In Hemingway’s, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, he paints a story of a little café with two waiters, and an old man ordering drinks. Throughout the story, the two waiters engage in a dialogue about an old man sitting at the café early in the morning. The younger waiter, in a display of his arrogance and youth, complains about the old man being there so late, and expresses his desire for the old man to leave, so that he may go home too. The older waiter, however, shows a sense of empathy for the old man, because he too has experienced the same sense of loneliness and depression the old man feels. The older waiter does not complain, because he knows that the small, well-lit café provides a sense of positivity to the old man. Hemingway uses references to religion and contrasts between light and darkness to portray the importance of hopefulness and safety from despair and darkness, which is ever so present in the real world. He does this to convey the seriousness of remaining hopeful through dire times.
Throughout the story, Hemingway makes many allusions to the contrasting light and dark aspects of the scenes. Whenever the word, “café” is mentioned, it is always preceded or followed by “light” or, “well-lit.” It provides the reader with a significant tie to the café being a safe and relatively hopeful place in a dark and despairing world. Light is usually a term you see associated with hope or innocence and I think in this story, with its many sharp contrasts between light and dark, give off an understanding of safety and hope in consort with light. Hemingway also mentions, “the shadows” surrounding the edges and outside areas of the café. So, while the café is largely used in reference to light and cleanliness, it is shown that the outsides and the edges of the area are referred to as dark or shadowy. This provides a negative connotation for the areas outside the café further pushing the narrative of the café being a light in a rather dark world.
In the last paragraph of the story, Hemingway uses one final reference to the contrast between light and darkness. The older waiter says, “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing.” (5). Once again, the positive notion of the café being “well-lighted” and “clean”, resurfaces and even make its comparison to other bars and areas to sit and drink. Bars and Bodegas are usually places that are associated with dim light, musty smells, and brooding senses. This is different, whereas, cafés are seen as more civilized and cleaner then bars and bodegas normally. This reinforces the narrative that the café is seen as a place of hope and safety from the darkness, despair, and loneliness. It also pushes the narrative that bars and bodegas, while catering largely to the same population, are seen as a less hospitable environment than the small café.
After the old man has left for the night, and the younger waiter, in all of his youthful impatience has left, the old waiter remains at the café. In the moments he is closing, he talks to himself and he actually prays. The author says this:
What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. 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. (5).
Again, the reference to light and cleanliness was made and this time in the context that it was all that was needed.
However, another large implication is brought to light in this passage, and that is the role of religion. The older waiter first talks about his fears and his purpose of life on this earth. He then transitions into prayer and in particular, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father, and the Hail Mary. The Our Father and the Hail Mary are two of the most important prayers in all of Christianity, and Hemingway uses them here. He also strips many of the words from the prayers, such as, “forgive”, “temptation”, “evil”, “father”, and “heaven”. He then replaces all these words, some of which having positive connotations, and some of which having negative connotations, with the word “nada”, which is Spanish for “nothing.” Hemingway replaces negative words in the prayer and positive words in the prayer implying that there is no pattern. The inconsistency in the pattern can been seen as Hemingway’s way of saying that we can not view the world in positives and negatives, because there is just nothing. However, this can be seen as a negative outlook in itself.
Prayer is considered one of the most holy and hopeful things to do in religion and here Hemingway conveys the opposite. Through the thoughts and feelings of the older waiter, Hemingway says, “Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.” Here he replaces the words, “Mary”, “grace”, and “The Lord” with the word nothing. These words all have significant religious value and are considered widely as extreme symbols of goodness and hope. However, Hemingway uses prayer and his creative diction choice to portray a loss of hope or an emphasis on the reality of these dark feelings, like, loneliness, depression, and despair. He is saying that even through prayer, one of the most faithful and hopeful things there is, it can still become meaningless if one is engulfed so deep in despair. This can be related to how the old man sits at the café, because it is the one thing that still holds value or meaning to him. Even prayer couldn’t help the old man, but the small, well-lit, café could help him.
While we may think we know what is going on inside someone’s head, or we think we know what someone is going through, we can’t assume these things. This is especially reinforced by Hemingway’s particular use of religion in this story. Religion is supposed to be a relationship built on faith and hope and Hemingway expresses, that even religion can’t always be seen as a way to pull yourself out of the darkness of the world. While many may see this as a negative and depressing story, I see it as Hemingway teaching us the true value of hope. He uses material objects to signify light, cleanliness, and hope, like the café, and he also uses religious items like heaven to portray light and hope. I believe Hemingway, through all of his uses of religion and the reoccurring imagery of the contrast between light and dark, was trying to teach the readers to hold on to hope and to keep fighting every day. No matter what we are going through, we have to see the positives in a greater light than the negatives, and while we all go through some mental darkness at times, we have to keep pushing and we have to be understanding.
Google Images, for free and fair reuse.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Sakai 105.091.FA20, Posted By Paul Blom, 31 July
2020. Originally published in Scribner’s Magazine, 1933.
“Never Lose Hope (Graphic) by Design From Home · Creative Fabrica.” Creative Fabrica, www.creativefabrica.com/product/never-lose-hope-2/.
“Pilgrimage and Rosary Rally.” Youtube, uploaded by Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, 1 November 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zxqyvSElHo&t=5s
“Worldwide Rosary with Pope Francis.” Youtube, uploaded by Saint Walter Church Roselle, Illinois, 19 March 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96B8Ca24G8M&t=4s
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