A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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Analysis of characters, conflicts, problems, and themes in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

Summary:

In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Hemingway examines themes of loneliness, existential despair, and the search for meaning. The characters include an old man who seeks solace in a café, a young waiter who is impatient and dismissive, and an older waiter who understands the man's need for a clean, well-lit refuge. Conflicts arise from the contrasting attitudes of the waiters, highlighting generational differences and personal struggles with nihilism.

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How do characters in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" view life?

The personalities and views of life of the three main characters in Ernest Hemingway's story "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" might briefly be described as follows:

THE YOUNGER WAITER

  • Condescending, as in the way he slurs his words when speaking to the old man.
  • Emphatic, as when he refuses to serve the old man another drink.
  • Cocky, as in his confidence in his own instant opinions.
  • Shameless, as when he tells the older waiter that the old man should have killed himself.
  • Materialistic, as in his concern to be paid.
  • Impatient, as in his repeated desire to get home.
  • Self-confident, as when speaks of his eagerness to go home to his wife.
  • Touchy, as when he suspects that the older waiter may be insulting him.
  • Occasionally capable of thinking of others, as when the narrator says of him,

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

  • Cruel, as when he tells the old man (who fortunately can't hear) that he should have killed himself.
  • His view of life seems shallow, selfish, materialistic, hedonistic, and immature. He seems to think that the world revolves around him and around his needs and desires.

THE OLDER WAITER

  • Perceptive, as when discussing the old man's state of mind.
  • Tolerant, as in his attitude toward the old man staying late.
  • Knowledgeable, as when he explains the old man's suicide attempt.
  • Non-judgmental, as when he doesn't condemn the old man for trying to kill himself.
  • Capable of imagining and appreciating immaterial things, such as the old man's soul.
  • Capable of humor, as when he jokes with the younger waiter.
  • Aware of his own growing loneliness and age.
  • Capable of appreciating order and simple pleasures.
  • Thoughtful, as when he speculates on the old mna's feelings.
  • Courteous, as when he thanks the barman.
  • Troubled, as his apparent "insomnia" suggests.
  • His view of life seems mature and thoughtful and humane.

THE OLD MAN

  • Capable of despair, as his recent suicide attempt suggets
  • Financially comfortable (his suicide attempt was not due to a lack of money)
  • Lonely, as in the opening scene.
  • Clean: the older waiter admires the old man's ability to drink without spilling his liquor.
  • Dignified, as in the way he drinks quietly and expects no sympathy.
  • Respectful:he fails to pay only when he becomes drunk, not because he deliberately wants to cheat anyone else. He also thanks the young waiter for pouring him a drink.
  • Perceptive, as when he senses the transition from daytime to nighttime even though he is blind.
  • The old man's view of life seems rooted in the pain of aging and loneliness -- feelings the young waiter cannot yet appreciate but which the older waiter has begun to understand.
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What problems do characters face in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The two primary characters are the older waiter and the younger waiter. Though the character of the old deaf man is not a central one because of active participation in the dialogue or plot action, he is central because he forms the focal point of the whole story and is of pivotal importance even after he goes home. We can set aside the problems of the soldier, girl and bodega barman and focus on these three central characters.

The old man's problem is clearly defined by the older waiter: He is old, deaf, alone in the world since his wife died and, though he has "plenty of money," he has "despair." This despair is not a despair related solely to loneliness and old age but rather is related to the existential condition of the world that his wife, the older waiter suggests, helped him stave off and keep subdued.

The existential condition of the world is that it has no meaning and no order. Each individual, in order to live with some peace in a world tending to entropy, death and destruction, must find or create their own meaning and orderly mode of existence. Tthe old man's order and meaning were bound up, as suggested, in his wife; now that she is gone, even "plenty of money" contributes nothing toward meaningfulness and order (except to buy his seat and brandy at the clean and well-lighted cafe).

The young man's problem is that his job keeps him up and away from home until the wee hours of the morning; he never gets home until 3:00 a.m. He has a wife whom he never sees yet who waits for him nightly in their bed. This is his problem: youth and desire interrupted by the necessity of work.

The older waiter's problem is that he feels the existential meaninglessness and disorder of life and has only his job to keep away nihilistic despair over this lack of order and meaning in life. His feelings of existential suffering keep him involved in providing order and meaning to others by providing a clean, well-lighted place for them to rest for a while. His existential feelings also keep him awake at night with what he naively calls "insomnia." He is on the brink of nihilistic despair of the same sort the old man experienced "last week."

Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it.

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What is the conflict in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The older waiter says to the younger, "we are of two different kinds," this establishes the most obvious conflict. The younger waiter is more selfish, 'in a hurry,' and the older waiter is more selfless: inclined to stay at the cafe in case someone (like the old man) needs it.

The old man needs the light in the cafe and the old waiter needs the daylight before he can sleep. 2) The younger waiter doesn't need to stay, he seemingly has everything: a waiting wife, a job, and he even says that an hour means more to him than it does to the old man. This seems logical given that the old man recently tried to kill himself, but it is not. The younger waiter has no way of knowing how much that hour at the cafe means to the old man. But the older waiter does know how much it means.

At one point, the younger waiter tells the old man, he should have killed himself. He says this knowing the old man is deaf, so it is an empty statement, a meaningless effort. But the young waiter really believes that an hour to him is worth more than the old man's life. The most simplisticconflict is between selfishness and selflessness. But the deeper conflict is between light and dark. One interpretation of this conflict: The younger waiter is in such a hurry that he never stops to think; he'd be more inclined to ponder things more deeply. Full of confidence, he's convinced that he has everything. The older waiter makes a joke that were he to go home early, he may find his wife gone, or with another man (these are just intimations; its open to interpretation). Being in such a hurry, the younger waiter may be too scared to stop and think about what he may not have, or what he may lose (eventually he will be in the position of the old man - if he outlives his wife and retires).

The conflict goes deeper here. The old man is in despair, he is facing the 'nada' of his existence, so he is in the dark. He needs the clean, well-lighted place because it gives him a sense of order, quiet, peace. The older waiter recognizes this (and the old man may in fact know the older waiter sympathizes); therefore, there is a solidarity. Solidarity is something the younger waiter also lacks. Since he lacks solidarity, he is alone (sole) and more in the darkness than he thinks: he can't contemplate this because he's always in a hurry.

In the end, younger goes home to his wife, older goes home to insomnia until first light. The old man wanders off. Clean/unpolished, Light/Dark, Solidarity/Selfishness. The old man and older waiter get as much (or more) meaning out of the peace and solidarity of that extra hour than the younger waiter gets with his hurrying. They get this because they have a sense of existence that is greater than themselves. The younger waiter is concerned only with himself, and will miss out on some things as he 'hurries' into old age.

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What is the conflict in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Each of the three characters in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway is in a different stage of life: the young waiter, the older waiter, and the old man. As in any work, several possible themes emerge; one of the prominent themes in this story is that we (mankind) will all age ourselves into despair and nothingness.

The young waiter is impatient with the old man who comes in to drink at this late-night cafe will not leave because the waiter wants to go home. He has no patience with the old man who is deaf and old and tried to commit suicide last week; the old man is drinking too much and too slowly to suit the impatient young waiter who just wants to go home. The young waiter thinks that happiness comes from having money and thinks the old man should have gone ahead and killed himself. He says, "I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing." The young man has reasons to live, for now, and gives no consideration to the fact that one day he, too, will be old.

The older waiter has lived longer and understands the despair and nothingness which life inevitably brings. He knows it is important to have a good place to spend the lonely late-night hours because he looks for such a place for himself once he gets off work. He tells the young waiter "this is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted." He knows the value of that for himself as well as for the old man. 

While the young waiter has not yet begun his descent into old age and therefore despair (in Hemingway's view, anyway), the older waiter is already well aware of the despair of living life too long. Religion (God) offers no comfort or hope, as the waiter prays to nothing:

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.  

The older waiter, like the old man, is aware of the nothingness of existence when one gets older. "He knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada." He admires the old man, knowing he will be just as old one day. "This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk." The difference between the older waiter and the old man at the bar is that he can still articulate his despair, whereas the old man can only drink as late as he is able in "a clean, well-lighted place."

This story reflects Hemingway's own despair about the meaningless existence of old age. Obviously seeing life as an encroaching slough of despair is a choice, but it was Hemingway's choice, and he demonstrates that point of view here when he depicts living life too long and aging as a hopeless, meaningless nothingness. Undoubtedly this despair prompted Hemingway to take his own life before he became a truly old man. 

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What is the conflict in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway was first published in the March 1933 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. It has three characters, an older waiter, a younger waiter, and a customer, who is an old man. The old man is deaf and apparently relatively wealthy (at least compared to the waiters.) The old man is sitting, drinking brandy, in a cafe, and the younger waiter wishes to go home. 

The first theme of the story is loneliness. Both the older waiter and the old man appreciate the cafe because it provide a "clean, well-lighted place" to drink and hang out, providing an illusion of company, unlike their own homes, where they feel their loneliness more acutely. Although the younger waiter wants to go home to his wife, the older waiter, who is unmarried (perhaps a widower like the old man), understands how the old man would not wish to go home to an empty house.

The second theme of the story is old age. Both the old man and the waiter are confronted with trying to make meaning from life as they gradually lose the things that make life meaningful and move closer to death. The old man has tried to commit suicide by hanging himself but was cut down by his niece.

The final theme is that of the existential crisis faced by people who neither sincerely believe in religion nor have strong social networks or other values. This is exemplified by the old waiter trying to say the Lord's Prayer, but what comes out is only a litany of nothingness:

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada ...

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What is the conflict in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The title of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," on the surface refers to the old man's preference of the night life available in the town. Unlike the younger waiter, who likes the more lively atmosphere of noisy bars and bodegas, the old man seeks out a quiet, "clean well-lighted place" to spend his lonely evenings. He does not seek out friendship or excitement, but instead prefers the solitude of the cafe he frequents. He is not alone. The older waiter also likes such places, for he too is a lonely man who "does not want to go to bed... who need(s) a light for the night." Hemingway uses the title to suggest the solidarity evident between the older waiter and the old man; the darkness outside also symbolizes an evil or unknown element. Their lost youth has left both of them lacking in confidence and a void in their souls, and they both seek out the "well-lighted places" to while away the night. The older waiter will eventually return home to his bed, staying awake until light comes once again, when he can peacefully find a bit of sleep.

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What is the conflict in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The older waiter in the story who speaks of nothingness (“it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada”) reflects Hemingway's own worldview that was tempered into a belief in the nothingness of existence through the trauma and tragedy of World War I. Indeed, WWI and the Spanish Civil War instilled in Hemingway a preoccupation with suffering and dying. This preoccupation is reflected in the Old Man who sits and drinks brandy on the terrace in the lonely hours of morning following midnight. Some critics who have disliked this story associate the contrasts between the old and young waiters with what they call Hemingway's masochism and suggest this is reflected in his muscular masculinity and his preoccupation with hunting and world travel: detractors accept this notion while admirers do not.

The story’s setting in Spain reflects his own love of Europe. He particularly loved Spain where bullfighting reflected his own feeling about life as an encompassing nothing that physical challenge turned into a something. Hemingway lived in Europe, settling in Paris with other revolutionary post-WWI fiction writers who questioned, rejected, and innovated in a similar fashion as Hemingway. A favorite haunt of his and his group’s was cafes; the cafe in the story reflects his own appreciation of and comfort in cafes in Paris.  In sum, Hemingway's life is reflected in this story in that his belief in life's nothingness and his Paris association with cafes are threads that undergird the story of the old waiter, who has lost all passion for life (which the young waiter still possesses) and has replaced it with cafe places that are clean and well-lighted and offer something worth having, even if it really is a nothing not worth mentioning.

[It] was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. ... A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing.

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What is Hemingway trying to point out in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Hemingway is pointing out that life is relativistic and existential, in other words, meaningless and empty with no purpose. Notwithstanding, this philosophical perspective may not actually be true. The relativistic philosophy of existentialism has faded and been replaced with efforts to find and substantiate a meaningfulness in life that existentialism stripped from experience. Some of this effort to find meaning in a post-relativistic and post-existential milieu is seen in the surge of conversion to Buddhism and Judaism. Nonetheless, the point that Hemingway was making in the midst of an upsurge in relativistic existential ideology is that life is meaningless and without purpose. It is empty. It is nada.

It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. ... Some lived in it and never felt it, but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.

Nada is a Spanish word that is translated as nothing. Hemingway is saying life is an empty nothing that must be improved by light and a "certain cleanness and order":

It was the light of course, but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. ... light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

This understanding of Hemingway's point is confirmed in the exposition (the opening) of the story in which the waiter tells the younger waiter that the customer had "[last] week ... tried to commit suicide" because he "was in despair" about "nothing" ... about nada.

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What are the themes of Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The most important theme in this story relates to humankind's despair. It is an existential theme of Man against Nature, as existential despair is the result of the nature of life, the nature of existence. Existentialism, briefly, asserts the meaninglessness of life and the burden of having to create one's own meaning. Existential despair relates to the hopelessness of succeeding with this existential task to create individual meaningfulness.

In this story, several characters develop this theme. A man--the deaf old man--with plenty of every material provision, "He has plenty of money," feels such despair that he tries to end his life. A soldier feels the shadow of such despair that he risks arrest to have a few moments of carnal pleasure. The younger waiter feels encroaching despair that he fights off by complaining and by trying to get home to bed to his wife:

I never get to bed before three o'clock. ... He's lonely. ... I have a wife waiting in bed for me.

The older waiter feels the same despair as the deaf old man but he tries to mitigate it for himself and others by providing "a clean, well-lighted place" for them to come to, to sit in the "shadow of leaves" from the glow of the one electric light and maybe forget their despair for a moment. The older waiter grapples with his own despair, which he will not name for himself as he names the old man's despair, by keeping the cafe open late for others who need light (metaphorical and physical light) and by talking about the nothingness of existence (i.e., if life is nothingness, then emptiness belongs to life): "he knew it all was nada." His sleeplessness he calls "insomnia."

He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it.

A correlated theme explores the value of carnal pleasure in an existentially meaningless life. This is a theme of Human against Self and asks the question, "Can physical happiness fill the meaninglessness and fend off despair?" The implied answer in the story, at least from the older waiter's point of view, is that, no, it can't. He implies this when he says of the old man, "He had a wife once too." In other words, he once had physical pleasure, yet he is now in despair. On the other hand, the younger waiter's implied counter-argument might be that the old man having had a wife, now has despair because she is gone.

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