A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Context



As a literary genre, modernism emerged in large part as a response and reaction to the prevailing style of realism in the early 20th century. Its influence touched a wide variety of artistic disciplines, from painting to music. Modernists were interested in investigating how reality is portrayed, experimenting with styles such as stream-of-consciousness (character's thoughts and reactions portrayed as a continuous flow) and fragmentation (reflection of chaos without thematic meaning), as well as exploring themes such as ambiguity and alienation. Although scholars disagree as to whether Ernest Hemingway was a strict modernist, he was interested in depicting reality by following his own rule called the "iceberg principle." The iceberg principle dictated that in his writing, "seven-eighths of it [is] underwater for every part it shows." For Hemingway, reality did not necessarily mean showing every character's thoughts and emotions. Rather his writing reflects the idea that often people utilize only their observations of others and their environment to draw conclusions.

Hemingway picked up many of his skills as a modernist writer, such as experimenting with structure and diction, from observing and emulating his peers. In the vast majority of writing during the previous Victorian era (1819–1901), writing followed similar formulas and themes. The modernists were defined by experimentation and the call to "make it new." Modernism was greatly influenced by the political, social, and cultural upheavals taking place in the world, from the advent of World War I (1914–18) to the rise of industrialization. Many writers and artists felt the old way of making art no longer reflected the realities of the world. They strove to find a way to articulate the newfound sadness and disillusionment they felt in the aftermath of World War I—a war that brought unmatched death and devastation upon the world.

Existential Nihilism

Existential nihilism is an analysis of existence based on the theory that life is meaningless and the world does not necessarily have a moral order. As a branch of philosophy, existential nihilism began in the 20th century as a way to explore how humanity experiences and understands the condition of being human. It examines issues such as how free will and personal choice affect one's sense of meaning in life. Many literary critics view "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" as a story that illustrates existential nihilism, as voiced by the two waiters who argue about whether the old man's life has meaning or whether he should have succeeded in killing himself. The characters of the old man and the older waiter seem to be contending with a kind of existential nihilistic depression, staved off by the brightness and orderliness of the café, but hovering around the edges of the night. The older waiter must contend with it once again when he goes home, where he cannot sleep.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) believed that since life is ultimately meaningless, one can only strive for dignity as a means for creating a sense of order. Such dignity can act as a salve for the despair that comes with viewing the world as meaningless. The character of the older waiter does not seem to believe there is anything governing him or the universe. Instead, he sees much of living (and dying) as "nothing," or "nada" in Spanish. Because the older waiter and the old man accept that both life and death are meaningless, they conclude that all one can do is establish comfort and dignity where one finds it. The older waiter attempts to define whether he feels fear or dread over this condition, but he concludes his feeling is uneasiness or anxiety.

World War I and the Lost Generation

The way wars were fought prior to the 20th century differed greatly from the way World War I was fought. The technology of war underwent an overhaul one could hardly have dreamed of a century earlier. With these advancements in technology came an even greater capacity for death and destruction due to the invention of machine guns, poisonous gases, tanks, and airplanes. The psychological toll the war took on soldiers and civilians mirrored the magnitude of the physical toll it took, and the generation that survived the war came to be known as the "Lost Generation." They were described as such not only because of the large number of young men who perished but because those who survived faced a sense of alienation and disillusionment little described by previous generations.

Hemingway worked as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, and he saw first-hand the devastating effects of war technology. A number of Americans stayed in Paris after the war ended, including Hemingway and other writers and artists who would become highly influential as modernists as they established their literary and artistic reputations. This group was also dubbed the "Lost Generation" by American writer Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and included members such as short story writer and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) and poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972). In Hemingway's 1954 book A Moveable Feast, he details how Stein heard the term used by a garage owner in France who referred to the younger generation as "Une Génération Perdue" while scolding an employee, a World War I veteran, who hadn't fixed Stein's car properly. These writers, and many of their characters, share certain characteristics: pleasure-seeking, rejection of traditional morality, search for meaning through creativity, and transformation as a result of the war.

The Great Depression

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" takes place during the Great Depression (1929–39). It was the longest economic depression ever to take place in the Western world, resulting in high unemployment rates and economic deflation. The causes of the Great Depression had to do with financial panic—beginning with the American stock market crash of 1929—and the government's response to it. Even though Hemingway lived in Europe and the characters in the story are European, the effects of the Great Depression rippled outward, causing a generation to question the value of hard work and money.

Hemingway began writing "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in 1926 before the Great Depression had begun. The story was finally published in 1933. Therefore, the discussion of money and work in the story seem weighted toward the question of their value—the old man attempts suicide despite having money, which the younger waiter finds unfathomable.

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