Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” highlights three different characters, a young waiter, an older waiter, and an old man who are all inside of a café. In the short story we learn about these three characters as the café prepares to close. While the waiters are trying to close the café, the old man continues to order drinks which enrages the younger waiter. However, the older waiter sympathizes with the old man as he too has felt the despair of loneliness and nothingness that comes with life. Through these three characters and their interactions with one another and the café in this passage, Hemingway warns that the despair from loneliness and nothingness that comes with age is inevitable in comparison to the naïve joys experienced by the young.
Throughout “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”, Hemingway uses light and dark to represent contrasting aspects of the scene in the story. Whenever the café is mentioned in the story, it is either followed or introduced by something representing light or cleanliness. We see this when the older waiter states, “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted” (Hemingway 5). This association of the café with light establishes the idea that the café serves as a refuge from the dark, despairing world we live in. However, in this same conversation, the older waiter goes on to say that there are shadows of the leaves outside of the café. This enhances the idea that the characters live in a dark world and that the café serves as a light within the dark world. At the end of the story we learn, “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted café was a very different thing… He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep” (Hemingway 5). This shows that not only does the older waiter not like bars and bodegas because they are usually dark settings, but that he finds comfort and peace from his life in light as he is only able to fall asleep when it is light outside.
Hemingway also uses light and dark to contrast the lives of the young and the old. Early on into story, Hemingway shows that the old man sits in the shadows of the leaves while being inside the café while a young soldier and woman walked in the street under a light (Hemingway 1). Hemingway puts the old man sitting in the shadows to show the nothingness and loneliness that comes with age while putting the young soldier and woman in the street under the streetlights to represent the naïve joys the youth feel. The youth have yet to feel the despairs of life like the old man has as they do not have as much life experience to have felt and experienced the loss and trauma the old man has.
Hemingway further compares the differences between the young and old by comparing the two waiters we are introduced to within the café. While the younger waiter is outraged that the old man continues to order when trying to close the café, the older waiter is more sympathetic to the old man as the old man had tried to kill himself the week prior because of the despair of feeling loneliness and the nothingness of life. The younger waiter does not understand because he is young, naïve, and has someone to go home to, similar to the young soldier mentioned earlier. However, the older waiter sympathizes with the old man because he too has felt this loneliness and nothingness as this is a feeling that comes with age. And while the young man has no problem closing up the shop, the older waiter feels a sense of remorse when closing because the café is a well-lit, safe place that people can turn to; like the one he turns to when night draws near.
In the story, we see the older waiter say two prayers: The Lord’s Prayer before shifting to Hail Mary. However, in both of the prayers he states, he replaces some of the words with the word “nada” which means “nothing” in Spanish. In the Lord’s Prayer, he replaces the words: Father, Heaven, hallowed, come, done, earth, day, bread, forgive, trespasses, against, lead, temptation, and evil. In the Hail Mary Prayer, he replaces these words with the word “nothing”: Mary, grace, and the Lord. The old waiter replaces these words within the prayers as an attempt to make sense of the nothingness of life. In this attempt he is trying to make sense of the nothingness of life by giving it structure through religion.
The café is used to symbolize the opposite of nothingness and symbolizes the small pleasures in life that gives life meaning and purpose. It also provides order and structure to the old waiter’s meaningless life. We see this when the old waiter says, “It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant” (Hemingway 5). We know from earlier in the story that the café serves as a refuge, but we now know from this passage that the café also serves as a refuge for the older waiter. The café was a nice, clean place for him to spend his time and occupy him from thoughts of the loneliness and nothingness he experiences in life.
Hemingway uses the café to symbolize the opposite of nothingness. Hemingway uses the fact that the café is clean and well-lit to bring clarity and order into the chaotic and dark nothingness of life, which is something that religion does not seem to do. The substitution of the words “nada” and “nothing” into the two prayers are used by Hemingway to show that religion, which is something people turn to for finding meaning and purpose in their life, is just nothingness as well. However, Hemingway uses the café as a place where people can escape from the dark realities of the nothingness and loneliness that come from life. From this passage we are able to gather that since religion can sometimes be hard to understand, a clean, nice place can provide more comfort than religion can.
From the interactions of the three main characters and the differences between them we see not only the role of the café and safe places like it in their lives, but also Hemingway’s message that the despair from the loneliness and nothingness that comes with age is inevitable. We watch as a young waiter does not understand the loneliness and nothingness that comes with life as he experiences the naïve joy of having someone to go home to as his wife awaits his arrival. However, we learn that the older waiter relates to the old man because he too has felt the despairs that come with life. While we can judge people all we want like the young waiter does to the old man, we do not truly know what all they are going through and therefore we cannot consciously make assumptions as to the type of person they are. In “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”, the old man attempts to commit suicide even though he appears to have everything he may want. Hemingway uses this character to convey not only his own struggles with mental health, but also his father’s as they both committed suicide. By incorporating this into his story, he makes us aware that we do not truly know what goes on in a person’s life behind closed doors and because of this, we do not have the right to be judgmental towards them.
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