A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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Modernist characteristics, tone, and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

Summary:

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway exemplifies Modernist characteristics through its minimalist style, sparse dialogue, and themes of existential despair and alienation. The tone is detached and melancholic, reflecting the characters' inner turmoil and search for meaning. Hemingway's use of simple, direct language and the iceberg theory, where much is left unsaid, further underscores the Modernist emphasis on subtext and reader interpretation.

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What modernist characteristics are present in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Modernist writing rejected the Victorian and Edwardian omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator, believing that this form of narration did not accurately reflect a reality in which knowledge is fragmentary and subjective. Modernist writers like also Hemingway rejected piling on details which older authors meant to represent verisimilitude. The new wave of authors felt that small details encrusted literature with too many merely decorative embellishments that had no connection with the core story. Just as modernist architects rejected "gingerbread" embellishments on houses, modernist writers sought clean lines and stories. After World War I, modernism, which had already started to reflect the alienation brought on by industrialism, increasingly depicted the sense of despair caused by the aftermath of a bloody and futile war.

In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Hemingway first shows his modernism by rejecting embellishments, using spare, clean prose to tell his story. Further, while there is a narrator setting the scene, Hemingway largely keeps this narrative voice out of the story. Readers interpret the action for themselves by relying on the dialogue between the two waiters and interior monologue. Finally, the story reflects a world that has lost faith in God, where people commit suicide out of hopelessness, and where giving an old man a clean well-lighted cafe to sit in can be a compassionate stopgap against the darkness of life. The elderly waiter, who understands and feels kindness towards the old man, reflects this sense of life's nothing or "nada" when he repeats to himself the Lord's Prayer, substituting nada for most of the words:

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

This story is about as far as we can imagine from a sentimental Victorian narrative with an omniscient narrator, loads of descriptive detail, and an uplifting moral message.

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What modernist characteristics are present in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Literary modernism in the early 20th century, as exemplified by the works of Ernest Hemingway, was a reaction to the chaos and confusion of the era brought on by factors such as World War I. It broke with traditional romantic styles of writing and embraced experimentation, stream of consciousness, and psychological complexity. It manifested in characteristics such as realistic details, fragmented or internalized perspectives, irony, blatant sexuality, and anti-heroism.

The so-called Lost Generation of American writers, who chose to live abroad in the wake of World War I, included Hemingway. These writers used modernism as a means to make sense of their confusing world. Hemingway's modernism took the form of paring away all extraneous language and using extremely simple sentences. His characters also appear simple on the surface, but the reader catches glimpses of underlying complexity and psychological intensity.

First published in 1933, the famous short story "A Clean Well Lighted Place" is a classic example of Hemingway's modernistic approach. The language is simple and basic, without any frills. The story is a truncated set piece, seemingly without a beginning or an ending. The action that takes place is rudimentary; all that appears to happen is that an old man has a few drinks at a cafe, the waiters talk about him and about their lives, and then the old man and the waiters go home. And yet beneath the surface, there is significant psychological impact. The old man has recently tried to commit suicide, and the old waiter suffers from insomnia. Each of them sees great value in the clean, quiet, well-lit cafe that offers them relief from the confusion and isolation of their empty lives.

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What modernist characteristics are present in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Very few modernists were avowed nihilists, but in challenging prevailing ideas they often gave that impression. It's not so much that modernists didn't believe in anything, more that they believed that the old certainties had been swept away in the post-war cultural malaise and that new ideas needed to take their place.

To some extent, the older waiter is a representative of the modernist attitude in miniature. His mocking invocation of the Lord's Prayer, with its refrain of "nada," or nothing, pithily expresses the sense of crisis and disillusionment which descended upon Hemingway and the other members of the so-called Lost Generation. Like a whole generation of modernist artists, the old waiter doesn't really belong in the modern world; he has no "clean, well-lighted" place to call home. He's cut adrift from his fellow man, forced back on his own resources to find his own truth in the midst of an alienating world where everything suddenly seems to have lost all meaning.

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What modernist characteristics are present in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Modernist short story writers such as Hemingway often abandoned traditional structures in their writing. Modernism in the literary and visual arts sought to communicate the feelings of fragmentation and disenchantment with traditional ways of thinking and valuing in the wake of World War I. Modern writers would sometimes omit exposition and conclusion, putting more responsibility on the reader to construct meaning.

In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," from 1933, Hemingway explores his "iceberg theory" of writing, indicating that what is above the surface, or seen explicitly, is a small expression of larger issues looming beneath.

Because of the lack of exposition, readers know next to nothing about the two waiters, the old man who visits the cafe, the reason for his apparent despair, or the political or social situation of the area they inhabit. Readers must be willing to accept that they are more or less dropped into a situation that they will have to figure out themselves. The lack of information about the men other than the opposing attitudes of the waiters is an expression of the encounters of modern life. They can be fleeting and fragmentary, leaving us to assign our own meaning to them.

The story also lacks a conclusion. The two waiters close the cafe. The old man presumably goes home, but the older waiter reflects on the meaningless nature of life, including religious practices, and has a small drink. He heads home knowing that insomnia awaits, speculating that others have it as well. Hemingway doesn't offer any resolution or overtly assign meaning, and like the older waiter, readers are left to only to observe and exist separately from others who construct their own meanings.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The tone of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by American writer Ernest Hemingway is a matter-of-fact, direct tone. It is an unbiased reporting by Hemingway of this story stored in his mind, as if it was a real incident and he was relaying “Just the facts ma’am.” (With apologies to Jack Webb on the TV series Dragnet).

Hemingway is reporting, dryly and without emotion, a moment in time in a café one night. The tone is almost deadpan, as if told by a poker player with a straight face not wanting to reveal anything, especially emotion or any sense of real concern.

The style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is one of unembellished discourse. It is a factual account of what is happening in this clean café. It does not mean that this is a true account, though.

Hemingway, through the eyes of the two waiters is giving a factual account of what is happening in the moment in the cafe. Nevertheless, do the waiters really know the whole truth about this old man? Do they really know the truth of his life and what brought him to this point? Do they really understand his life with his niece? Do they know for sure what caused this old man to try and kill himself?

This unadorned style of writing makes the reader concentrate on the heart of the story. There is no flowery language to distract the reader from the harshness of this story. The harshness is the way the old man is confronting and dealing with old age – all its challenges in what can be a very cruel world.

Furthermore, this plain style mimics the austereness of this simple café on a dusty street. The austere writing also mimics the stark reality of a man in his eighties having to drink alone in some café/bar and having to stumble home somewhat after he’s imbibed too much.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The tone of Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Ligthed Place" is completely dispassionate.  Using his journalistic objectivity  and minimalist style, Hemingway simply reports what the waiters do and say in staccato dialogue. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the "waiter who is in a hurry breaks the rules of orderliness and adds to the chaos when he speaks

with that ommission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners. 'No mor tonight.  Close now.'

That Hemingway disapproves of the waiter who hurries the old man is apparent in the question and description of the second waiter:

'Why didn't you let him saty and drink?' the unhurried waiter asked.

'I want to go home to bed.'

'What is an hour?'

'More to me than to him.'

'An hour is the same.'

The young, hurried waiter tells the other that he talks like an old man himself, for he can just buy a bottle and drink at home.  But the older waiter argues, "It's not the same.'  The younger waiter agrees.  For, even he knows that there is no order to this taking a bottle home.

So, while the tone is dispassionate, there is yet an undertone of an existential act of order. The older waiter speaks of the ceremony of order 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.

After the young waiter goes home, the older one continues the conversation with himself: 

It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

This orderliness is what sustains a person; a "clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing."

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The telling or narration of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" lets the reader to understand the depth of what the characters are saying. The story is mostly dialogue, and a lot of nothing or nada.  "nada nada nada" Hemingway style is referred to as the understatement which presents a tale, stripped of it's emotion and reactions; as a result the reader is jolted to recognize the power of the situation. He does not overtly judge his characters; for example, when waiter tells the old man, "You should have killed yourself last week", another style of writing would use adjectives to display the rudeness of the waiter.  Hemingway, however, just leaves the dialog and simple understated, style stand for itself: "'You should have killed yourself last week,' he said."

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Hemingway's style for this short story is called "minimalist" because it is brief and simple in every aspect of the story. The sentences are simply, clearly written, there is very little in figurative language (similes/metaphors), and the diction, the writer's choice of words, consists of words with only one or two syllables. The only description we get of the setting, the cafe, is what the title tells us, "clean" and "well-lighted". The characters aren't fully described either. Because the story is simplistic, the reader must be careful not to overlook any of the words and sentences in it because everything in the story becomes important to understanding it.

Throughout the story, we get a sense of loneliness and desperation from the older waiter who wonders if his life has ever been meaningful. He never sleeps at night, but as he's lying in bed that night, he has some hope that he's not alone in his feelings. Somehow, he feels better thinking that other people are having the same doubts and fears he does.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is one of Hemingway's works of fiction which is set in Spain. In most of these works the dialogue is in English, but he wrote the dialogue in such a way that the reader understands the characters are speaking in Spanish. A large part of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" consists of dialogue between two waiters who obviously would not be speaking English. Hemingway had a special talent for writing this kind of dual-language dialogue. He showed that it was really Spanish by some of the vocabulary and by the construction of some of the sentences. A couple of examples from the story are:

"I wish he would go home. I never get to bed before three o'clock. What kind of hour is that to go to bed?"

"I don't want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work."

The novel in which Hemingway uses this English-Spanish to the extreme is For Whom the Bell Tolls. Many of his characters are uneducated peasants who would not be capable of speaking any English at all. They are usually speaking to the protagonist Robert Jordan, an American who can understand them because he is fairly fluent in conversational Spanish. The reader understands that the other characters are speaking in their vernacular but it is being translated into English through Jordan's mind. Other works in which Hemingway uses this technique include "Old Man at the Bridge," "The Undefeated," "The Old Man and the Sea," and The Sun Also Rises. He also does it with Italian and German in some short works. At the end of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Hemingway makes it clear that one of the waiters is only speaking Spanish by his interior monologue:

It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. 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 nada and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

Hemingway was speaking for himself as well as the old man. Hemingway seems to have been troubled all his life by this existential angst, which may explain his heavy drinking and his suicide.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Hemingway uses a matter-of-fact, third-person style that slips into indirect discourse as the narrative focuses in on the older waiter. Throughout the story, the narrator relies on matter-of-fact ideas, primarily through the dialogue of the two waiters.

Throughout the story, the two waiters' attitudes are made clear through their speech. The younger waiters make his distaste for the older man sitting in the cafe clear by wishing him death, saying things like, "You should have killed yourself last week" to the older man.

Meanwhile, the older waiter shows much compassion toward the older man. He exhibits empathy through his speech by discussing the old man's virtues, including a reluctance to "close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe." 

As the story progresses, Hemingway slips into the mind of the older waiter via free indirect discourse as this man exhibits nihilistic tendencies, including the belief in nothing as made evident by his "Lord's Prayer," which replaces much of the  key words with the word "nada."

Throughout this story, the narrator's matter-of-fact tone and language usage draws the reader in, which allows for a greater connection with the story's nihilistic themes.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

In Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," tone reflects style. Style is the particular way an author constructs sentences and thoughts and it relates to diction and vocabulary, syntax and grammar choices. Tone is the feeling a narrator has about the subject and characters of a story. Tone may be different or the same as the mood, or atmosphere, within the story. For example, the mood of the story may be cheery but the tone of the narrator sarcastic and bitter (think of Scrooge talking about his nephew's Christmas feasts before being visited by the Ghost of Christmas past).

Hemingway's style is minimalistic and without numerous kinds of figures of speech. His vocabulary is simple and often single syllable words. His diction is the language of the common person without advanced education. He uses a minimal number of compound and complex sentences--thus has simple grammar constructions and syntax relationships--and these appear in the narrator's comments, not in the dialogue. Examples are:

  • Simple sentences: "The guard will get him. They went by five minutes ago." (older waiter dialogue)
  • Complex sentence: The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him. (narrator)

The tone reflected in this minimalism is distanced and objective (although you can find a tone of compassion in the first paragraph description and symbolism). The narrator expresses the tone, and the narrator says as little as possible. This is why the narrator tone is distanced. The narrator prefers to let the character dialogue express character emotions, motives and ideas. This is why the narrator tone is objective.

The theme addresses the feeling of despair (hopelessness) that arises from the belief that life is meaningless and without order. The theme accepts existential meaninglessness but rejects despairing nihilism. In other words, the theme suggests that while life may seem to be without meaning and order, there are things to do to keep from falling into hopeless despair. Being in a clean, well-lighted place is one of the things that might drive off despair and hopelessness.

"Why?"

"He was in despair."

"What about?"

"Nothing."

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

Perhaps Ernest Hemingway, in his unstated way, merely portrays the young waiter as the typical youth who is so full of life and the desires of life that he does not yet recognize the void and the absurdity of life.  It is when one is an old man, alone, that he becomes, then, much more aware of life.  As death draws near, the older men realize what little their lives have held.  Alone, each must listen to his thoughts; alone he must admit "It was a nothing that he knew too well."  Hence, the parodic prayer: 

Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada nour nada and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada;pues nada.
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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

I would agree with #4. As hard as it is to identify Hemmingway's attitude is, as #5 points out, I think that from what we know of Hemmingway's own life and his own sense of despair and insignificance, we can see that the narrator shows more sympathy for the older characters, the old, drunk man, and the older narrator, than he does for the younger waiter who wishes that the old man had killed himself so he could get to bed sooner. In addition, I think that the older waiter's understanding and empathy for those that need cafe's as a refuge against their sense of despair and loneliness, and the way that he is blind to how he himself is lonely, makes him worthy of most sympathy.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

It's tricky to say what Hemingway's attitude is, unless you assume the narrator is Hemingway's voice. Hemingway took two narratorial approaches. Sometimes, as in the Spanish Civil War stories, the narrator is clearly Hemingway. Other times, as in the Nick Adams stories, the narrator is a persona and not Hemingway. If examined from both perspectives, one might say that the narrator has a sympathetic, compassionate, understanding attitude toward each of the three character, even toward the impetuous young husband who is dissatisfied with getting home to his wife at 3 a.m. One might also say that, if the narrator is Hemingway's voice, Hemingway has an attitude of particular empathy (as well as sympathy) toward the drunken old man; of deeply understanding compassion for the old insomniac waiter; and of nostalgic good will toward the waiter with the wife.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

I agree.  Hemingway is clearly more sympathetic to the older characters in the story.  The young waiter is eager to leave, rushing the old man and looking at him through completely unsympathetic and impatient eyes.  The old man is dilatory and doing his best not to have to go home to his lonely room.  This, of course, is to contrast the eager, callous youthfulness with the tragic loneliness of old age. 

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

What is Hemingway's attitude toward his characters in  "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

What is Hemingway's attitude toward his characters in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place and how does he reveal his attitude?

Hemingway treats his two older characters with more sympathy than he expends upon the young waiter. They are united in their nameless despair. We don't hear the old man speak, but in the words of the older waiter, we can see that he understands the old man and feels empathy for him. He understands why the old man drinks and why he needs the cafe rather than a bar. The older waiter wants to let him stay longer. The older waiter hates to close the cafe because he is afraid that others might "need it."

The younger man, however, is not old enough to understand the loneliness of the others. He is confident to the point of cockiness, although his confidence in the faithfulness of his wife is suspect. He is impatient and rude. When the old man insists upon having more brandy poured into his glass, the young waiter fills it to overflowing and it runs down the sides of the glass. The young waiter is both petty and petulant; he sulks; he wants to go home early. The two older men are treated much more gently in the story.

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What is the tone and style of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

That is a good but complex question. In this classic story, Hemingway's style is very restrained (even for him). It has been called minimalist, and in truth, sections of this story are almost a play script with stage directions (except for the eruption of the internal late in the story). If I had to sum up a single attitude, I'd say it was respect for existential despair. Hemingway shows how austere their lives are, and how they lack metaphysical foundation here:

"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. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine."

So, they pray to nothing, and they get nothing-but they smile and go on anyway. That's a kind of respect.

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In Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," what is the tone and the atmosphere?

The tone is austere; it is created by the minimalist style, the point of view, and, quite frankly, by the brevity and tight focus.

The atmosphere is closely related. You might call it an atmosphere of dignified despair; there is no real hope of alternatives, but the characters maintain anyway.

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