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Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” Analysis

In Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, the interaction between the older waiter and the younger waiter proves that with age and life experience, people have a greater understanding of others. In A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, symbolism and sympathy play a role in helping understand the characters. I was drawn to this work because of the connection between the older waiter and the older man. This is evident in the dialogue between the waiters, the treatment of the old man by the waiters, and the older waiter’s thoughts and actions after the old man leaves the café.

The story takes place in a café in Spain, possibly in the 1930s. This story was published in 1933, and the author wrote it with his present time in mind. The first character is the old man, who is deaf, yet he enjoys the stillness of the night. For this reason, he is sitting at an outdoor table in the shadow of a tree. The old man is drinking alone, and it’s near closing time at the café. Two waiters are working in the café, an older one and a younger one. From experience, the waiters know that if the old man drinks too much, he is likely to leave without paying his tab.

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The younger waiter seems to be rushing to get home to his wife, while the older waiter doesn’t seem to be in any rush. “Last week he tried to commit suicide,” (Hemingway, 2010) one waiter said. This was said to be because he was in despair. “What about?” asks the younger waiter. “Nothing,” Replies the older waiter. This is the first instance of a unique word choice from the author. This word comes up again later on in the story. In his passiveness, the older waiter begins to understand how the man is drinking alone late at night. The two waiters talk back and forth until the old man taps his saucer to get their attention. What happens next will illustrate how the old man’s treatment by the younger waiter shows the lack of respect from the youth.

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“What do you want,” asks the younger waiter. “Another brandy,” replies the old man. “You’ll be drunk,” scoffs the younger waiter at the old man. Reluctantly, the younger waiter serves the old man, and he tells him, “You should have killed yourself last week.” This clearly shows that the younger waiter has judged the old man without considering why the older man is out, alone, drinking. The two waiters continue to discuss the incident of the older man’s suicide attempt while waiting on the older adult to finish. Finally, the older waiter says that, the older man is lonely.

In keeping with the theme of selfishness and lack of regard, the younger waiter turns the focus back onto himself when he says, “He’s lonely. I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.” The younger waiter shows that his mind is limited to “I, I, I.” Another example of selfishness on the younger waiter’s part is when he says, “I don’t want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work.” The older waiter justifies, the older man being out at this hour several times throughout their conversation. The older man finally finishes, pays, and leaves the café. This leads to how we learn about the source of the older waiter’s sympathy for the older man.

After closing the café, the older waiter continued the conversation with the younger waiter as he walked to a bar. He thinks about the importance of lighting in a place for refuge. It should be clean and pleasant. No music is preferred. The older waiter feels that one can’t stand at a bar or a nightclub with dignity at this hour. Happiness isn’t found at bars or clubs. They aren’t as clean or tidy as a well-lighted café. The older waiter focuses on his despair and shows a lack of faith when he says a prayer and replaces most of the words with “nada.” This is him showing that he believes that there is no higher power that is “good.” Finally, the waiter arrives at the bar and orders a drink.

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“The light is very bright and pleasant, but the bar is unpolished,” said the waiter. The bartender didn’t respond. The conversation was limited to the bartender asking if the waiter wanted another drink. The waiter passed and went home, again, confirming to himself that bars are very different than clean, well-lighted cafes. The old waiter and the older man at the café had something in common. They were lonely, and they both attempted to pass the time and avoid loneliness by staying in public. The old waiter’s last thing to rationalize his being out so late is that he has insomnia. He makes himself feel better by saying that many people have insomnia.

Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place illustrates how older people, with more life experience to draw from, are better at giving others a “pass” in life because they have experienced the very same emotion that another is feeling at one time or another in the present. This also shows how younger people, with a lack of life experience, are primarily thinking of themselves. They don’t quite see the “big picture” until later on in life. This story also taught me to enjoy life while I am young, healthy and surrounded by friends, family, and happiness. This may make it easier to remain happy in my older years if I genuinely relished the good in my life.

Works Cited

  • Hemingway, E. (2010). A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. In Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (pp. 142, Paragraph 3). X.J. Kennedy, Dana Gioia.