By Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
......."A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is a short story centering on a man who believes life has no meaning and purpose. Because he does not believe in God, religion offers him no solace. He gains a small measure of relief from his bleak, anxiety-ridden life by working as a waiter in a clean, pleasant cafe with bright lights.
.......Scribner's Magazine published "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in New York in March 1933. On October 27 of the same year, Scribner's republished it in a collection of Hemingway Stories entitled Winner Take Nothing.
.......The story begins at a cafe in an unidentified Spanish-speaking community. It ends at a bar in the same town. The time is the 1920s or early 1930s.
Older Waiter: Employee of a cafe.
Younger Waiter: Employee of the same cafe.
Old Man: Cafe customer.
Point of View
.......The narrator presents the story in third-person point of view. The point of view becomes omniscient toward the end of the story in relation to the older waiter, allowing the narrator to present his thoughts. These thoughts flow quickly and disjointedly. To reflect his jumbled thinking—his stream of consciousness—the narrator ignores some grammatical rules and runs words together.
.......The tone is objective and serious.
.......It is late in the evening. An old deaf man, a bit drunk, is the last customer on the terrace of a cafe. He is a good customer. But if he gets too drunk, he will leave without paying. So the two waiters at a table inside the cafe keep an eye on him.
.......One waiter says that out of despair the old man tried to commit suicide the previous week. It was not because he needed money; he has plenty of it. When a soldier and a girl walk by the cafe, one waiter says "the guard will pick him up." The other waiter says, "What does it matter if he gets what he's after?"
.......The old man taps his glass on a saucer, and the younger waiter goes out and pours the man another brandy, saying, “You should have killed yourself last week." (Since the old man is deaf, he did not hear what the waiter said.)
.......Back inside the cafe, the two waiters discuss the circumstances of the old man's attempted suicide. He had hanged himself, but his niece found him and cut him down because she was worried about his soul. The waiters figure him to be about eighty years old. He was married once but now has no one but his niece.
.......One waiter thinks another wife would be good for him, but his colleague disagrees. When the younger waiter says he wouldn't want to be eighty—“an old man is a nasty thing”—the other observes that the old man is at least neat. Even when he is drunk, as he is now, he doesn't spill his brandy. The old man turns toward the waiters. The younger waiter, eager to go home, steps outside. The man says he wants another drink.
.......“No. Finished,” the waiter says, wiping the table with a cloth.
.......The old man rises, pays his bill—leaving half a peseta tip—and walks off. When the younger waiter returns inside, the other waiter asks him why he refused to pour the old man another drink, pointing out that it is not yet two-thirty. His coworker says he wants to go home and get some sleep. The other waiter says one more hour wouldn't have mattered.
......."You talk like an old man yourself," says the younger waiter.
.......“The older waiter says, "You have youth, confidence, and a job. You have everything. . . . I have never had confidence and I am not young."
.......The younger waiter tells him to "stop talking nonsense and lock up," but the older waiter says he likes to stay late at the cafe.
.......“With all those who need a light for the night,” says the younger waiter.
.......When the older waiter says he's concerned that someone may need a cafe that is still open, the younger waiter says there are bodegas (bars or wine shops) that are open all night. But the other says, “"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted.”
.......The younger waiter says good night and leaves. The older waiter, while closing up, thinks that it is important for a cafe to be well lighted, pleasant, and clean. And there should be no music. Why does he like to stay late? Is it true that he needs "a light for the night," as the younger waiter observed? The older waiter answers says to himself that he is not afraid of anything; what bothers him is a feeling that life is empty, meaningless. Everything is nothing, including man. The only things a person needs are light, cleanliness, and order. He recites the Lord's prayer, but he substitutes the Spanish word nada (nothing) for God, heaven, hallowed, and other words. He then recites the Hail Mary but again substitutes nada for key words. His mock prayers are expressions of disbelief in God and the afterlife.
.......After he leaves, he goes to a bar. When the bartender asks him what he wants to drink, the waiter says, “Nada.” The bartender comments that his customer is a crazy man. But when the waiter asks for “a little cup,” the bartender pours him a drink. The waiter tells him he likes the bright light and pleasant atmosphere in the place but points out that the bar is not polished. The bartender simply asks him whether he would like another copita (snifter). The waiter says no and goes home, which is only a room. There, he will lie in his bed and, by daylight, fall asleep.
.......The writing style is simple and straightforward, reflecting Hemingway's training in journalism. However, in one passage he mixes Spanish and English words. The Spanish word nada (nothing) occurs more than twenty times to emphasize the older waiter's belief that
life is meaningless and that there is no God and no afterlife.
....... An annoying characteristic of the dialogue between the older waiter and the younger waiter is that Hemingway frequently fails to identify who is speaking. Only a close reading of the story reveals who is saying what.
The Emptiness of Life
.......For the old man and the older waiter, life is empty of meaning, purpose, joy. Both try to fill the emptiness—the old man with alcohol and the waiter with the bright light of a clean cafe. Neither wants to go home, for home offers nothing—or, as the waiter says in Spanish, nada. In fact, everything is nada to him. Religion offers him no comfort, for he thinks religion is nada too. The old man sought comfort in death when he tried to hang himself in his home, but the niece who looks after him cut him down. He then resumed his visits to the cafe, attempting to find comfort in alcoholic stupor.
.......The sight of the pitiful old man, who is about eighty, reminds the second waiter that time will have its way with him too. He has no one with whom to share his nothingness—only the four walls of his room. But at least the cafe is a clean, well-lighted place.
The Bravado of Youth
.......The second waiter is young, outspoken, and confident in himself. Moreover, he has a wife waiting for him at home. But despite his good fortune in life, he exhibits no sympathy for the old man or his fellow waiter's point of view. He is simply in a hurry to get on with his life. Like so many young adults, he seems to think that life will last forever. One gets the feeling, however, that when he reaches middle age he will remember the old man and the second waiter and begin to understand the malaise afflicting them.
The Absurdity of Life Without God
.......The older waiter's thoughts after he closes the cafe indicate that he does not believe in God. Yet he appears to realize that life without God is absurd. Without God, there is nothing transcendent for a human being to work toward. He may write a book, discover a cure for a disease, or become president of a country. But in the end, he will die and so will everyone else. Sol life becomes meaningless. And when a person dies, he becomes nothing—a clod of unthinking clay.
.......The waiter apparently cannot banish his disbelief. In his terrible anxiety, the only thing that brings him a measure of relief is the bright light in the cafe, as well as the cafe's cleanliness and orderliness. For him, the cafe is a substitute heaven. And his unspoken motto, ironically, is biblical: Let there be light.
.......When the waiter turns out the lights and closes the cafe, he dies a small death. Seeking resurrection, he goes to a tavern for a drink but leaves after discovering that the bar is not polished. He goes home. The narrator says he will lie awake the rest of the night in the darkness, then fall asleep at dawn, when the light of day switches on.
.......What did he fear? It was not a fear ordread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all anothing 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 init and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y naday pues nada.”
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Did you like or dislike the story? Explain your answer.
- To what extent did Hemingway base the story on his own experiences (about life in general and about life in Spanish-speaking countries)?
- Existentialist is a term used to identify a person who believes the following: (1) life is absurd, (2) God does not exist, and (3) it is up to the individual to give meaning to his or her life. Is the older waiter an existentialist? Explain your answer.
- The author does not identify anyone in the story by name. Does he do so to emphasize the older waiter's view that man is nothing? Explain your answer.
- Write an essay arguing for or against the thesis that people become less happy the older they get.