A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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What does the soldier symbolize in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

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At the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the two waiters are discussing the old man's suicide attempt. It is then that they see the soldier.

A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.

This is the only time that the soldier is mentioned in the story. One of the waiters says that he is likely to be picked up by the guard, presumably for being out after curfew, or with a girl, or both.

Although he appears only fleetingly, the soldier has a definite symbolic value. He represents all the young people, busy with their own lives and desires, who have no need of the cafe. The younger waiter is a man of approximately the same type, but he is employed to work at the cafe, though it has no emotional significance for him. For the older waiter, however, as well as for the old man drinking brandy, the cafe has a spiritual role, as an oasis of light and order in a dark, threatening world. This is why the older waiter is always reluctant to close for the night. Old, lonely people need a clean, well-lighted place, for they are lost in the young virile "world of telegrams and anger" (as E.M. Forster put it) which the soldier symbolizes.

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The old solider symbolizes basic humanity: the need that any person has to enjoy the dignity of a clean, quiet, well-lit place. We learn that

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

The two waiters on duty have contrasting attitudes toward the old man. One waiter is impatient with him, wishes he would leave, says he could go to another bar, and shows, overall, no empathy toward him. The other waiter understands that this old soldier represents humanity and should be treated with dignity. The other bars would force him to stand and would be crowded and chaotic.

The two waiters have the following conversation. The first waiter says,

This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him.

The second waiter says,

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

The story emphasizes that for humans in despair and facing "nada," or nothing (we learn the old soldier has tried to take his own life), the little things that affirm a person's humanity are all-important. Hemingway implies that we are all potentially this everyman, facing despair, and we therefore should treat each other with sensitivity and compassion.

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The soldier in this short story is a human representation of the stability that the café represents to the old deaf man. Soldiers live an orderly and predictable life, in many ways; they wear uniforms, they live by a rigid hierarchy, and they are always duty-bound to their positions. All of these aspects of a soldier's life can provide familiarity, comfort and stability to the men and women involved in the military world, much like the café provides an element of familiarity, comfort, and stability for the old man.

Additionally, the soldier also serves as a symbol of the Lost Generation: the community of writers and artists living in Paris in the 1920s, of which Ernest Hemingway was a member. These writers and artists ruminated on the enormous losses of life sustained during World War I, and the fleeting presence of the soldier is a subtle reminder of the enduring impact of World War I on society. This particular interpretation of the presence of the soldier links the older waiter's attitude toward religion (as "nada," or "nothing") to the existential crisis that Hemingway and his fellow intellectuals experienced as a result of the war.

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"A girl and a soldier went by. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar.  The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him."

In Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," an old man, a heroic drunk who neatly replaces his cup without spilling his drink, quietly sits in the clean, well-lit cafe that chases away his loneliness, if only for a time.  Fresh and clean and bright like an early part of the day, this cafe does not resemble the night of loneliness that the man must face when he goes home.  It is with the soldier's passing by the old man who sits in the shadows that the reader surmises that this soldier represents order and the dictates of time and Death with the numbers on his collar, for after he passes, the younger waiter comments, "The guard will pick him up" because the man has stayed at the cafe too long and become inebriated.

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