A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway
In the Ernest Hemingway short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place we have the theme of loneliness, despair, escape, connection and nihilism. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and begins with the reader being introduced to the three main characters. There is the old man who is sitting alone drinking brandy in the café. The narrator tells the reader that the old man has previously attempted to commit suicide which may be important as it introduces a sense of despair (for the old man) into the story. It is also interesting that the old man still wishes that his life was over as this further suggests or highlights the idea of despair. How the old man feels is in contrast to how the younger waiter feels, the reader aware that he longs to close the café as soon as he can and return home to his wife. This may be important as it highlights the idea of connection or the fact that the younger waiter feels as though he has something to live for (his wife) unlike the old man. It is also interesting that the older waiter, like the old man, feels as if he has nothing to live for apart from his job in the café. He too is as lonely as the old man and if anything he seems to realise that the same fate awaits him as does the old man, that being remaining alone.
How lonely the old man may be is further noticeable by his desire, while sitting at the café, to get drunk. Hemingway possibly using alcohol in the story as a tool in which the old man is able to find some comfort or is able to escape from the realities of his life. It is also interesting that while the older waiter has sympathy for the old man, the younger waiter appears to have none. As mentioned all he wants to do is close the café and get home to his wife. At no stage in the story is there a sense that the younger waiter is able to connect or relate to the old man. It is also through the older waiter’s sympathy for the old man that the reader realises that he can identify with the old man. He recognises himself in the old man and he knows his own life is lonely. What is not as clear (as Hemingway gives little insight into the old man) is whether or not the old man like the older waiter believes that life is about and means nothing (nihilism). This idea of nihilism is explored while the older waiter is talking to himself. He inserts the word ‘nada’ into the Lord’s Prayer. It is possible that by doing so Hemingway is highlighting to the reader the futility (for some people) of prayer or religion and that in essence life means nothing. That a person’s use of prayer and religion to give meaning to their lives or in moments of despair may be a pointless exercise at least for some people (like the older waiter).
Hemingway also appears to be using symbolism in the story. The reader discovers that the old man is deaf. This may be important as symbolically Hemingway may be suggesting that the old man is disconnected from others which would further emphasis the idea of loneliness. The fact that the older waiter also notices that one of the counters in the bar is unpolished may also have some symbolic significance. Unlike the cleanliness in the café, which in some ways gives meaning to the older waiter’s life or brings some type or order to his life by having the counter unpolished Hemingway may be suggesting that there is an element of chaos in the older waiter’s life. Hemingway also appears to be using light in the story as symbolism. The older waiter knows that all that is needed (sometimes) to keep the loneliness and despair away is a well-lighted café. His views on life are in some ways the opposite of how the younger waiter views life. Unlike the older waiter, the younger waiter is full of youth and confidence, two things that the old man and older waiter lack.
Throughout the story there is also a continued sense of connection, or at least attempts at connection. There is the fact that the old man is in the cafe, he wants to be around people, even if he is sitting alone. Also the younger waiter when talking to the older waiter tells him that he is just like him, that he has ‘everything I have.’ Even though the older waiter disputes this by telling the younger waiter ‘No, I have never had confidence and I am not young’ there is still an attempt at connection between both waiters. Similarly the reader is aware that the older waiter connects with those who are lonely or in despair when he tells the younger waiter that ‘I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe.’ Also when the older waiter is in the bar he attempts to connect with the bartender (by starting a conversation) but there is no answer from the bartender. Which may further emphasis the sense of loneliness that the older waiter feels.
Hemingway ends A Clean, Well-Lighted Place with the older waiter leaving the bar and making his way home. He is glad to leave the bar behind him aware that it is unlike the café which he knows provides refuge to those who are lonely (just like him and the old man). He also knows that he will lie in bed alone waiting to sleep and that there are others just like him who must suffer with insomnia. Whether or not the older waiter really suffers with insomnia is not clear. What may cause his lack of sleep is the fact that he is aware that his life means nothing, a dark reality for any person. What is also interesting at the end of the story is that though the older waiter is lonely he still reaches out in some ways to others. They very fact that the narrator tells the reader that ‘Many must have it,’ highlights the readiness of the older waiter to try and connect (again) with others, to identify with them, just as he does with the old man.