A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Themes

The three main themes in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” are solidarity, good conduct, and the unknowable and nothingness.

  • Solidarity: The older waiter expresses solidarity with the old man, and the climax of this sense of solidarity is also the climax of the story.
  • Good conduct: Like much of Hemingway’s fiction, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is concerned with ethical conduct and the upholding of certain rules.
  • The unknowable and nothingness: “Nada,” or “nothing,” is the central word in the story, which treats human life as fundamentally beyond understanding, or even meaningless.

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One of the most touching aspects of this short story is the older waiter’s expressed solidarity with the old man. While the young waiter is all “youth” and “confidence,” the old waiter and the old man seem overwhelmingly lonely and tired-out by life. This communality structures the older waiter’s consistent thoughts of solidarity with the old man. He understands and defends him; he too prefers a clean, well-lighted cafe to a bar or bodega; he too seeks out such a place to forestall his own despair that night. The climax of this theme of solidarity is the climax of the story itself. It comes in its final line: ‘‘He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he went home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.’’ It is the “many” of the final sentence of the story with which the story is concerned. Against the singular and selfish young waiter, the coupled old men signify the group or community that hangs together out of loyalty and a sense of common cause. Hemingway’s fiction around the time of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” frequently thematizes solidarity, undoubtedly because this principle of conduct was highly valued at the time. Much political advance was achieved in the first three decades of the century through the methods of mass demonstrations and movements (e.g., groups of workers and women bonded together for better working conditions and the vote). Solidarity fueled these mass rights’ movements and ensured their success.

Good Conduct

Hemingway is a writer obsessed by ethical conduct. The bulk of his writing is concerned with questions of good versus bad actions. In this fiction, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how you play the game. This is true, perhaps, because in Hemingway’'s fictional universe one rarely wins. The title of the collection from which “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’’ comes suggests this complicated stance. It is called Winner Take Nothing. If one has won nothing as a winner, then all one has done is played the game.

The old waiter is the epitome of a someone who plays by the rules. No matter that it is a lone and drunk old man making this waiter stay up all night; the cafe offers a specific service, and is run according to certain rules from which the old waiter will not deviate. He cuts no corners in his social responsibilities.

The centrality and repetitiveness of this theme in this author’s oeuvre costs him popularity in many camps. Hemingway’s heroes consistently detect and perform unspoken ritual, usually in trying conditions so that their upholding of these rules seems all the more admirable. These beset characters are always male, and they are usually proving themselves while pursuing very traditional male pursuits (e.g. while big-game hunting or deep-sea fishing). This self-conscious cultivation of, and propensity for, an agonistic and all-male world is immortalized in a title of another of his short story collections. Appropriately, it is called Men Without Women. This highly gendered world of strenuous physical and moral contest makes Hemingway’s fiction seem dated in many respects.

The Unknowable and Nothingness

“Nothing,” or the Spanish equivalent “nada,” is the most important word in this short story—if only by virtue of the high number of times it is repeated in a story so very brief. It is the reason why the old man kills himself, according to the older waiter: “‘Last week he tried to commit suicide,’ one waiter said.”/ “‘Why?’”/ “‘He was in despair.’”/ “‘What about’”/ “‘Nothing.’”/ “‘How do you know it was nothing?’”/ “‘He has plenty of money.’” It is the word which obsesses the old waiter as well. After work, he leans against a bar and recites two prayers to himself substituting “nada” for most of the prayer’s major verbs and nouns. The result is a litany of “nadas.”

This narrative pattern suggests at least two possible explanations. The first follows from considering the character of the older waiter. The waiter is a man of few words, an elemental soul. He is face to face with humanity itself under duress, what he identifies as “despair,” and attributes the cause of this despair to be “nothing.” This paradox of believing in an emotion (despair) with no cause (‘‘Nothing’’) is unraveled if one decides that with “nothing” the waiter refers to intangible yearnings, as opposed to referring to bodily or material yearnings (‘‘He has plenty of money’’). In this case, he exemplifies a stance which does not presume to fathom the mysteries of life (intangible yearnings), but prefers to stand before them mute. “Nothing” has become his way of indicating the mystery of humanity and his own professed conceptual and verbal limitations when faced with it. Thus, this old waiter might be elemental or simple, but it is this simplicity that makes him wise. He is not afraid of admitting that the task of explaining humanity is beyond him, and his manner of speaking indicates this humble stance.

A second explanation follows from taking the old waiter’s answer (“Nothing”) to mean that the old man, at least in his opinion, is in despair over the fact that his life means “nothing.” This can be linked, for example, to the old waiter later thinking, ‘‘It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.’’ In this case, despair follows from a belief in the inherent meaningless or absurdity of life. If one suffers one does so for no reason; it does not matter if one lives or dies. This is why despair is over nothing if one has “plenty of money.” In this world view, there is no meaning beyond the bodily and material; all intangible yearnings are nothing but illusion. If the old man does not sink into nihilism because of this bleak knowledge, it is because of his ethical bylaws and his ability to revel in the physical present: “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.’’ In the view above, however, this reveling in ‘‘light . . . [and] a certain cleanness and order” would indicate a certain blind, dumb faith. One’s environment gives one proof of some “order” or meaning, it is simply that this meaning will never be known, expressible, or representable by mere human beings.

Themes and Meanings

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One of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has been the subject of considerable critical analysis, much of it focusing on the significance of nada, or nothingness. This concept of nada is clearly central to Hemingway’s worldview; characters obsessed by death, by the apparent meaninglessness of life, appear throughout his fiction. In a century in which religion, politics, and various philosophical stances have failed for so many, modern life has devolved into spiritual emptiness and moral anarchy. Nada in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” becomes a metaphor for this modern chaos; the older waiter’s nothing represents an absence of light—including that word’s associations with reason and belief—of order, of meaning.

What is important for a Hemingway character, however, is how to respond to this seemingly meaningless universe. Hemingway dramatizes this dilemma through contrasting the two waiters; as the older one explains, “We are of two different kinds.” The young waiter is selfish and cynical, lacking in empathy, inexperienced at life without realizing it. “I have confidence. I am all confidence,” he tells the older waiter. He is like many young people who think that they and their world are as they should be and will always be the same. The older waiter responds ironically, “You have youth, confidence, and a job. . . . You have everything.” This “everything” will last only until experience, as it must, teaches the young waiter about life’s disappointments, about the chaos that youthful confidence now allows him to ignore.

The older waiter is one of the initiated, one who understands the true nature of the world, who clearly sees the distinction between cafés and bodegas, between day and night, between values as they should be and harsh reality. He represents the so-called Hemingway code, which can be seen as a humanistic, as opposed to theological, effort to create a dimension of meaning. The Hemingway code character recognizes the seeming futility of man’s headlong rush toward death and, instead of despairing, attempts to create what meanings or values he can, as with the hero’s “separate peace” in A Farewell to Arms (1929). Thus, the older waiter wants to keep the café open because someone like the old man, like the waiter himself—someone bruised by the dark, disordered world—may need it.

The café, rather than nada, becomes the most important symbol in the story because it represents a kind of hope, pathetic though it may be. The old man’s despair at home leads him to try to hang himself; in the café he can drink his brandy with dignity. The older waiter recognizes this dignity: “This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk.” (The young waiter spills the brandy he pours for the old man.) The cafe is a place where those without the innocence of youth, the illusions of belief, can pass the time with dignity. It is a refuge from meaninglessness—but only a refuge, not an escape. The café must eventually close; all must go home. The older waiter finds the bodega to which he wanders “very bright and pleasant,” but the bar is unpolished. It is a temporary substitute for the café just as the café is a temporary respite from the chaos of the dark world outside.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” dramatizes modern man’s quest for dignity amid the destruction of the old values. The individual needs to escape his responsibilities while realizing that this escape is but momentary. The individual’s responsibility to himself is to find a clean, well-lighted place or create one of his own. The ironic paradox of the story is that meaning can be created only through an awareness of its absence.

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