A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place | Themes

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Meaninglessness and Loneliness

The older waiter repeats the Spanish word nada meaning "nothing" while reciting the Lord's Prayer. This change reflects the older waiter's thought that religious belief and prayers do not provide one with meaning or solace in life. By replacing words like God and heaven with the word nada, he implies neither exists. He repeats the word so many times that the prayer comes to express meaninglessness.

The concern over meaninglessness is woven throughout the story, beginning when the younger waiter asks the older waiter why the old man attempts suicide. The older waiter says it was over "nothing." The older waiter understands the old man's despair over "nothing," in a way the younger waiter does not, due to his own experience. The old man is alienated from others even as he continues to frequent the café. The older waiter tries to explain to the younger waiter why a "clean, well-lighted" place like the café is necessary to offset this loneliness. To him, this sense of order in the café is the only antidote to the crisis is existential nihilism. The only meaning the old man has left is his dignity (he doesn't spill his drink, even when drunk), and the older waiter only finds meaning by working at the café, which provides those like himself with respite from their anxieties. Therefore, both of them cling to the ritual and location as an anchor to the meaninglessness they feel.

Youth versus Age

The reader is introduced to the theme of age with the character of the deaf, drunk, old man when it is revealed he tried committing suicide. The two waiters, whose age difference is not revealed until later, discuss the old man's suicide attempt, with the younger waiter asking why the old man attempted suicide—pointing out the old man has "plenty of money," and the older waiter saying it was over "nothing."

The younger waiter's attitude reveals he can only make sense of the old man's despair in monetary terms, while the older waiter recognizes the larger issue at play, one he himself is familiar with. He may not be as old as the old man, but he recognizes the trajectory of loneliness. The fact that the older waiter recognizes something of himself in the old man and demonstrates compassion suggests that age brings wisdom—youth does not last forever and loneliness and the search for meaning are constant in old age once the things the aged have relied on (religion, money, or marriage) have disappeared.

The young waiter is in a hurry to get home to his wife—he has a lot of life left to live and no interest in wasting his time worrying about the old man. Yet both the old man and the older waiter seem to exist in a state of waiting since the majority of their lives have passed them by. The younger waiter brags that he is "all confidence," and the older waiter agrees he has everything—confidence, youth, a job. He himself only has a job, and therefore the clean, well-lit café gives him a sense of purpose.

Every character in the story is dissatisfied, regardless of age: the younger waiter is dissatisfied with having to stay late, the old man is dissatisfied with his life and attempts suicide, and the older waiter is dissatisfied with having to close up the café and go home. Ernest Hemingway suggests that this sense of dissatisfaction occurs regardless of one's age. Although the story's conflicts appear to be among the characters, the dialogue regarding youth, aging, and one's sense of mortality reveal a larger conflict.

Futility of Modern Society

Despite indications the story takes place in affluent modern society—the café is well-lit and the old man has money—the characters struggle with futility and try to steel themselves against it. The two waiters discuss the old man's failed attempt at suicide, revealing the old man has money and once had a wife. The younger waiter accepts the older waiter's claim that the old man tried to kill himself over "nothing." This acceptance suggests something has not gone according to the plan and promise of modern society where materialism has replaced religion as a purported means of comfort. Money and status do not provide happiness and contentment. The older waiter and the old man find more comfort in the existence of a clean, well-lighted café to inhabit than in prayer recitation.

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