A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

A Deaf Old Man

It is late at night, and the only customer left at the café is a deaf old man who sits outside. He likes to stay late because it is quiet and he can feel the difference in sound. The two waiters inside keep a close eye on him, for if he drinks too much, he will forget to pay. The older waiter informs the other that last week the old man tried to commit suicide because he "was in despair." When the younger waiter asks about the cause of the old man's despair, the older waiter says it was over nothing, which he has deduced because the old man has plenty of money.

The two waiters sit at a table near the door and observe a girl and a soldier walk down the street. The older waiter notes "the guard will pick [the soldier] up," and he had better get off the street. The old man taps his glass and asks for more brandy. The younger waiter warns the old man that he will be drunk, but obliges. He tells the older waiter the old man should have killed himself last week, a sentiment he repeats to the deaf old man when he pours his brandy, since the old man cannot hear him.

Youth and Age

Back inside, the waiters resume their discussion of the old man's suicide attempt, with the younger waiter continuing to question why the old man would want to kill himself. The older waiter informs him that the old man's niece found him hung by a rope and cut him down. When the younger waiter asks why she cut him down, the older waiter replies, "fear for his soul." They say they would like to go home. Even if the old man is lonely, the younger waiter has a wife waiting in bed for him—he is not lonely, so he shouldn't have to stay up this late. They consider the fact that the old man had a wife once, too, and the younger waiter says he would not want to be that old because "an old man is a nasty thing." The older waiter disagrees, pointing out the old man is clean and drinks without spilling. The younger waiter dismisses him, as he would just rather go home than contemplate the old man.

The old man asks for another brandy, and the younger waiter, who is in a hurry to go home, tells him they are closed. The old man pays for his drinks and leaves. The older unhurried waiter asks why the younger waiter does not let him stay and drink, since they are not actually closed yet. The younger hurried waiter says it is because he wants to go home to bed. They argue about the difference an hour makes for themselves versus the old man. The older waiter argues that the younger waiter has "youth, confidence, and a job,"—in essence, he has "everything." The younger waiter asks the older waiter what it is he lacks, and he responds, "Everything but work," since he is not confident and young like the other waiter. He says he likes to stay late at the café, "with all those who need a light for the night." He believes he and the younger waiter are "of two different kinds." It is not necessarily about youth or confidence but about the fact that every night he is "reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café." The younger waiter points out "there are bodegas open all night long," but the older waiter argues that their café is clean, pleasant, and well-lighted.

Light, Cleanness, and Order

The two waiters bid each other good night, and the older waiter continues the conversation with himself about the café—it is necessary to have a clean, pleasant, well-lit place with no music. He ponders what it is that makes him anxious and decides it is not "fear or dread" but "a nothing that he knew too well." The antidote, he believes, is light, cleanliness, and order. He says the Lord's Prayer in his head but replaces the nouns with the word nada, which means "nothing" in Spanish.

The older waiter goes to a bar and orders a drink. He tells the barman "the light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished." The barman does not respond but offers another drink, which the waiter declines because he dislikes bars and bodegas. He prefers a clean, well-lighted café. He decides to go home and imagines falling asleep with the daylight, pondering whether his anxiety is only insomnia, a thing many people must have.

Analysis

Hemingway's Minimalism

Hemingway is famous for his "iceberg principle" of writing, in which he aims to reveal the least amount of detail possible. He believes that only 1/8 of the story should show, and what lies underneath is open to the reader's interpretation. In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the reader must look for clues to meaning in the dialogue and the narrator's description of the setting. Even Hemingway's choice of words by the narrator and characters is simple, with short, concise sentences that don't rely on figurative language. There is no dramatic climax to the story, but rather Hemingway presents a pared-down description of nameless characters and the setting they inhabit.

Minimalism also extends to the dialogue in Hemingway's story, in which the two waiters converse without always understanding one another. The younger waiter cannot understand what the older waiter means when he tells him the old man tried to commit suicide over "nothing"—they seem to have different ideas regarding the meaning of nothing. For the older waiter, "nothing" is an idea he repeats often throughout the story, suggesting a larger sense of meaninglessness and futility in the face of impending age and death. The other waiter seems too young to grasp this concept. Therefore, their dialogue reveals the gulf between the two waiters due to their stations in life.

Repetition and Stream of Consciousness

Hemingway makes much use of repetition throughout the story, repeating images such as "the shadows on the leaves" and the words clean, pleasant, and well-lit. The older waiter most frequently utters these descriptions, and they seem to be an antidote for the darkness of the night, which he equates with a kind of despair and anxiety over an existential nihilistic nothingness.

The words "nothing" and "nada" are also repeated throughout the story, which leaves readers with nothing but absence to help them make connections regarding the theme of the story. With this repetition, Hemingway instills the same uneasy sense of nothingness in the reader that the characters of the old man and the older waiter feel. In this way, readers may also find respite in the "clean, well-lighted" café.

Hemingway also deploys the technique of stream-of-consciousness to convey the older waiter's internal thoughts, which stands in contrast to the minimal style of the rest of the story. After the two waiters say good night to each other, the narrator shifts from the dialogue between the two men to the thoughts of the older waiter. The narrator makes this shift by stating, "Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant." The shift is abrupt and marks a distinct transition that shows the older waiter turning inward toward himself after engaging in debate with the younger waiter. This shift sets the older waiter apart from the other characters as a focus. The narration shows how his thoughts leap from one thing to another as he traces a path through the "nothing" he feels and is trying to distract himself from.

Narrative Intent

The story is narrated by a third person omniscient narrator, who merely reports the setting, dialogue, and inner thoughts of the characters without emotion or judgment. It is within the thoughts of the older waiter where the theme of the story unfolds. Outwardly, he appears to be a middle-aged waiter amused at the impatience of his younger coworker. But internally he reveals the existential nihilistic dread he feels at the "nothingness" of the night and at his own mortality, a dread only alleviated by a "clean, well-lighted" place like the café. The narration also reveals the older waiter's attempts to convince himself that perhaps this pervasive dread is simply insomnia, an affliction "many must have." The narration of the story is less concerned with depicting a traditional plot structure than with allowing readers to glimpse nameless characters in a nameless café. By neglecting anything overly personal or characteristic, the story is stripped down to its philosophical questions.

The narrator also takes great care to describe the setting of the story, which functions as much as a character as the humans. The "clean, well-lighted" café provides a pleasant atmosphere for the old man, despite his deafness—the setting still allows him to enjoy sensory details such as the leaves and the shadows the light makes. At the same time, the café provides the older waiter with respite from the thoughts of meaninglessness that plague his consciousness. In a sense, the café is an antidote to aging and the questions of life's meaning that come with it. The clean, well-lit café presents a sense of order not found in real life.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 An old man drinks at a table in front of a café at night.

Rising Action

2 The older waiter reveals the old man attempted suicide.

3 The younger waiter tells the old man to go home.

4 The waiters argue about closing early.

Climax

5 The older waiter thinks about his nightly fears.

Falling Action

6 The older waiter goes to a well-lit, but dirty bar.

Resolution

7 Going home, the older waiter tries to sleep.

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