Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012Type
......."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
.......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
.......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
Older Waiter: Employee of a cafe.
Waiter: Employee of the same cafe.
Old Man: Cafe customer.
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
tone is objective and serious.Plot
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.
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?"
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.)
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.
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.
Finished,” the waiter says, wiping the table with a
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.
like an old man yourself," says the younger waiter.
older waiter says, "You have youth, confidence, and a
job. You have everything. . . . I have never had
confidence and I am not young."
younger waiter tells him to "stop talking nonsense and
lock up," but the older waiter says he likes to stay
late at the cafe.
those who need a light for the night,” says the younger
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.”
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.
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.
old man at the table on the terrace and the
waiter who sympathizes with him are in conflict
with life itself. If it ever had meaning for
them, they have lost it. Life is now a burden,
and they are just putting in time.
.......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.
Emptiness of Life
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
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,
The Bravado of Youth
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
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
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
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.
Clean, Well-Lighted Place” lacks the action of a
traditional short story. Consequently, there is no
turning point or peak of excitement. However, one moment
does stand out. It occurs when the older waiter reveals
what is bothering him—the emptiness, the nothingness, of
life. The passage contains garbled wording and faulty
syntax to indicate that the thoughts of the waiter are
flowing fast and incoherently.
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
- 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
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