A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Course Hero. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Study Guide." Course Hero. 12 Apr. 2019. Web. 4 Oct. 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Clean-Well-Lighted-Place/>.

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Course Hero. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Study Guide." April 12, 2019. Accessed October 4, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Clean-Well-Lighted-Place/.


Course Hero, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Study Guide," April 12, 2019, accessed October 4, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Clean-Well-Lighted-Place/.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Quotes


He was in despair.

Older waiter

Here the older waiter answers the younger waiter's question as to why the old man tries to commit suicide. He goes on to say the old man's despair is about "nothing," since the old man has plenty of money. The ideas of despair and nothingness occur throughout the story, and here the older waiter's response shows that he feels he understands why the old man would try to commit suicide over "nothing"—it is nothingness that causes despair.


I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing.

Younger waiter

Hemingway does not distinguish between the ages of the waiters until later in the story, and their conversation about the old man allows the reader to locate the source of friction between the two of them. When the younger waiter acts dismissively and cruelly toward the old man, he reveals he cannot understand the old man's plight of "nothing" that brought him such despair because of his own youth. He does not realize that someday, he will be an old man, too.


You have youth, confidence, and a job ... You have everything.

Older waiter

The older waiter says this in response to the younger waiter's claim that he is "all confidence." The older waiter points out that youth and confidence may go hand in hand, and that confidence may be the quality that allows the younger waiter to ignore or reject the "nothing" that the older waiter and the old man sense is waiting for them. The younger waiter is impatient because he has a wife at home—he does not have to face the dark and seemingly endless night alone.


With all those who need a light for the night.

Older waiter

Here the older waiter distinguishes himself further from the younger waiter and aligns himself with people like the old man—people who need a light for the night in order to stave off despair and loneliness. For the older waiter, the café and other places like it represent order and safety during the questioning night. His work there brings him a sense of purpose that distracts him from thoughts about the kind of "nothing" that brings the old man such despair.


You should have killed yourself last week.

Younger waiter

The younger waiter utters this sentiment to the deaf old man, who cannot hear him. Regardless, it shows how little compassion and understanding the younger waiter has for the old man, whose despair is alleviated by having a place like the café to go to at night. Instead, he is impatient and annoyed because the old man will not leave.


He's lonely. I'm not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.

Younger waiter

The younger waiter understands the old man is lonely—the older waiter points out that the old man probably had a wife once, too. Yet the younger waiter seemingly has no compassion for the old man, only caring about his own life and worries rather than a lonely old man who tried to commit suicide. Here Ernest Hemingway points out the invincibility of youth—until one suddenly finds himself old and fending off the "nothing."


He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.


The narrator offers a rare glimpse into the younger waiter's mind, who comes off as uncaring and brash in the way he treats the old man. Yet the younger waiter isn't trying to be intentionally cruel or unjust, he just wants to put his own concerns first—namely, closing the café so he can get home to his wife. Since the waiter is young and hasn't yet experienced the loneliness or "nada" that comes with getting older, he can't understand the older waiter's or the old man's perspective on life. If anything, he is repulsed by it and rejects it.


We are of two different kinds.

Older waiter

The older waiter says this to the younger waiter in an attempt to explain it is not just their ages that make them different. He recognizes his coworker is young and full of confidence, but he also sees their world views as different. To the younger waiter, the loneliness and search for meaning that can occur in old age seem very far away, and so he is only concerned with his immediate future. But because the older waiter is familiar with a kind of spiritual "nothingness," he finds kinship and understanding with people like the old man—people who need a place to go at night to distract them from this feeling of "nada."


Each night I am reluctant to close up ... there may be someone who needs the café.

Older waiter

Here the older waiter attempts to tell the younger waiter why they differ on wanting to leave early or keep the café open late. The older waiter seems to understand people like the old man who need the café in the way he is attempting to describe. The younger waiter can't grasp the concept of someone needing a place like the café at night. But the older waiter understands the café is a refuge for some against the feelings of dread and despair that come at night.


You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted.

Older waiter

The younger waiter points out that the café is not necessary at night because there are bodegas open all night long. The older waiter argues that the younger waiter does not understand that the café is not like bodegas since it is clean, pleasant, and well-lit. A bodega or a bar is dark and loud, but a café provides a bright light to counteract the darkness that is both literal and metaphorical, such as the darkness the old man feels that drives him to attempt suicide.


It was a nothing that he knew too well.


Here the older waiter thinks to himself about what it is he possibly fears about the night and comes to the conclusion the feeling is not one of fear or dread, but of "a nothing that he knew too well." The word nothing implies an emptiness or a lack of meaning, and that seems to be what the older waiter and the old man are both grappling with. They find solace in a place like the café because the café provides a bright counterpoint to the nothing of the night.


Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew It all was nada y pues.


Here the older waiter ponders how other people consider the "nothing" he speaks about, and he comes to the conclusion that although some live inside this meaninglessness, they don't feel its full gravity or care to understand the root of the feeling. The older waiter slips into Spanish when he thinks he knows it is all "nada y pues," or "nothing and then [nothing]." The waiter shows his own understanding of this lack of meaning and its implications on his life.


Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada.


The older waiter continues his stream of consciousness about the "nothing" or "nada" he knows too well. Here he recites the Lord's prayer, but he replaces every few words with the Spanish word "nada." The effect of this replacement demonstrates that the older waiter finds this sense of nothing so pervasive, not even religion can provide solace or distraction—it is just as meaningless as everything else. By contrast, the older waiter finds the clean, well-lit café a refuge against this sense of nothingness.


He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep.


The older waiter goes to a bar after the café closes and complains to the barman that the bar is unpolished and gets no response. He remembers why he dislikes bars and bodegas and why places like the café are so important. He decides to go home and knows he won't fall asleep until daylight. This offers a glimpse into why the night is harder for the older waiter—he can't sleep and so must lie awake with his thoughts until morning.


After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it.


The older waiter tries to tell himself that all his feelings of nothingness and his inability to sleep must just be insomnia. He tries to reassure himself that many people must have the same condition, so that he doesn't feel so alone. This connection to humanity seems to give him some solace that other rationales cannot provide.

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