A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Essays and Criticism
by Ernest Hemingway

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Hemingway's Modernist Minimalist Narrative

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 12,322 words.)