Hemingway's Short Stories By Ernest Hemingway Summary and Analysis A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Summary

Late in the early morning hours, in a Spanish cafe, an old man drinks brandy. A young waiter is angry; he wishes that the old man would leave so that he and an older waiter could close the cafe and go home. He insults the deaf old man and is painfully indifferent to the older waiter's feelings when he states that "an old man is a nasty thing." The older waiter, however, realizes that the old man drinking brandy after brandy is not nasty; he is only lonely. No doubt, that's the reason why the old man tried to hang himself last week.

When the old man leaves, the waiters close the cafe. The young waiter leaves for home, and the older waiter walks to an all-night cafe where, thinking about the terrible emptiness of the old man's life which he keenly identifies with, he orders a cup of nada from the waiter. A cup of nothing. The man who takes the order thinks that the old waiter is just another crazy old man; he brings him coffee.

Finishing the coffee, the older waiter begins his trudge homeward. Sleep is hours away. Until then, he must try to cope bravely with the dark nothingness of the night.

Analysis

What happens in this story? Nothing. What do the characters stand for? Nothing. What is the plot? Nothing. In fact, because there is no plot, Hemingway enables us to focus absolutely on the story's meaning — that is, in a world characterized by nothingness, what possible action could take place? Likewise, that no character has a name and that there is no characterization emphasize the sterility of this world.

What then is the theme of this story? Nothing, or nothingness. This is exactly what the story is about: nothingness and the steps we take against it. When confronting a world that is meaningless, how is someone who has rejected all of the old values, someone who is now completely alone — how is that person supposed to face this barren world? How is that person able to avoid the darkness of nada, or nothingness?

The setting is a clean Spanish cafe, where two unnamed waiters — one old and one young — are discussing an old man (also unnamed) who comes every night, sits alone, and drinks brandy until past closing time. The young waiter mentions that the old man tried to commit suicide last week. When the old waiter asks why the old man tried to commit suicide, the young waiter tells him that the old man was consumed by despair. "Why?" asks the old waiter. "Nothing," answers the young waiter.

The young waiter reveals that there is absolutely no reason to commit suicide if one has money — which he's heard the old man has. For the young waiter, money solves all problems. For an old, rich man to try to commit suicide over the despair of confronting nothingness is beyond the young waiter's understanding. However, nothingness is the reason that the old man comes to the cafe every night and drinks until he is drunk.

In contrast, the old waiter knows all about despair, for he remains for some time after the lights have gone off at the clean, earlier well-lighted cafe. The old waiter also knows fear. "It was not fear or dread," Hemingway says of the old waiter, "it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was a nothing and a man was nothing too." After stopping for a drink at a cheap, all-night bar, the old waiter knows that he will not sleep until morning, when it is light.

The story emphasizes lateness — late not only in terms of the hour of the morning (it's almost 3 A.M.), but also in terms of the old man's and the old waiter's lives. Most important, however, is the emphasis on religious traditions — specifically, on the Spanish Catholic tradition, because faith in the promises of Catholicism can no longer support or console these old men. Thus, suicide is inviting.

The old man who drinks brandy at the clean, well-lighted cafe is literally deaf, just as he is metaphorically deaf to the outmoded traditions of Christianity and Christian promises: He cannot hear them any more. He is alone, he is isolated, sitting in the shadow left by nature in the modern, artificial world. Additionally, all of the light remaining is artificial light — in this clean, "well-lighted" cafe.

What is important in the story is not only the condition of nothingness in the world but the way that the old man and the old waiter feel and respond to this nothingness. Thus, Hemingway's real subject matter is the feeling of man's condition of nothingness — and not the nothingness itself. Note, though, that neither of the old men is a passive victim. The old man has his dignity. And when the young waiter says that old men are nasty, the old waiter does not deny the general truth of this statement, but he does come to the defense of the old man by pointing out that this particular old man is clean and that he likes to drink brandy in a clean, well-lighted place. And the old man does leave with dignity. This is not much — this aged scrap of human dignity — in the face of the human condition of nothingness, but, Hemingway is saying, sometimes it is all that we have.

The young waiter wants the old man to go to one of the all-night cafes, but the old waiter objects because he believes in the importance of cleanliness and light. Here, in this well-lighted cafe, the light is a manmade symbol of man's attempt to hold off the darkness — not permanently, but as late as possible. The old man's essential loneliness is less intolerable in light, where there is dignity. The danger of being alone, in darkness, in nothingness, is suicide.

At this point, we can clearly see differences between the old waiter and the young waiter — especially in their antithetical attitudes toward the old man. Initially, however, the comments of both waiters concerning a passing soldier and a young girl seem very much alike; they both seem to be cynical. Yet when the young waiter says of the old man, "I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing," then we see a clear difference between the two waiters because the old waiter defends the old man: "This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk."

The young waiter refuses to serve the old man another drink because he wants to get home to his wife, and, in contrast, the old waiter is resentful of the young waiter's behavior. The old waiter knows what it is like to have to go home in the dark; he himself will not go home to sleep until daybreak — when he will not have to fall asleep in the nothingness of darkness.

Thus, in a sense, the old waiter is partially Hemingway's spokesperson because he points out that the old man leaves the cafe walking with dignity; he affirms the cleanliness of the old man. Unlike the young waiter, who is impetuous and has a wife to go home to, the old waiter is unhurried because he has no one waiting for him; he has no place to go except to his empty room. The old waiter is wiser, more tolerant, and more sensitive than the young waiter.

What Hemingway is saying is this: In order to hold nothingness, darkness, nada at bay, we must have light, cleanliness, order (or discipline), and dignity. If everything else has failed, man must have something to resort to or else the only option is suicide — and that is the ultimate end of everything: "It is all nothing that he knew too well. It was all nothing and a man was nothing. It was only that and light . . . and a certain cleanness and order."

At the end of the story, the old waiter is alone in a cheap bar, a "bodega," which is well-lighted — but not clean. Because he has been contemplating the concept of nada, he says, when the barman asks for his order, "Nada," which prompts the barman to tell him (in Spanish) that he's crazy. Realizing the truth of what he has heard, the old waiter responds with the now-well-known parody of the Lord's Prayer: "Our nada who art in nada . . ."

Left alone, the old waiter is isolated with his knowledge that all is nothing. He is standing at a dirty, unpolished bar. He cannot achieve even the dignity that the old man at the cafe possessed; he also knows that he will not sleep. Perhaps he has insomnia, but we know better: The old waiter cannot sleep because he is afraid of the darkness, afraid of nothingness. Hemingway himself suffered severe bouts of insomnia, feeling alone and deserted in the universe.

Glossary

pesata a coin of small value.

hombre man

bodegas cafes serving alcoholic beverages.

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