘‘giant killer’’ of other stories, is a weapon against the darkness, but it also impairs physical functioning, making the old man walk ‘‘unsteadily,’’ so that the older waiter notices with pride that he can drink ‘‘without spilling. Even now, drunk,’’ walk ‘‘with dignity.’’ The younger waiter is ‘‘not lonely’’ because he has ‘‘a wife waiting in bed,’’ but for the old man who ‘‘had a wife once’’ now ‘‘a wife would be no good,’’ making women, a relationship to a woman, a material, but very temporary and thus illusory, protection against nothingness. All Hemingway’s sleepless heroes desire sleep, but the old waiter, acutely conscious of the darkness lurking behind the light, cannot allow himself to lose that consciousness until he has light to protect him. There is a synonymity between being aware and being awake that overrides the psychologically negative connotations of insomnia. Thus, the man who can sleep is unaware and insensitive.

But in ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ characterization is even more important than imagery. Though the old patron is the main topic of conversation between the two waiters, he is less important as a character than either of them. He functions more as part of the setting, a demonstration of the way things are, and as an indirect means for the characterization of the other two men. The younger waiter, also called ‘‘the waiter who was in a hurry’’ and ‘‘the waiter with a wife,’’ is not the villain he is often cast to be; he after all ‘‘did not wish to be unjust,’’ He is merely l’homme moyen sensuel, lacking that moral and aesthetic sensibility Hemingway calls ‘‘imagination.’’ He alone should serve as a refutation of the ‘‘locker-room’’ Hemingway, if such is still needed, but he is much less important than his co-worker, indeed serving as a kind of foil for him.

That the older waiter is also called ‘‘the unhurried waiter’’ makes evident the pun in the appellation. The younger man is ‘‘waiting’’ impatiently to go home and the older is ‘‘waiting’’ patiently or has transcended ‘‘waiting’’ altogether, has gone one step beyond Beckett’s tramps, having learned that there is nothing to wait for. As Joseph Gabriel has it, he ‘‘must bear at the same time his intense spiritual hunger and the realization of the impossibility of its fulfillment.’’ His alienation is dramatized, as Robert Weeks has noted, by his being ‘‘in the presence of others who either do not even notice him, or if they do are unaware of his ordeal and of the gallantry with which he endures it.’’ But he is also something more, and something more complex, than these tragic, heroic qualities would suggest.

He first appears in that initial dialogue, which, by its lack of speech tags and the ensuing possible mis-assignment of them, has plagued so many readers. The second long dialogue makes clear that the older waiter provides the younger with information concerning the old patron’s attempted suicide, and that the older man possesses the greater degree of sensitivity and awareness. This characterization is then read back into the first dialogue, making the younger waiter tell about the old man’s act, so that he may be given the line ‘‘Nothing’’ to describe the old man’s despair. That Hemingway, nothing if not a craftsman of the first rank, could have made such a major error is simply beyond belief. The passage surely must be read as follows:

Older waiter: ‘‘Last week he tried to commit suicide.’’

Younger waiter: ‘‘Why?’’

Older waiter: ‘‘He was in despair.’’ [as he of all men would understand]

Younger waiter: ‘‘What about?’’

Older waiter: ‘‘Nothing.’’ [that is, nada, Nothingness]

Younger waiter: ‘‘How do you know it was nothing?’’ [that is, nothing tangible or material]

Older waiter: ‘‘He has plenty of money.’’ [that is, his despair must have had metaphysical, rather than physical, grounds].

Ambiguity exists, not as Joseph Gabriel would have it, in that the speeches may be assigned either way, but, in addition to the above, in the possibility of the older waiter’s sarcastic response to a man after all incapable of understanding either old man anyway. Perhaps he means also something like ‘‘of course, what could any man possibly despair over— he has plenty of money?’’ This possibility is underscored by his response later to the query, ‘‘What did he want to kill himself for?’’ with the abrupt ‘‘How should I know.’’

The older waiter manifests this kind of double vision repeatedly. He remarks that the old patron ‘‘might be better with a wife;’’ yet he clearly knows the transitory nature of such a comfort. He has just informed his colleague that, like the latter, the old man ‘‘had a wife once too,’’ implying that she is dead, and later hints in jest that wives may be unfaithful. As they close up the cafe, the older waiter states that the younger has ‘‘everything,’’ meaning ‘‘youth, confidence, and a job;’’ yet such attributes are temporary and at best can counteract only the young man’s ‘‘nothing,’’ not the old man’s ‘‘nothingness.’’ With some justice does the former accuse the latter of ‘‘talking nonsense’’ after the remark, but without sensing its latent sardonic quality.

The strongest evidence of the older waiter’s double awareness is of course the long paragraph of the two parodic prayers. It is used eleven times with references varying from the cafe, to the merely grammatical subject of the verb is, to the anguish he tries to define, to the world, to nothingness itself. The fragments of the two prayers follow naturally from the catechetical dialogues at the beginning of the story and from the repetitions of it and nothing. Like the world and man himself, religious form is hollow at the core, filled with ‘‘nothing,’’ or, rather, ‘‘nothingness,’’ in existential terms, the abyss.

Though there is ‘‘nothing’’ to be gained, the older waiter does profit by thus saying his prayers. Such a vision—of lost ‘‘everything’’ and of realized ‘‘nothing’’—does not send him into Byronic heroics. We read instead that ‘‘he smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.’’ He could smile and remain upright because he knew that the world and himself, even his prayer, were ‘‘nothing,’’ and by that act of awareness could survive with dignity, could transcend ‘‘it.’’

This hyper-consciousness, of course, keeps him awake at night. Thus perhaps his definitive act of self-perspective is the observation, ‘‘After all, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.’’ Calling his condition ‘‘insomnia’’ is an act of humility eliminating the last possibility of error, of assuming himself, by his consciousness, to be more than ‘‘nothing.’’ Even as an act of reassurance, a whistling in the dark, it forestalls the dangers of pride by an admission of uncertainty even about the existence of ‘‘nada.’’ It is an act of merciless self-consistency, thus liberating him from messianic responsibilities, and enabling him to continue to smile at himself and to keep that cafe open at night. The older waiter, then, can look at the world both ways—as a man of deep religious sensibility he can see the Nothingness of existence, and as a man who ‘‘knew it all was nada’’ he can make jokes and, above all, smile.

Perhaps belatedly, but at least on the evidence of imagery and characterization, we may now discuss the theme of the story. Most readers take the latter to be nada, making ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’’ despite the title, a story about Nothingness and the pessimism and despair of the human response to it. This view ignores both the definition of nada inferable from the story and the nature of the old waiter’s response to it.

Despite Hemingway’s manipulation of the pronoun it, the reader must not confuse Nothingness with the responses it produces, nor the response of the older waiter with that of the old man. Nada is depicted primarily spatially, as an objective reality, out there beyond the light; it is a final hard fact of human existence, though ‘‘some lived in it and never felt it,’’ e.g., the younger waiter. In addition, it becomes temporal with the older waiter’s repetition of ‘‘y pues nada’’ before the prayer. Though Carlos Baker, with great sensitivity, calls it ‘‘a Something called Nothing which is so huge, terrible, overbearing, inevitable, and omnipresent that, once experienced it can never be forgotten,’’ which ‘‘bulks like a Jungian Shadow,’’ its mythic qualities are perhaps not even that well defined.

More importantly, the response of the old patron—the search for oblivion through drunkenness or suicide—is not the only one, and certainly not the one of the older waiter. John Killinger observes that ‘‘the only entity truly capable of defying the encroachments of Nothingness is the individual,’’ and Cleanth Brooks that ‘‘the order and the light are supplied by him,’’ the old waiter, the individual. Carrying this affirmation one step further, Wayne Booth notes ‘‘a mood of bitterness against darkness combined with a determination to fight the darkness with light—if only the clean, well-lighted place of art itself.’’ But, as we have seen, all the positive imagery, including light, is ironically undercut by the presence of a shadow side, and the ‘‘darkness’’ is counteracted on more levels than that simply of ‘‘light.’’

The older waiter in fact acts in various ways against Nothingness. He expresses solidarity with the old patron, and would willingly keep the cafe open as long as anyone wants it; he is instrumental in keeping the lights on. But his acquaintance with nada is intimate enough to keep him awake all night, every night; yet this hyper-awareness leads him neither toward self-destruction nor toward egocentricity. He can fuse religious sensibility with existential anxiety into a parodic prayer, after which he can smile. Turning off the light in the cafe and going home to bed is a daily act of courage done silently, without complaint. His sensitivity to places which make dignity possible gives us the verbal clue that his life is one of survival with dignity.

Thematically, then, the older waiter actively demonstrates that life against nada is achieved by awareness, sensitivity, human solidarity, ritual (verbal and physical), humor, and courage. Together these qualities make dignity, or, to use Jamesian terms, style or form; we encounter them also in the good bullfighters in Death in the Afternoon, which may amplify the theme of that book as well as aesthetic relevance. Such attributes also lead to a double vision and a mode of expression which may be called irony, a potent antidote to both despair and pride. The older waiter, against the heaviest odds, is a man in control.

‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ is, without cheating, a totally affirmative story, one of the very few in our literature. It assumes a world without meaning, life on the edge of the abyss, but that is not what it is about. It assumes a protagonist of acute awareness and minor characters of lesser consciousness, but it is not about that difference. It is, rather, a dramatization of the possibility, given the above conditions, of man continuing to act, to feel even for others, to think even about metaphysics, to create (with a smile), to control and thereby to humanize both himself and his environment. The older waiter is neither a hero nor a saint, but, to borrow from Camus, that more ambitious being, a man.

Source: Annette Benert, “Survival through Irony: Hemingway’s ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place,’” in Studies In Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 181-87.

Character, Irony, and Resolution in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

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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 probably became stalled on the question of which waiter knew about the old man’s attempted suicide, interpretation has tended to center on either the older waiter’s nada prayer or the problem of the illogical sequence itself. The result seems to be a partial misinterpretation of the character of the younger waiter, a failure to see the wide play of irony in the story, and the absence of any interpretation of the story’s ironic resolution.

However, before these latter matters can be successfully dealt with, the story’s troubled dialogue must still be preliminarily considered. Scribner’s claims that the dialogue inconsistency occurred when a slug of type was evidently misplaced in the first printing of the story in Scribner’s magazine in 1933, and since reprint plates were made from that printing and not from the original manuscript, which is no longer extant to anyone’s knowledge, the error was perpetuated until 1965. At that time Scribner’s issued a new edition of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway and made an ‘‘editorial’’ correction in the illogical sequence because the dialogue dictated it.

All texts from 1933 to 1965:

‘‘His niece looks after him.’’

‘‘I know. You said she cut him down.’’

The 1965 text and all subsequent printings:

‘‘His niece looks after him. You said she cut him down.’’

‘‘I know.’’

This solved the problem of the illogical sequence, but because it gives the knowledge of the old man’s attempted suicide to the older waiter instead of the younger waiter, it is contrary to some critical opinion and compatible with others. The correction, therefore, traded one kind of question for another kind: since Hemingway did not correct his own story during his lifetime, does that make the old text Hemingway’s story and the new text his publisher’s story? Should the critic use the old text or the new text?

In order to put my own interpretation on a firm footing, I hope to demonstrate, first of all, that even though no corrections were made in the story, it is still possible to determine that the older waiter is the one who knows about the old man’s attempted suicide.

The structure of the story is based on a consistent polarity: ‘‘despair,’’ characterized by depth of feeling and insight into the human condition, in opposition to ‘‘confidence,’’ characterized by a lack of feeling and, therefore, a lack of insight. Each pole is seen as an attitude, or stance, in relation to Hemingway’s donnee, which is a nihilistic concept of life: nothingness or nada. The spark which ignites the conflict of stances is the deaf old man who has tried to commit suicide and needs a clean, well-lighted cafe in which to stay late. The denouement is an irony of fate, presented by image and understatement, which will shatter ‘‘confidence’’ against the hard truth that ‘‘it [is] all a nothing and a man [is] nothing too.’’

The tension of the conflict is rendered almost exclusively through the dialogue of the two waiters, who are said to be of ‘‘two different kinds,’’ and we can identify one waiter by tracing the use of the word ‘‘kill.’’ When the younger waiter returns from taking the old man’s brandy order, he says to the older waiter, ‘‘I’m sleepy. I never get into bed before three o’clock. He should have , killed himself last week’’ (italics mine). Then when the younger waiter takes the brandy out to the old man, he says to him,‘‘‘You should have killed yourself last week’’’ (italics mine). Since there is no textual basis for transferring the younger waiter’s mode of expression to the older waiter, the text clearly establishes that it is the younger waiter who asks for further information: ‘‘What did he want to kill himself for?’’ (italics mine). Consequently, it is the older waiter who knows the history of the old man and speaks the first line of dialogue in the story: ‘‘‘Last week he tried to commit suicide.’’’

This is supported by a structural pattern, utilizing verbal irony, which is repeated in three separate scenes—two formerly in question and one not in question. For the pattern to emerge clearly, it is necessary to look at the scenes in reverse order, beginning with the scene where the lines are not in question. The scene is the bodega where the older waiter stops for a drink.

‘‘What’s yours?’’ asked the barman. [Serious question.]

‘‘Nada.’’ [Verbal irony: the older waiter.]

‘‘Otro loco mas,’’ said the barman and turned away. [Dropping the subject.]

‘‘A little cup,’’ said the waiter. [Serious reply.]

The bodega barman, of course, must be equated with the younger waiter because he has an ‘‘unpolished’’ bar, equivalent to the younger waiter pouring into the old man’s brandy glass until it ‘‘slopped over and ran down the stem.’’ Also, the barman calls the older waiter ‘‘another crazy one,’’ as the younger waiter has accused the older waiter of ‘‘talking nonsense.’’ But for our purposes, the important aspect is the pattern: serious question, verbal irony by the older waiter, a dropping of the subject, and then a serious reply. The significant factor in the pattern is the older waiter’s use of verbal irony in response to a serious question.

The complete pattern appears earlier in the story, in that exchange concerned with why they cut the old man down.

‘‘Why did they do it?’’ [Serious question.]

‘‘Fear for his soul.’’ [Verbal irony: the older waiter.]

‘‘How much money has he got?’’ [Dropping the subject; serious question.]

‘‘He’s got plenty.’’ [Serious reply.]

The third scene is the first exchange between the two waiters, near the beginning of the story. The pattern here is abbreviated, repeating only the older waiter’s use of verbal irony in response to a serious question. One waiter says the old man was in despair, and the other waiter asks,

‘‘What about?’’ [Serious question.]

‘‘Nothing.’’ [Verbal irony: the older waiter.]

‘‘How do you know it was nothing?’’ [Serious question.]

‘‘He has plenty of money.’’ [Verbal irony: the older waiter.]

In this last scene, the reply, ‘‘nothing,’’ and the reply, ‘‘he has plenty of money,’’ both carry an undertone of irony, regardless of which waiter speaks the lines. The irony is inherent in them as answers to the serious questions asked. For example, if the younger waiter answered that the old man was in despair about ‘‘nothing,’’ the reply still carries the charge of double meaning, i.e., a serious meaning: there was, in fact, no apparent reason; and a malicious meaning: the reason seems ridiculous and unimportant to me: he was only feeling sorry for himself.

Since verbal irony is employed, we must look to the text for hard evidence of which waiter employs it as a mode of speaking, and that evidence is in the scene with the bodega barman. It is the older waiter who uses verbal irony; he even thinks ironically: ‘‘After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.’’ There is no definite evidence, anywhere in the story, that the younger waiter has mastered such a manner of speaking, or thinking. On the contrary, the younger waiter is consistently serious and changes his form of address only once, ‘‘speaking with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners.’’

Once it has been established that the older waiter is the one who knows about the old man, it is then possible to see the characters of the two waiters in correct perspective.

Essentially, the younger waiter is not a ‘‘materialist,’’ as critics, explicitly or implicitly, have tried to make him. Expressing interest in money and sex does not automatically relegate one to the pigeonhole labeled ‘‘materialist,’’ which critics like to use in a pejorative sense, although it should not be so used. Materialism denotes a complex set of ideas, and to the extent that the story is held to have philosophical import, the philosophical senses of ‘‘materialism’’ must be recognized.

Briefly, a materialist is one who affirms matter as the only reality, or one who gives it an effective priority. Looking at the two waiters in this light, it is the older waiter who holds the view which is most compatible with philosophic materialism, not the younger waiter.

It is better, undoubtedly, to avoid classifying the youngest waiter at all, than to misclassify him. The most we can do with the younger waiter is describe him, an effort which results in showing him to be something of a ‘‘type,’’ the average individual, ‘‘in a hurry.’’ He is self-interested and indulges himself with believing an hour is ‘‘‘more to me than to him [the old man].’’’ He does not especially like work, and accuses the old man of having ‘‘‘no regard for those who must work’’’; nevertheless, he seems to accept it as economically necessary and is quite an efficient waiter, making sure the shutters are closed before he leaves. He is satisfied with his marriage and is eager to get home to his wife ‘‘waiting in bed’’ for him. He is a legalist in his attitude toward the soldier, although even when refusing to serve the old man, he does not ‘‘wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.’’ He is no Christian zealot but accepts the church with its transcendent values, illustrated by his changing the subject to money when told the niece cut the old man down because of ‘‘fear for his soul.’’ In short, he is one of those who have ‘‘confidence,’’ or faith, in the established system in which they live. He has ‘‘‘youth, confidence, and a job . . . everything.’’’ His job gives him a sense of economic success within the community. The institution of marriage has provided him with a ‘‘waiting’’ wife who satisfies the biological drive and gives him a sense of male effectiveness. His youth gives him a sense of life as infinite continuum, and the institution of the church confirms such immortality for him. ‘‘‘I have confidence,’’’ he says, ‘‘‘I’m all confidence,’’’ and as long as he has this confident faith in the value and permanence of these cultural structures, he has ‘‘everything.’’

The older waiter, on the other hand, is unable to muster such faith or confidence. He is a materialist and beyond the material there is ‘‘nothing.’’ ‘‘Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.’’ The individual ‘‘cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.’’ There is no a priori order or value system, either providential, natural, or social, on which man may intelligently depend and predict a future. ‘‘‘No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.’’’ The material world, which includes the mental processes, is the only reality and has priority, but it is found lacking: life is a net of illusions. ‘‘‘And what do you lack?’’’ asks the younger waiter. ‘‘‘Everything but work,’’’ replies the older waiter. And even the ability to ‘‘work’’ has been taken from the old man, as it evidently was from Hemingway by July 2, 1961.

This profound, but masked ‘‘difference’’ between the two waiters is imbedded in the casual-appearing conversation about the old man. When the younger waiter asks, ‘‘‘How do you know [the old man’s despair was about] nothing,’’’ the reply, ‘‘‘He has plenty of money,’’’ is more philosophically precise than an entire chapter of discursive contortions. Nada can be described only in terms of an opposite because to make some-thing out of nothing is not only incomprehensible but impossible. And ‘‘plenty of money’’ provides the most nearly perfect polar opposite to ‘‘nothing.’’ The holes in a fish net are perceptible because of the net. When a man has the power of money and the plenty which it makes possible, it also makes the ‘‘lack,’’ nada, that much more apparent and unbearable. ‘‘Plenty’’ intensifies what is lacking to the psychological breaking point. The old man’s severe despair, and the serious despair of the older waiter, are not caused by something, and are not about anything. Despair is a negation, a lack. The lack of life after death, the lack of a moral order governing the universe, the lack of trustworthy interpersonal relations, the lack of an ordering principle in the individual consciousness, the lack of the ability to work, and the lack, therefore, of even self-respect and dignity. The old man lacks anything to live for. ‘‘‘It was a nothing he [the older waiter] knew too well.’’’

However, to quit the story on the philosophical level is to leave the primary question of ‘‘confidence’’ or ‘‘despair’’ artistically unanswered. The younger waiter would go confidently home to his ‘‘waiting wife’’ and live happily ever after: a winner who takes everything. The older waiter’s nada is ‘‘probably only insomnia’’ and will pass with daylight, which, if not a happy ending, is at least a very tolerable ending. This is essentially an uncommitted balance, which is where interpretation to date has left it.

But this is to understand only the ‘‘literal’’ ending of the story; that is, what happens to the older waiter after he leaves the cafe. It does not reveal what happens when the younger waiter arrives home. For this insight, which Hemingway refers to as the ‘‘real end,’’ which may be ‘‘omitted’’ on the basis of his ‘‘new theory,’’ it is necessary to go back into the story.

In the silence that takes place immediately following the older waiter’s ironic ‘‘‘He has plenty of money,’’’ A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.

Y.W. ‘‘The guard will pick him up,’’ one waiter said.

O.W. ‘‘What does it matter if he gets what he’s after?’’

Y.W. ‘‘He had better get off the street now. The guard will get him. They went by five minutes ago.’’

The younger waiter emphasizes the military guards because to him they represent guardians of a culture in which one may be confident of success. He is not concerned about the soldier. Individual needs, whether they are the need of a girl or the need of a drink for a lonely old man, must be sacrificed to the punctualities of the job, the ignorant securities of rule and routine. The younger waiter wants everyone off the street, as he wants the old man out of the cafe. He wants to be off the streets himself, and is, in fact, also a kind of guard. ‘‘‘No more tonight. Close now,’’’ he says to the old man and begins ‘‘pulling down the metal shutters.’’

But the older waiter does understand that agonizing lack in an individual: ‘‘‘What does it matter if he gets what he’s after?’’’ Company punishment will be minor compared to the anguish of being alone. Everything is a temporary stay against despair: a light for the night, another drink, relations with a girl. ‘‘‘You can’t tell,’’’ even the old man ‘‘‘might be better with a wife.’’’

The soldier’s kinship with the older waiter and the old man is illustrated by the metaphor of light and something clean or polished. ‘‘The street light shone on the brass number on his collar.’’ They are all of a ‘‘kind,’’ the soldier as disillusioned with the military machine as the older waiter and the old man are disillusioned with the machine of the world. The soldier is not concerned about curfew as the older waiter is not concerned about closing the cafe on time, and the old man is not concerned about letting the cafe close. The soldier needs the sexual intoxication of this girl as the older waiter and the old man need a drink. The soldier is no more concerned about military regulations than the old man is concerned about financial regulations, and ‘‘would leave without paying’’ if he became too drunk. ‘‘As Hemingway once put it, ‘There is honor among pickpockets and honor among whores. It is simply that the standards differ.’’’

The scene—a prostitute and a soldier—is the epitome of a meaningless and chaotic world full of loopholes: an interwoven fabric of ironies punctured by nothingness. Everything is possible through love or aggression, but paradoxically nothing is permanent. There is a constant, desperate struggle against the coefficients of adversity. Living becomes a deadly affair, or conflict, essentially devoid of humor because everything is ultimately a ‘‘dirty trick.’’

This is the basis for the older waiter’s not so funny ‘‘joke’’ later in the story. The younger waiter has just suggested that the old man could buy a bottle and drink at home, to which the older waiter replies, ‘‘‘It’s not the same.’’’

‘‘No, it is not,’’ agreed the waiter with a wife.

He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.

‘‘And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?’’

‘‘Are you trying to insult me?’’

‘‘No, hombre, only to make a joke.’’

‘‘No,’’ the waiter who was in a hurry said ...

‘‘I have confidence. I am all confidence.’’

The joke is crucial and hinges directly on the scene with the girl and the soldier. Structurally and texturally they establish the love wound motif which is so dominant in Hemingway that it becomes the other side of the same psychic coin as the war wound. Through either the death of one of the partners or the inability of one partner to fulfill the promise of love—satisfy the other’s needs—an individual is isolated and pushed to despair by the failure of the love alliance.

The complete working out of this motif is the ‘‘real end’’ which Hemingway omitted, and the phrase ‘‘waiter with a wife’’ preceding the joke, functions as a lens to bring into focus the catastrophe which the younger waiter will face. When the younger waiter goes home before his ‘‘usual time,’’ his wife will be gone, or perhaps, though at home in bed, engaged in another desperate relationship. The girl and the soldier appear again like ghosts, only this time the girl without a ‘‘head covering,’’ ironically ‘‘hurrying,’’ is suggestive of the younger waiter’s wife.

The story now becomes superbly charged with dramatic as well as verbal irony. The younger waiter’s confidence dissolves into tragic hubris, and his statements, such as ‘‘‘I’m not lonely,’’’ are imbued with an impending doom that is near classic. Situations become ironically transferred. The old man’s despair and loneliness without a wife, the older waiter’s insomnia and need of light, the soldier’s risk for temporary sexual meaning—all are now the younger waiter’s future. At the very moment that he is playing the heartless and uncompromising judge, he is also reality’s dupe and victim. Whatever he has said about the others may soon be said about him. And with equal irony, he has ‘‘hurried’’ to his own undoing. His all-confident intentions will be reversed. His recognition of another truth is imminent. The radical contingencies of life will have taught him the absurdity of the human condition, and the twist of events will topple him from his pinnacle of confidence into the phantasmagoria where the older waiter and the old man cling despairingly to their clean, well-lighted place. The younger waiter will become a new member of Hemingway’s collection: Winner Take Nothing.

Source: Warren Bennett, ‘‘Character, Irony, and Resolution in ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place,’’’ in American Literature, Vol. XLII, No. 1, March, 1970, pp. 70-79.

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Critical Overview