Theme of A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

Theme of A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

Theme of A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

One of the most touching aspects of this short story is the older waiter’s expressed solidarity with the old man. While the young waiter is all “youth” and “confidence,” the old waiter and the old man seem overwhelmingly lonely and tired- out by life. This communality structures the older waiter’s consistent thoughts of solidarity with the old man. He understands and defends him; he too prefers a clean, well- lighted cafe to a bar or bodega; he too seeks out such a place to forestall his own despair that night. The climax of this theme of solidarity is the climax of the story itself. It comes in its final line: “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he went home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” It is the “many” of the final sentence of the story with which the story is concerned. Against the singular and selfish young waiter, the coupled old men signify the group or community that hangs together out of loyalty and a sense of common cause.

Hemingway’s fiction around the time of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” frequently thematizes solidarity, undoubtedly because this principle of conduct was highly valued at the time. Much political advance was achieved in the first three decades of the century through the methods of mass demonstrations and movements (e.g., groups of workers and women bonded together for better working conditions and the vote). Solidarity fueled these mass rights’ movements and ensured their success.

Hemingway is a writer obsessed by ethical conduct. The bulk of his writing is concerned with questions of good versus bad actions. In this fiction, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how you play the game. This is true, perhaps, because in Hemingway’s fictional universe one rarely wins. The title of the collection from which “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” comes suggests this complicated stance. It is called Winner Take Nothing. If one has won nothing as a winner, then all one has done is played the game.

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The old waiter is the epitome of a someone who plays by the rules. No matter that it is a lone and drunk old man making this waiter stay up all night; the cafe offers a specific service, and is run according to certain rules from which the old waiter will not deviate. He cuts no corners in his social responsibilities.

The centrality and repetitiveness of this theme in this author’s oeuvre costs him popularity in many camps. Hemingway’s heroes consistently detect and perform unspoken ritual, usually in trying conditions so that their upholding of these rules seems all the more admirable. These beset characters are always male, and they are usually proving themselves while pursuing very traditional male pursuits (e.g. while big-game hunting or deep-sea fishing). This self- conscious cultivation of, and propensity for, an agonistic and all-male world is immortalized in a title of another of his short story collections. Appropriately, it is called Men Without Women. This highly gendered world of strenuous physical and moral contest makes Hemingway’s fiction seem dated in many respects.

“Nothing,” or the Spanish equivalent “nada,” is the most important word in this short story – if only by virtue of the high number of times it is repeated in a story so very brief. It is the reason why the old man kills himself, according to the older waiter: “”Last week he tried to commit suicide,’ one waiter said.”/”Why?”/”He was in despair.””/” ‘What about””/” ‘Nothing.”/” “How do you know it was nothing?””/ “”He has plenty of money.”” It is the word which obsesses the old waiter as well. After work, he leans against a bar and recites two prayers to himself substituting “nada” for most of the prayer’s major verbs and nouns. The result is a litany of “nadas.”

This narrative pattern suggests at least two possible explanations. The first follows from considering the character of the older waiter. The waiter is a man of few words, an elemental soul. He is face to face with humanity itself under duress, what he identifies as “despair,” and attributes the cause of this despair to be “nothing.” This paradox of believing in an emotion (despair) with no cause (“Nothing”) is unraveled if one decides that with “nothing” the waiter refers to intangible yearnings, as opposed to referring to bodily or material yearnings (“He has plenty of money”). In this case, he exemplifies a stance which does not presume to fathom the mysteries of life (intangible yearnings), but prefers to stand before them mute. “Nothing” has become his way of indicating the mystery of humanity and his own professed conceptual and verbal limitations when faced with it. Thus, this old waiter might be elemental or simple, but it is this simplicity that makes him wise. He is not afraid of admitting that the task of explaining humanity is beyond him, and his manner of speaking indicates this humble stance.

A second explanation follows from taking the old waiter’s answer (“”Nothing”) to mean that the old man, at least in his opinion, is in despair over the fact that his life means “nothing.” This can be linked, for example, to the old waiter later thinking, “It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.” In this case, despair follows from a belief in the inherent meaningless or absurdity of life. If one suffers one does so for no reason; it does not matter if one lives or dies. This is why despair is over nothing if one has “plenty of money.” In this world view, there is no meaning beyond the bodily and material; all intangible yearnings are nothing but illusion. If the old man does not sink into nihilism because of this bleak knowledge, it is because of his ethical bylaws and his ability to revel in the physical present: “It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” In the view above, however, this reveling in “light… and a certain cleanness and order” would indicate a certain blind, dumb faith. One’s environment gives one proof of some “order” or meaning, it is simply that this meaning will never be known, expressible, or presentable by mere human beings.

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