A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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Narration and point of view in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway


"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway employs a third-person omniscient point of view. The narrator provides insight into the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, particularly the older and younger waiters, allowing readers to understand their contrasting perspectives on loneliness and the need for a clean, well-lighted place.

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Who narrates "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and from which perspective?

Technically, Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is written, for the most part, with the point of view of the omniscient narrator: it is this narrator who is talking to the reader. However, since all but three or four paragraphs are dialogue, two other perspectives come from the contrast of the two waiters, one of whom is young, the other of whom is an older man, who is more sympathetic to the old customer.

And, near the end of the story, after the younger waiter departs, the point of view does, indeed, switch to that of the older waiter, who remains. This point of view then is first person narrator: for that time, it is the older waiter who is talking to the reader:

...Turning off the electric light, he [the older waiter] 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. ["You"= a person: here the older waiter is just thinking, not talking to anyone in particular.]

However, this first person narrator switches back to the omniscient narrator with the dialogue that follows the long paragraph of which the above cited quotation is a part: 

"What's yours?" asked the barman.
"Otro loco mas," 
said the barman and turned away....

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What is the point of view in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway is deceptively simple. It tells of two waiters in a café who are serving an old man, the only customer, late at night. The younger waiter is anxious to get home, while the older waiter is in no hurry and wants to give the old man time to enjoy the quiet, well-lit café.

Hemingway starts off this story in third-person objective point of view and then finishes it in third-person limited omniscient point of view. It is unusual for writers to employ two points of view in a story that is so short, but in this case Hemingway feels that it is crucial to go deep into the mindset of the older waiter at the conclusion of the story.

In third-person objective viewpoint, the writer describes what is happening but does not go into the thoughts of any of the characters. Hemingway does this at the beginning of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," so he can set up the situation and emotions of the various characters through the dialogue of the waiters and the actions of the younger waiter when the old man requests more brandy. The younger waiter, impatient and self-centered, is not a very sympathetic character, but it is easy to empathize with the lonely and unhappy old man who sits drinking alone late into the night. We also begin to understand that the older waiter is much more sympathetic to the old man's plight and in fact has some of the same problems with loneliness and insomnia.

This is confirmed as the older waiter closes up the café and goes off to a bar to have a drink on his own. Hemingway dives deep into the thoughts of the older waiter, and we can more easily perceive and understand his loneliness and depression, which is similar to that of the old customer at the café.

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How would "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" change if the point of view was changed?

Hemingway's narration in this excellent story seems deliberately designed to be detached and removed from the story, offering little comment upon the action that occurs. The point of view is ostensibly third person omniscient, but we "see" little thanks to the narrator. Consider the description of the cafe, for example, which we know little about apart from the information that it is clean and well-lit. We are told little about the waiters and what they think or feel, and are left to judge them, and the story as a whole, by ourselves, without any ideas or pointers from the narrator. Such a detached and objective view is key to Hemingway's style, and places the burden of interpretation on the reader.

Changing the point of view by, for example, telling the story through the eyes of the older waiter would move this story from being profoundly impartial to profoundly partial. We would see so many things much more clearly and in more detail, but this would change the role of the reader from having to make a judgement about this tale and its characters as it would mean that our experience is impacted by the character of the waiter himself. This would profoundly impact the story and our conclusions of it.

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