Ernest Hemingway’s Short Story a Clean Well-Lighted Place

The end of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, A Clean Well-Lighted Place is significant to the story on the whole because it vaguely but poignantly describes the personal and existential sense of self that defines the human condition for some. Hemingway accomplishes this through expert use of short and vague transitions and parallels between the older waiter and others in the story.

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One of the hallmarks of Hemingway’s writing style is this extreme conservation of words to the point of deliberate vagueness. When the older waiter has his aside after parting with the younger waiter, the physical action of the closing the caf© as well as traveling to the bar is never covered at all. Hemingway basically leaves the reader alone with the thoughts of the older waiter and forces the reader to accept the passage of time and setting in a more transient manner. The older waiter within he context of the story is in one location and following a paragraph of his own personal thoughts is suddenly placed in “before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine” (Hemingway pg. 146). Hemingway does this to illustrate how the older waiter is deep within his own mind- whether this is ultimately good or bad thing is up for interpretation within the story. The fact that the elder waiter is so lost in his own changing and contemplative thoughts indicate the gravity of how these thoughts vex him and his own perception of time. All of this is in stark contrast to the younger waiter.

Awareness of the human condition in regards to things like loneliness and other factors is championed by Hemingway as something that one should at least be keen and aware about. The younger waiter in the story is a strong foil to the older waiter because his sense of self-concept and understanding of the greater world is more deeply rooted in how he relates to it all.

The younger waiter is much like the bartender at the end of the story- they both use dismissive short phrases characterized by “that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners” (Hemingway pg. 145). Hemingway basically characterizes the younger waiter, the bartender, and while not explicitly stated, most places as people/venues that lack the “light” and “cleanliness”. The idea that a person deserves this sort of safe-refuge from the abstract coldness of life is something that the elder waiter understands is kind of a universal human right. While the thoughts of the bartender are not explored, the implication is that they are very similar to the younger waiter.

The younger waiter essentially “has everything”- a wife, a job, confidence, and youth according to the older waiter. These things however make the younger waiter and implicitly the bartender at the end as ignorant and blind to the quiet suffering of others around them. The younger waiter, in only acknowledges in agreement with the older waiter that bars and caf©s are different – this indicates that even if the younger waiter is aware of the needs of people for safe refuge, he doesn’t care or understand because this existential suffering is not part of his paradigm in life. To that end, existential suffering and understanding to Hemingway is thus correlated to age (though the age of the bartender is never discussed) and in some cases experiences (the old man).

During this physical transition, the older waiter contemplates to himself that a place of self-refuge is one that is quiet, clean, well lit, and has no music. Hemingway hammers the elder waiter’s though twice writing” certainly not music” to affirm it (Hemingway pg. 146). In this aside, this evokes a very monastic type image. However, monasteries are still hallmarked by things like chants and hymns that are effectively the daily “music” of these institutions. The elder waiter seemingly gets lost in their deepest train of thought when they start considering “nada” or nothing. It begins with a personal rational understanding that this was a feeling of fear but its cause was “not fear or dread” (Hemingway pg. 146).

The passage proceeds with the waiter’s thoughts that “it was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too” (pg. 146). Hemingway never defines this ‘nothing’ and conveys that this is a personal feeling of which the waiter observes that “some lived in it and never felt it” (such as the young waiter). The older waiter’s reasoning and rational starts breaking down at this point and in fact changes languages- the nothing can only be conveyed as ‘nada’. The waiter begins to pray saying the famous “Our Father” prayer in his head but he replaces all the nouns with the word ‘nada’. The imagery implies that the old man doesn’t have a connection with god there’s just an emptiness. To the elder waiter, and indeed the old man, the caf©s provide a more spiritual sense of relief than the doctrines and institutions of religion.

One of the most important parts of this passage is how the thought train ends with the elder waiter recognizing that they are “standing before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine” (Hemingway pg. 146). The machine is something that was made by humans to provide relief to humans in a very clean and efficient way but it does by utilizing pressure. The machine and the elder waiter are kindred souls in that respect in that they are both under “immense pressure” but have the capacity to help others.

Hemingway’s story and the elder waiter’s aside near the end of the story are beautiful in how vague they are. The condition of the elder waiter’s mentality is left up for grabs as to whether that is healthy or not, but his attitude towards his (the waiter) and other’s personal situation is what makes him heroic and affirms his worth in such an existential state of affairs.

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Ernest Hemingway's Short Story A Clean Well-Lighted Place. (2021, Apr 05). Retrieved December 8, 2022 , from

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