A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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Style and Technique

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“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is one of the best examples of Hemingway’s distinctive style: objective point of view; short, active declarative sentences; frequent repetition of key words; heavy reliance on dialogue in which the characters speak in short, clipped sentences or fragments, an impressionistic representation of everyday speech: “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”

In A Moveable Feast (1964), Hemingway identifies one of the key elements of his technique as recognizing that what is left out of a story is just as important as what is included, as when Nick Adams’s recent return from the chaos of war is not directly mentioned in “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925). This approach can be seen in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” in which there is no overt reference to the disappointments the young waiter will certainly experience, the nights he will not be so eager to run home to his loving wife, there is no explanation of why the old man attempts suicide, no evidence of what has specifically taught the older waiter about nada. Considerable dramatic tension, as well as universality, is created by revealing so little about the characters and the time and place.

A corollary to this technique is that everything in the story must be there for a reason. A brief reference early in the story to a soldier and girl, apparently a prostitute, passing by the café is significant to illustrate the younger waiter’s concern only with the practical, the immediate: “He had better get off the street now. The guard will get him.” The older waiter’s view is more worldly: “What does it matter if he gets what he’s after?” As the couple pass, “The street light shone on the brass number on his collar.” By ignoring the rules, the soldier has captured a moment in the light. Ironically, he is similar to the young waiter so restless to join his wife in bed. Such economic, perfectly controlled storytelling is the epitome of Hemingway’s style at its best.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

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The basic situation is that of two waiters--one older, one younger--sitting in a bar late at night, waiting for their last customer, a deaf old man, to leave. Most of the action consists of the dialogue between the two waiters in which the older waiter is sympathetic with the old man, while the younger one is impatient to get home to his wife.

The subject of the dialogue revolves around the knowledge one of the waiters has that the old man tried to commit suicide the previous week.

When the old man finally leaves, the older waiter, identifying with the old man, engages in a conversation with himself. He knows that the old man wanted to stay in the bar because it was clean and well-lighted, and that what the old man feared was not anything particular but rather a nothing. The old waiter emphasizes his own nihilism by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, in which for certain words he substitutes the Spanish word for nothing--nada: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name....”

The story is difficult, not only because the dialogue is confusing and the plot minimal, but also because the philosophic idea that underlies the story is a complex existential one. The old waiter knows that nothingness--the sense that there is no God or external value in the world--is the only ultimate reality. The clean, well-lighted cafe is a little island of order in the midst of the nothingness of reality; such concrete actualities constitute the only meaning that remains.

Historical Context

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Hemingway's Folk
Many things account for the rural or small town Spanish characters and scenery of Hemingway’s ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’’ First, as an expatriate artist living on the continent in the 1920s, Hemingway developed a passion for Spain. He was a lifelong fan of Spanish popular traditions. He enjoyed the festivals, and he keenly appreciated the bullfight. He went to Spain often to fish in the countryside, and so he came to know its plainer people.

In addition to this familiarity with Spain’s rural peoples, “plain folk” (e.g. waiters in small towns) provide an escape from the effete, or anything resonant of “civilization” which Hemingway scrupulously wishes to avoid in his art. This is so because the disaster that was WWI was a founding event and trauma in Hemingway’s life. His most admired novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), takes place around a Spanish popular festival and is about a wounded WWI veteran who is terribly in love but who has been made impotent by war injuries. This character’s situation is highly symbolic. He is the sterile scion of a disastrous past, which is like saying that civilization has progressed so far only to have progressed not at all. It is no wonder that Hemingway turns to folk. If civilization and progress has wrought such ugliness and pain, then where better to turn than to those whom progress has seemed to pass by or touched less?

Everybody’s Folk
The folk, as in the peasantry or working class of European cultures, were a population of keen historical import and significance during the teens, 20s and 30s. They were so for various reasons, the most important of which, however, boils down to the reformism of the time. The first three decades of the west are characterized by reformist mass political movements. The excesses of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution were curtailed thanks to workers’ demonstrations fueled by socialist and communist ideologies. This striving for more equal or fair treatment extended to women, who gained the vote at this time. Immediately post-WWI, New York City saw the first twentieth-century race movement, the African-American Harlem Renaissance (1919-1935). Given how rights movements entail the basic argument and principle of each person’s equal worth, regardless of race, status, or gender, the ideal of equality was touted frequently. Everyone, down to the simplest or uneducated man or woman is of equal worth, the argument goes, and in order to prove and support this, fiction writers everywhere turned to the folk for material. The desire to extend democracy and correct persistent social inequalities is mirrored in the aesthetics and subject of Hemingway’s story. Hemingway’s prosaic little story stresses the foundational sameness and dignity of all human beings.

Europe, Theater of War
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” was written at the start of the 1930s, a decade, it turns out, that would be as fraught as the one that preceded it. During the 1920s, most people were trying to come to terms with two major events. First, WWI, which killed and mutilated millions of young men, wiping out an entire male European generation and, second, the first wave of what we now call technology. Telephones and automobiles, for example, were becoming widely used and available. The 1930s, after the post-War trauma of the 1920s, delivered nothing other than the second major European war of the twentieth-century, World War II. This conflict grew out of the rise of European fascism. The fascist troops of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were beaten down during WWII, but fascism triumphed in Hemingway’s beloved Spain in 1939 when Francisco Franco’s rebel forces overcame the government.

Setting

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The short story is set in a small, unnamed town, located somewhere in Spain. More specifically, the entire scene of the short story is set in a cafe and a street in a town that could serve as any town in the world. The town itself is a microcosm of the world, and the cafe represents man's shelter from the cold, inveterate world with all of its unknowns.

The setting is a vital factor in carrying the message of the story. Two waiters work at the cafe; one old, one younger. The younger man does not differentiate between the cafe where they wait tables and any other bar along the street as a place for drunks and misbegottens to spend their hours. However, the older waiter points out an important difference. He tries to explain to the younger waiter that a bar is not the same as a cafe, where the lights are on high, and the atmosphere is clean and friendly. He sees the cafe as a haven, as a shield against the sensation that the world is offering nothing to man, that man himself is little more than a speck moving along at an unsteady pace. The importance of the setting is that this cafe, this clean, well-lit establishment, provides the possibility of hope—if the man can discover a place where the insomnia of loneliness, from which the older waiter also suffers, can be forgotten, then perhaps there remains hope in an all-too-dark world.

"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves." The older waiter describes the cafe simply, intimating that the customers of the cafe need such a light arena to assuage their sorrows. But in trying to explain this to the younger, more callous waiter, the elder waiter ushers in the notion that he himself needs the cafe, as much or more than do the lonely patrons who frequent the place.

Literary Style

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Minimalism
A short story as glaringly brief and simplified as this one is rightly called “minimalist” in its aesthetics (the word aesthetics refers to how the author tells his or her story). It uses the minimum building blocks necessary to accomplish the job of telling a story. Hemingway uses simple diction, usually monosyllabic words of Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to Latin, origin. Grammatically, he uses simple as opposed to complex sentences. There is little figurative language—no metaphor or simile, for example. Character and plot are minimized. These three characters do not even have names. All that happens is that the two waiters talk, the old man drinks, and then they all go home.

Repetition
It is very clear to the reader what Hemingway does not do in this minimalist short story, but what does he do? One thing he does beyond the narrative minimum is repeat, or repeat with variation. For example, the story opens with an old man “who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” A bit further in the story the old man is said to sit “in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind.’’ And a few sentences later the old man is the one who is “sitting in the shadow. . . .’’ This repetition of the same with variation is the barest gesture at the figurative delights art can offer. In repeating, Hemingway seems to acknowledge the beauty of pattern or artifice, but instead of actually providing any he simply gestures at its possibility.

Point of View
Hemingway’s narration seems designed to lessen the effect of a judging presence. His omniscient narrator may see and know all, but precious little is offered for consideration. This is an effaced narrator. Setting and character are barely described. What the cafe might look like, apart from the fact that it is clean and well-lighted, the reader never knows. Neither does the reader know what the waiters look like, what they are wearing, and so forth. More important, this narrator does not describe a character’s psychology, or tell the reader what should be thought about a character or event. Omniscience like this hardly deserves the name. Third person narrators are supposed to know and tell all, but this narrator strives for objectivity. The readers are to judge what the characters say and do for themselves. Of course, the situation or plot is engineered by the author, so this sense of readerly autonomy is artificial. Nevertheless, the point of this style of narration is to cut down on authorial intervention.

Literary Qualities

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Hemingway sorts through his tales with a razor blade: each sentence cuts into the story with its own purpose. Perhaps the most striking element of Hemingway's work is his sentence structure. However, other notable qualities abound in regard to his methods of telling a story.

In Hemingway's short stories, each sentence takes on a more pungent meaning, and all the more so in a story as compact as "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." The simple sentence structure belies a rich world of description, for it is through the very use of simplistic sentence structuring that Hemingway frees himself to offer the reader a clear picture of his scenes and characters. Take the following sentences: "After all, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it." These are the final two sentences of the story, and while they are short, simple, and clear, they tell readers a great deal. The older waiter has turned off the lights of the cafe and walked into a bar, where he had a drink and then left, rather disgusted. He decides that he will go home, and lie in bed, and wait for sleep. He has, throughout the story, been searching for meaning in the lives of the people he sees in the cafe and has been trying to connect with anyone near him—the younger waiter, the deaf patron at the cafe, the bartender at the bar where he goes for a drink. The last sentences of the story are deceptively uncomplicated: they reveal a deep longing for camaraderie. The older waiter lies awake, night after night, waiting for sleep to come as he worries about the possible meaningless of his life, and in the end, he is comforted by the thought that others likely share his troubles: not just in regard to insomnia, but the triggers behind the insomnia, the fear that life may actually not hold any intrinsic meaning. It is a lonely thought, made less so by the seemingly simple realization that perhaps he is not alone in his troubles.

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is primarily composed of dialogue. Rather than create an expository view of the tale, Hemingway allows his character's comments to tell the story. Furthermore, most of the writing that is not direct quotes is told from the point of view of the older waiter, so that the reader is reading the older waiter's thoughts. Interestingly, Hemingway employs both the omniscient narrator, and the first-person narrator, so that, in one paragraph, he switches from narrating from the third-person point of view to having the older waiter become the storyteller. The following passage occurs toward the end of the story:

"Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well.

Hemingway's use of punctuation within the changing narrative stances also illuminates the thoughts of the characters. For example, when the older waiter is thinking, as in the above-quoted section, Hemingway writes, "It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean...." By eliminating the commas before and after "of course," the reader gets the sense that the older waiter's thoughts are racing, that he is thinking quickly, perhaps in a desperate search for answers to the questions pressing him.

By switching back and forth between first and third person narration, Hemingway allows himself the freedom to tell the story in whichever method best gives the reader a full picture of the scene and the emotions of the characters.

Social Sensitivity

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The human fear that life, in and of itself, does not have any intrinsic meaning is the most resounding issue broached in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." It is not often a pleasant issue to discuss with others, but it lies at the root of cognitive thought: Is there a higher order in the world? Does an individual life have meaning in and of itself? The older waiter hints at these thoughts throughout his dialogues with the younger waiter, the patrons at the cafe, and the bartender, but he brings these topics to the fore when Hemingway reveals the man's inner dialogue as the waiter ponders the need for light and cleanness and order. He says to the younger waiter, "You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves." The younger waiter ignores the conversation with a terse, "good night," and the older waiter is left alone to further ponder on the topic. He says to himself, "It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music." He is talking about his own desire to be able to claim some sense of order in the world around him, but in doing so, he is also trying to universalize his thoughts, to state his desires as those of all people. He recognizes his fear of "nothing"—"It was a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order." For this man, who senses that his life lacks meaning, it becomes imperative to have at least a superficial order to his life. To be able to cling to something, to understand the use of something, even if it is just the need for light in an otherwise dark and desolate night, provides a sense of hope, however slight.

Youth versus age is perhaps the most prominent social issue addressed in the story. The story clearly pits the values of the older waiter against those of the younger waiter, and Hemingway consistently slants the story in favor of the more world-weary understandings of the older waiter. The story revolves around him as he tries to engage the various other characters in meaningful conversation, to little or no avail. The younger waiter symbolizes the rashness and self-idolatry of youth, while the older waiter embodies the ripeness of thought and retrospection that filters into the mind as one ages. He is more cognizant of what others might feel, about how their lives might have brought them to their present situation. Most importantly, he has gained a more communal vision of the world. He feels the desire to connect on some higher level that superficiality with his fellow man, to understand that he is not alone in his thoughts, that other people are also lonely and searching for meaning. The younger waiter, on the other hand, seems to be going through the motions, just waiting to get out of work, waiting to get home, waiting to move on to the next thing, even though the "next thing" is probably nearly identical to whatever he did the day before. The older, drunk patron also provides a reflection of the various stages of man. He is deaf and drunk and not in a position to change much about his life. He is rumored to have attempted suicide the week before, but in failing to accomplish that feat, he returns to his same routine, carrying on through the days.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1920s: WWI is a notorious war. There was no clear villainous enemy, as in the fascists of WWII. It was terribly inefficient. It was considered then how the Viet Nam war is considered today, a fight that used soldiers sorely and traumatically. It ate up young men with all the efficiency of a giant thresher. The term ‘‘shell shock’’ was invented to name the hysteria and psychosis that the war induced in so many of the soldiers.

    1990s: Countries like the U.S. which have technologically sophisticated warheads are now able to conduct “limited” wars. In contrast to WWI, the recent U.S. and European fighting against Serbia was conducted entirely from the air. Things and not people were the primary targets.

  • 1930s: The Spain of Hemingway’s story suffered a great deal during the 1930s. The country, moving to more fully democratic rule, had elected a new government around the time Hemingway was writing ‘‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’’ This latest election was ignored by the armies of Francisco Franco. Funded by fellow fascists Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy, Franco’s troops overcame the legitimate government in a bloody Civil War which lasted from 1936-39. The Spanish Civil War was a popular cause internationally. The world reacted most anxiously to the growth of fascism, and the defending Spanish Loyalist armies drew to their ranks an international group of soldier-sympathizers, many of whom were American men and women (‘‘The Abe Lincoln Brigade’’). Hemingway went to Spain to cover the war for the U.S. press (and an attachment with the woman and fellow journalist who would become his third wife was consolidated at this place and time).

    1990s: A strong memory of Franco has not yet faded from Spanish memory. His forces were not subdued, and he was a dictator of this country until 1975. Franco’s death was, on the whole, exuberantly and widely welcomed, and the country became, fairly quickly, a typical continental nation. The European nations, on the whole, are prosperous in comparison to the rest of the world, despite persistent high levels of unemployment. The most pressing situation for Europe at present is the European Economic Union (EEU), in which the nations of Europe will share a single currency called the “Euro.” The Euro has been brought into circulation, and will become the sole currency of this group of nations on January 1, 2001.

  • 1920s: The 1920s in the U.S. are known as the Roaring Twenties. They roared because the U.S. emerged, somewhat to its own surprise even, as a new superpower after WWI. It had sold plenty of armaments to Europe, and most of war-torn Europe was in its financial debt. America was not only rich, it was also culturally vibrant. Women had just gotten the vote in England and the U.S., and the French fashion genius Coco Chanel revolutionized women’s fashion. Flappers cut their hair and wore simple shifts that left them free to dance all night, and the new technology was awesome to contemplate: Phonographs, radios, planes, telephones and automobiles.

    1990s: The U.S. is still a so-called superpower, but in a much tighter global context. Technology has now delivered the computer and the internet, the latter facilitating this aforementioned global interconnectedness. And this, perhaps, is what seems really new, politically and economically, technologically and communicationally: for all of the U.S.’s wealth and power, there is the sense now that transnational financial ties are such that what happens in remote global markets can substantially affect U.S. fortunes. In effect, the need to be apprised of these wide-ranging global connections and relations is now a requirement, and the internet and other advanced communications networks are delivering this information.

For Further Reference

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Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Thames & Hudson, 1999. Burgess's eloquent and anecdotal recount of the life of Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. This is the Finca Vigia Edition of all of Hemingway's published short stories.

Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999. This book chronicles the last fourteen years of Hemingway's life from a personal perspective and is the first book to reveal that Hemingway's 1961 death had been a suicide.

Phillips, Larry W., ed. Ernest Hemingway on Writing. New York: Touchstone Books, 1999. This book presents a selection of the author's thoughts on the craft of writing, culled from various letters, books, interviews, speeches, and an unpublished manuscript.

Ross, Lillian. Portrait of Hemingway. New York: Modern Library, 1999. First published in 1950 at the height of Hemingway's career, this living biography chronicled the writer's career to date.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Bennett, Warren. ‘‘Character, Irony, and Resolution in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’” In America Literature, Vol. XLII, March, 1970, pp. 70-79.

Lewis, Wyndham. ‘‘The Dumb Ox: A Study of Ernest Hemingway.” In The American Review, Vol. III, June, 1934, pp. 302,312.

Perloff, Marjorie. ‘‘Modernist Studies.’’ In Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Studies, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1992, pp. 154-178.

O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Cleveland: World, 1963, pp. 156-69.

Further Reading
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion Books, Inc., 1959. This is a classic in American literary criticism, and it contains a well-known chapter on gender and sexuality in Hemingway.

Hemingway, Ernest. ‘‘The Nobel Prize Speech.’’ In Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 11, Summer, 1962, p. 10. Hemingway’s acceptance speech.

Ross, Lillian. ‘‘How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?’’ In The New Yorker, May 13, 1950. A bravura period piece written at the height of Hemingway’s popularity.

Stanton, Edward F. Hemingway and Spain: A Pursuit. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1989. An examination of Hemingway’s Spanish connection.

Wagner-Martin, Linda W. Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. This is a recent reference work (bibliography) which provides a welcome overview of Hemingway criticism. By flipping to the 1980s and 1990s, students can easily review the latest trends in Hemingway criticism.

Weeks, Robert P., ed. Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962. A student of Hemingway will do well to look at this volume of early essay in order to get a sense of the history of Hemingway criticism.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. An influential and innovative biographical study of Hemingway.

Bibliography

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Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.

Padura Fuentes, Leonardo. Adiós Hemingway. Translated by John King. New York: Canongate, 2005.

Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Blackwell, 1986.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Homecoming. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Final Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.

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