A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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What is the conflict resolution in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

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Ernest Hemingway's story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" doesn't necessarily have a resolution, which gives the story greater meaning. The story's climax occurs when the older waiter replaces the words in the "Our Father" with the word "nada." The story ends immediately afterward with the narrator explaining that the older waiter would prefer a "clean, well-lighted cafe" to a bar or a bodega, similar to the way the hopeless and deaf old man at the beginning of the story seemed to feel.

This gives the story a somewhat circular feel with the older waiter expressing some of the hopelessness and loneliness the old man displays. In fact, the older waiter consistently sympathizes with the old man, defending him from the younger waiter who tells the deaf man, "You should have killed yourself last week."

Ultimately, the lack of resolution in this story suggests that this hopelessness is the inevitable end of things. The old man once had a family, and now he is alone. The same thing is happening with the older waiter as he appears to end up alone. There's a good chance the younger waiter, who has a "wife in bed waiting" for him, will end up alone too. And, when this happens, they'll all want a clean, well-lighted place to drink.

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What is the nature of conflict in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"?

The nature of the conflict in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is essentially existential.  With minimal authorial intervention, it is left to the reader to determine what struggles exist in the old man and the older waiter.  The tension of the conflict resides in the dialogue of the two waiters, "two different kinds."  The younger waiter lets the old man's brandy glass pour over until it "slopped over and ran down the stem."  He is not ordered, and accuses the old waiter of "talking nonsense."  Like the old man who attempted suicide, since his life had nothing left, the old waiter also seeks a clean, well-lighted place, a place of order and light against the "nada," the nothingness of life.

In an essay [cited below] entitled, "Character, Irony, and Resolution in 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,'" Warren Bennett observes the dichotomy between confidence as exhibited by the younger waiter and despair found in the older waiter; he notes, also, the irony that works throughout the story.  Bennett perceives the conflict between this younger confidence and the older despair.

This profound difference between the two waiters is "embedded" in the casual conversation about the old man who has attempted suicide because he has lacked anything to live for.  This despair the old waiter understands as he, too, seeks a lighted place against the darkness of "nada," and his despair and the anguish of being alone.  His is the existential struggle to find some meaning in the nothingness and absurdity of life.

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