A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Symbols


The Café

The café represents something different to the old man, the older waiter, and the younger waiter. For the old man and the older waiter, the café represents order, refuge, and a place to distract them from the emptiness of the night. For the younger waiter, the café is a place to leave as quickly as possible after his work is done, and he seems to find the fact that the old man and the older waiter find comfort in it repulsive. The older waiter tries in vain to explain why the existence of the café is so important to people like himself and the old man—it provides a clean, well-lit place in opposition to the nothingness of despair.

The title of the story refers to the café—it describes the qualities the older waiter believes are essential to a place that stays open at night, differentiating it from bars and bodegas. The cleanliness and light represent an antidote to the dark night, which is when the older waiter senses "nada" the strongest. For both the old man and the older waiter, the café symbolizes a brief escape from the "nada" or nothingness the older waiter describes.

The Lord's Prayer

The older waiter recites the Lord's Prayer to himself, replacing various nouns and verbs with the Spanish word nada, which means "nothing." By reciting it in this way, he mocks the notion that religion can provide meaning and comfort—instead, he finds this meaning and comfort in being able to frequent a "clean, well-lighted" place at night to stave off loneliness, insomnia, and thoughts of his own morality. Because he believes there is "nothing," or no larger purpose to life, he may as well take comfort where he can. In this way, he understands why the old man continues to come to the café to drink at night after his failed attempt at suicide. The recitation of the modified Lord's Prayer reflects the upheaval in religious belief that began around the end of the 19th century, when philosophers began to scrutinize the influence of industrialism and science on spiritual belief. By having the older waiter mock the Lord's Prayer, Hemingway criticizes the notion that religion provides solace and comfort against feelings of dread and futility.

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