Like many of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, the short 1933 story ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ uses its spare, direct dialogue to hint at the relationships between the characters and the themes the story is delicately and obliquely exploring. The story is about an old man who frequents a Spanish café at night, and the two waiters who discuss why the old man comes to sit there every night and is always reluctant to leave.
You can read ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: plot summary
The setting for the story, as with many of Hemingway’s short stories, is Spain, as the ‘peseta’ given as a tip to the waiter reveals.
One night, an old man, who is deaf and slightly drunk, sits in a café while two waiters argue over whether they should try to encourage the man to drink up and leave. The old man is the last customer left in the café. The two waiters are somewhat different: one is young and married while the other is older and lives alone.
In the course of the two waiters’ conversation, it is revealed that the old man recently attempted to take his own life. Heartlessly, the young waiter says it’s a shame he wasn’t successful in his attempt. While they are talking, the old man finishes his drink and leaves the café. The men, however, continue to discuss him even after he has gone.
The older waiter, who was more sympathetic to the old man, says that he knows how valuable it is to be able to get away from home – especially when you’re lonely and you live on your own – and spent time in such a place as this café, which is described as ‘a clean, well-lighted place’.
The younger waiter then goes home, and the older waiter is left to ponder the meaning of the old man’s visits to the café and life in general. Order, he concludes, is good in our daily lives, and coming to the café provides the older man with a structure and order to his day. Coming to the café provides the old man with a purpose of sorts.
The waiter then recites the Lord’s Prayer, but replaces many of the words with ‘nada’, a Spanish word for ‘nothing’. He, too, leaves the café and wanders into a nearby bodega (i.e., a wine shop), and the story concludes with him hoping that he’ll be able to sleep when he arrives home. He concludes that a café provides a clean and well-lighted place which helps people like the old man (and, by extension, the waiter himself) to stave off a sense of life’s meaninglessness.
‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: analysis
‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ is like many of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, in that the action – what little ‘action’ there is – doesn’t generate the meaning of the story. Instead, it’s through the conversation between the two waiters, and then the older waiter’s ruminations as he leaves the café, that the meaning emerges.
‘Nothing’ is a key word in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’. The story is shot through with nihilism: a belief that nothing has any real meaning. Nihilism is a philosophical position based on negation, on rejecting other claims, including the claim that there is a god or gods controlling and watching over everything. However, nihilism goes further than, say, atheism – which simply signals a lack of belief in the claim that there is a god or gods – because nihilists believe that nothing has any purpose or meaning, whereas atheists may well find meaning in the here-and-now, in the material world around them.
Very early on in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, the word ‘nothing’ turns up, but we are encouraged to be immediately on our guard about its use. When one waiter tells the other that the old man tried to end it all because of despair, he goes on to say that this despair was over ‘nothing’. But he doesn’t know this for sure: it is simply his assumption, based on the fact that financial worry can’t have been the cause (he knows that the old man has plenty of money).
But this obviously reveals a lack of understanding about what might lead someone to consider such drastic and final action (and was true of Hemingway himself, when he took his own life in 1961). In this little exchange, then, we learn more about the waiter and his attitude to depression (viewing it through the narrow prism of material concerns) than we do about the actual topic of their conversation (the old man).
Another key aspect of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, a detail which is used subtly but to great effect by Hemingway, is the play of light and dark. Light is reference, of course, in the story’s title, but it filters through this short story, with its opposite, darkness (or night), running against it.
The light is both literal and symbolic, or metaphorical. The older waiter – who has far more sympathy for the lonely old man than his young colleague – realises that places like the café exist for those who need a ‘light for the night’, and this light is not intended to be merely literal. When the older waiter reluctantly turns out the electric light in the café, the two kinds of light – real and symbolic – merge in the moment that they are extinguished.
Similarly, the older waiter, whose musings are the focus of the last few paragraphs of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, seems to understand what brings the old man coming to the café night after night. It is not fear (such as fear of death), but a sense of nothingness. All that was needed to keep that sense of ‘nothing’ at bay was a little light and somewhere clean to spend one’s time. So, contrary to what we might expect, it is not fear of the dark at night – and all that that might imply – that draws the old man to the electric light and the companionship of the café. Even though the waiters guess the old man must be eighty years old, he doesn’t appear to fear death.
Instead, coming to the café is a way of staving off this nihilistic sense that nothing matters, and life has no purpose. Even a slight ritual like a few hours in a late-night café can combat this feeling of purposelessness and meaninglessness.
Hemingway uses free indirect discourse to give us an insight into the older waiter’s thoughts. Free indirect discourse or speech is when a third-person narrator adopts the ‘voice’ (whether verbal or merely internal, i.e., the voice of their thoughts) of one of the story’s characters. This way, we are granted unfettered access to the waiter’s train of thought as he begins to use ‘nada’ – the Spanish for ‘nothing’ – in place of the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as if rejecting the idea that Christianity provides the necessary ‘light’ out of this nihilism. (‘Nada y pues nada’ means more or less ‘nothing and then nothing’ etc.)
The ‘Hail Mary’ (otherwise known as the ‘Ave Maria’, a key part of Catholic worship; Spain is a Catholic country, of course) is also given the ‘nada’ treatment, signalling that religion cannot provide the answers to this overwhelming feeling of meaninglessness. A clean, well-lighted place is all that’s needed.