A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Hemingway: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Read a summary of Ernest Hemingway's short story, 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,' and learn about some the major elements found in the story, such as nihilism, loneliness, human suffering, and empathy.

Night at a Café

In this story, an old, deaf man sits late at a cafe, drinking one brandy after another. Two waiters serve him and converse while he lingers at his table. They discuss the old man, his drinking habits, and what they know of his life. From this, we learn that the old man tried to commit suicide just a week before. He tried to hang himself, but his niece found him and cut him down. One waiter is younger and has a wife waiting for him at home. This younger waiter becomes impatient with the old man, is rude to him, and finally refuses to serve him any more brandy. The older waiter is kinder and more understanding. He asks the younger waiter to be patient and let the old man stay longer but ultimately gives in and allows the younger waiter to force the old man to leave.

Once the old man is gone, the younger waiter closes the cafe and goes eagerly home to his wife. Both the young waiter and a young couple who pass by the cafe in the street provide a contrast to the old man in their youth and in their eagerness for life. The older waiter, however, is more like the old man--he, too, seeks the refuge of a 'clean, well-lighted place.' Finding only a bar open at that hour, he lingers for just one drink before going home to bed, knowing 'He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep.'

Nihilism

Originally published in 1933, this short story expresses elements of nihilism, which is common among Modernist texts of that period. Influenced largely by Friedrich Nietzsche, nihilism is a philosophy that calls into question the meaning of all things and even doubts the existence of meaning at all. Modern writers confronted this doubt in many different ways. In this story, Hemingway expresses this nihilistic doubt by repeatedly using the words 'nothing' and 'nada'. An especially poignant example of this is when the older waiter inserts 'nada' into the Lord's prayer: 'Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.' He goes on to use 'nada' ten more times in the rest of the prayer.

The perforation of this religious text, which is supposed to mean so much to so many, with 'nada' or 'nothing' makes a powerful statement about meaning. Doing so asks whether the true words of the psalm, 'Our Father, which art in Heaven...' are really meaningful and even questions the existence of God and Heaven. The resultant emptiness is expressed well by the substitutions the older waiter makes in the Hail Mary: 'Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.' If nothing is in us and nothing is with us, then we are all hollow and alone. All of this nothing is perhaps what plagues both the old man and the older of the two waiters.

Loneliness and Human Suffering

When asked why the old man tried to kill himself, one of the waiters replies that it was 'nothing.' He is possibly being glib and dismissive, but he manages to be more accurate than he may know. The older waiter is able to expound on what this might mean as he considers, 'It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too,' thus expressing that 'nothing' can be quite something, indeed. All of this 'nothing' implies the kind of stifling loneliness and deep emptiness that can come from a failure to believe in any greater meaning of any kind. If all is meaningless and insignificant, one can feel isolated, adrift, and completely alone. The older waiter understands that the old man seeks a refuge from this aching loneliness in drunkenness and in the clean, well-lighted cafe.

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