Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Short Stories for Students)

Hemingway's Folk
Many things account for the rural or small town Spanish characters and scenery of Hemingway’s...

(The entire section is 609 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 337 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

A short story as glaringly brief and simplified as this one is rightly called “minimalist” in its...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Hemingway sorts through his tales with a razor blade: each sentence cuts into the story with its own purpose. Perhaps the most striking...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The human fear that life, in and of itself, does not have any intrinsic meaning is the most resounding issue broached in "A Clean,...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

  • 1920s: WWI is a notorious war. There was no clear villainous enemy, as in the fascists of WWII. It...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What are some the things that have happened in your life that have made you feel lonely? How have you alleviated this loneliness?


(The entire section is 149 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. How realistic is the story? What is it like to work in a cafe?

2. What is it like to live in Spain?

3. Would this...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Research the famous U.S. brigade of the Spanish Civil War the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Which U.S....

(The entire section is 189 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" has not been adapted into any other version. But for those who enjoy the story, Hemingway wrote hundreds of...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

  • The Sun Also Rises (1926) is generally considered to be Hemingway’s best and most enduring...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bennett, Warren. ‘‘Character, Irony, and Resolution in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’” In...

(The entire section is 292 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.