"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Ernest Hemingway
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, nonfiction writer, memoirist, journalist, poet, and dramatist. See also, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" Criticism, The Old Man and the Sea Criticism and Ernest Hemingway Criticism.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is considered a prime example of Hemingway's craftsmanship and insight into the human condition. In this brief story, which was initially published in Scribner's Magazine in 1933, he evokes an atmosphere of despair and loneliness almost entirely with dialogue and interior monologue. Through these stylistic techniques Hemingway renders a complex series of interactions between an old waiter and his young colleague as the two men reflect on the ephemeral nature of happiness and the inevitability of death. Much of the critical commentary on the short story focuses on a series of unattributed lines of dialogue. For decades, commentators have speculated on Hemingway's stylistic technique in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” turning to the author's original manuscript and correspondence to determine the proper configuration and attribution of the dialogue of the story.
Plot and Major Characters
Rendered almost completely in dialogue, the main action of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is set in a small café in Spain, as two waiters prepare to close the establishment for the night. The place is empty except for a regular customer, a deaf old man drinking alone at one of the tables. Realizing that the old man is drunk, one of the waiters informs the other that the customer attempted suicide the week before. After the waiters watch a young man and woman pass on the street, the young waiter serves the old customer another brandy and voices his impatience to the old waiter, complaining that the old man is keeping him from his warm bed and the comfort of his wife. They discuss the old man's suicide attempt and his possible reasons for such a desperate act. When the old man gestures for another brandy, the young waiter tells him that it is closing time. After the old man pays his bill and leaves, the old waiter chides the young waiter for his lack of patience and empathy for the old man. He compares himself to the man, saying he understands the need for a clean, well-lighted place to be at night. After the café closes, the old waiter stops at a bar for a drink before he goes home, dreading his return to an empty room.
In his short fiction Hemingway depicted a disillusioning environment in which his protagonists address the precariousness of existence, the evanescence of happiness, and the universality of suffering. This is certainly true in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” as the old waiter shows a sensitivity to and understanding of both the young waiter's impatience to get home and the old man's utter hopelessness. Critics have noted a series of contrasts in the story: light and dark, clean and dirty, noisy and quiet, youth and age, and nihilism and religious idealism. In fact, many believe that the major thematic concern of the story is the conflict between generations. This is illustrated by the contrast between the two major characters: for many critics, the young waiter represents materialism and the callousness of youth and the old waiter symbolizes the perspective and wisdom of age, which is illustrated by his empathy for the old man's profound despair and alleged suicide attempt. Some critics have suggested that the old waiter's repetitive use of the term “nada” (translated as “nothing” or “nothingness”) suggests his nihilistic tendencies because he faces loneliness and advancing death like the old man. A few commentators have viewed the three main characters in the story as an implied progression from youth through middle age to old age.
In 1959 controversy about the dialogue in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” began when two critics noted a few confusing and illogical passages of conversation between the two waiters. Hemingway rarely identified the speaker of each line of dialogue, and confusion ensued about which character was speaking each line. In fact, some of the dialogue seemed to be uttered by the wrong character. At first, commentators speculated that there was a mistake in the text: Hemingway or his publisher, Scribner's, had forgotten or omitted a line of dialogue, throwing off the entire exchange between the two characters. In 1959, Otto Reinert challenged the prevailing theory that Hemingway employed metronomic dialogue and that each indented line implied a new speaker. Instead, he theorized that Hemingway utilized anti-metronomic dialogue—allowing a character to speak consecutive lines of dialogue in a few places. This could explain the discrepancy and allow the dialogue to be logical and idiosyncratic.
A few years later, commentators began to challenge Reinert's theory. Joseph Gabriel contended that the dialogue was metronomic and that the resulting confusion was viewed as an integral aspect of the story. John Hagopian rejected these theories, maintaining that the confusion stemmed from a typographical error and urged a revision of the story. In 1965 the story was amended as recommended and reprinted in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. This revised version of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” unleashed a torrent of protest from critics who repudiated Hagopian's view and agreed with Reinert's theory of Hemingway's use of anti-metronomic dialogue. Many scholars furnished additional examples of anti-metronomic dialogue in Hemingway's short fiction and novels, discovering further evidence for Reinert's theory in the author's correspondence with friends and publishers, as well as the original manuscript of the story. In recent times, Reinert's view has become the prevailing theory, as many scholars have urged a republication of Hemingway's original version of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
Life as Nothingness
In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway suggests that life has no meaning and that man is an insignificant speck in a great sea of nothingness. The older waiter makes this idea as clear as he can when he says, “It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too.” When he substitutes the Spanish word nada (nothing) into the prayers he recites, he indicates that religion, to which many people turn to find meaning and purpose, is also just nothingness. Rather than pray with the actual words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” the older waiter says, “Our nada who art in nada”—effectively wiping out both God and the idea of heaven in one breath. Not everyone is aware of the nothingness, however. For example, the younger waiter hurtles through his life hastily and happily, unaware of any reason why he should lament. For the old man, the older waiter, and the other people who need late-night cafés, however, the idea of nothingness is overwhelming and leads to despair.
The Struggle to Deal with Despair
The old man and older waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” struggle to find a way to deal with their despair, but even their best method simply subdues the despair rather than cures it. The old man has tried to stave off despair in several unsuccessful ways. We learn that he has money, but money has not helped. We learn that he was once married, but he no longer has a wife. We also learn that he has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to quell the despair for good. The only way the old man can deal with his despair now is to sit for hours in a clean, well-lit café. Deaf, he can feel the quietness of the nighttime and the café, and although he is essentially in his own private world, sitting by himself in the café is not the same as being alone.
The older waiter, in his mocking prayers filled with the word nada, shows that religion is not a viable method of dealing with despair, and his solution is the same as the old man’s: he waits out the nighttime in cafés. He is particular about the type of café he likes: the café must be well lit and clean. Bars and bodegas, although many are open all night, do not lessen despair because they are not clean, and patrons often must stand at the bar rather than sit at a table. The old man and the older waiter also glean solace from routine. The ritualistic café-sitting and drinking help them deal with despair because it makes life predictable. Routine is something they can control and manage, unlike the vast nothingness that surrounds them.
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