A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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

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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 moral lesson of the story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway?

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 theme of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway?

"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 important about the title of Ernest 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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How does Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" relate directly to Ernest Hemingway's life?

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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