A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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How does the use of dialogue and point of view in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" complement each other?

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Dialogue predominates the story in Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." The dialogue is almost exclusively between the two waiters--the waiter with a wife who is in a hurry and the old waiter who is not in a hurry--except for when the old man asks for more brandy and "A little more" and "Another" and says, "Thank you." Since there is this predominance, much of what we know about the waiters comes through the dialogue, although the narrator does contribute important character and story information, such as the above description of the waiters and such as the narrator’s indications that they were experienced and shrewd since "they kept watch on" the old man because "they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying."

The point of view of this strange story is given through the voice of the minimalist narrator. Dialogue is complemented by the point of view because while dialogue provides information, the minimalist narrator provides description and commentary that advances the story's theme.

As an example, dialogue tells that last week the old man "was in despair," that one waiter has a wife ("I have a wife waiting”), and one is old (“I am not young”). From the point-of-view establishing narrator, we know the setting and atmosphere (i.e., mood), e.g., the "street light shone on the brass number" on the collar of the passing soldier. It also leads toward the theme: “The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.” More significantly, the narrator's point-of-view defining passages tell the indirect dialogue (the thoughts) of the old man, thoughts with which the narrator’s point-of-view establishing voice intertwines:

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 a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well.

Thus, the detail-revealing, emotional, predominating dialogue between the waiters is complimented by the distanced, aloof, observational point of view established by the omniscient minimalist narrator who delves below the surface to reveal motive; suffering; dark, depressing feelings; and theme:

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. ... A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing.

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In Ernest Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," how is dialogue used, particularly to complement point of view?

In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” dialogue functions in a number of ways, particularly as a complement to the story’s point of view. Among the ways in which dialogue functions are the following:

  • Although the opening paragraph of the story discusses the old man from a fairly objective, even somewhat distanced point of view, the narrator of the story also has some insight in the old man’s thoughts and feelings, as when the narrator says,

the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. [emphasis added]

All the italicized words here suggest that the narrator knows what the old man is thinking and feeling. Similarly, the opening exchange of dialogue between the two waiters suggests that they also see the old man from both a literal and figurative distance but that one of them, at least, also has some insight into his thoughts and feelings.  Thus, when the older waiter notes that the old man recently tried to commit suicide, the younger waiter asks why, to which the older waiter responds simply, "He was in despair.” Somehow, the older waiter knows – or at least thinks he knows – something about the old man’s motives. The older waiter does not go into any great detail about the old man’s thoughts and feelings, just as the narrator himself also shows a similar restraint in his use of point of view. He does not delve deeply into the old man’s soul or psyche, but he is not completely ignorant about these.

  • The narrator presents the old man from a somewhat sympathetic point of view. The narrator does not ridicule the old man or mock him but instead helps us understand why he acts as he does. In the dialogue between the young waiter and the older waiter, the older waiter seems to adopt a point of view that resembles that of the narrator. He seems to understand the old man’s motivations and to sympathize with them.  Even the younger waiter, although he is initial frustrated with the old man and even secretly abusive toward him, finally adopts a more balanced, more mature point of view.  When the older waiter says that buying a bottle of alcohol and drinking at home “is not the same” as what the old man does, the younger waiter concurs:

"No, it is not," agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.

The second sentence quoted here, if read as a comment on the young waiter rather than simply as a report about his feelings, suggests that the narrator himself is capable of understanding the thoughts and motivations both of the old man and of the younger waiter. The narrator’s point of view, then, seems balanced, mature, objective, and sympathetic.  The dialogue between the older waiter and the younger waiter is also balanced, and during the course of that dialogue the younger waiter becomes less judgmental, less immature, and more sympathetic than he had been at the beginning of the tale.

In all these ways, then, the narrator’s point of view complements the dialogue between the two waiters.  The narrator’s point of view about the old man closely resembles the point of view expressed, in the dialogue, by the older waiter.

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