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Ernest Hemingway: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1298

Essay

“’I am of those who like to stay late at the café,’ the older waiter said…’With all those who need a light for the night’” (Hemingway, 2013, p. 48).  In this blunt and somewhat cynical statement, the older waiter in Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” seems to affirm without knowing it his profound understanding of both life and his role within it.  The story presents no joy, nor any sense of an inherent reason to embrace life.  At the same time, Hemingway may be said to concern himself more with the truth of mundane lives as carried on to meet the needs of others, and enabled to do so through a reliance on the familiar.  If the landscape is bleak, a kind of hope or promise is upheld through this uneventful and ordinary truth.  In a lonely world lacking in faith and purpose, a man must turn to a sense of community, the simplicity of a quality refuge, and daily rituals to find meaning and comfort and to continue to choose to survive.

The story’s scenario is not complex; an older and younger waiter deal with a regular customer who sometimes presents problems, and the two also prepare to end the evening’s work.  The presence of the customer, however, triggers an exchange between the waiters in which their individual characters and points of view are exposed.  The younger man is, true to youth, impatient and insistent upon the value and potentials of his life.  The older waiter is different; he does not judge the drunken customer as his partner does, and he perceives through this customer how his own life is directed, in terms of a rote providing of service and comfort in an attractive setting.  After the young man leaves and the older man closes the cafe, he indulges in nihilistic thinking, viewing the world as empty: “It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too” (p. 48).  The story concludes with his merely lingering by the steaming coffee machine.

Importantly, however, the older waiter is smiling when the story ends, and this is critical in understanding the central theme.  If, as noted, the story is plain and cynical, there is an underlying idea that is profound and unexpectedly comforting.  Certainly as conveyed by the older man and by what is revealed about the customer, life is generally meaningless.  Faith and purporse are irrelevant concepts in a world where, as is the customer’s history, even an attempt to end one’s life is thwarted.  Nonetheless, a man carries on to do what he can, and it is seen that even in the nothingness there is a cause for living and a core of need guiding a man. This is the truth ultimately realized and accepted by the man, and it is what accounts for his smile at the conclusion, which seems to reflect a wise resignation not entirely nihilistic or bleak.

Then, and as uneventful the story is, the old patron getting drunk is very much a powerful catalyst for the waiters’ exchange exposing the theme.  His nature as having surrendered utterly and accepting of unhappiness is evident in one interaction with the young waiter.  The latter brings brandy and, referring to the old man’s recent suicide attempt, is merciless, as the waiter take adavantage of the patron’s  inability to hear: “’You should have killed yourself last week,’ he said to the deaf man. The old man motioned with his finger. ‘A little more,’ he said” (48).  What is extraordinary here is how the old customer’s deafness seems to empower his lack of interest in life and the world.  A waiter may say anything to him; it cannot matter because only the brandy and the setting have meaning, or offer some distraction.  Ironically, he cannot know how his presence triggers the exchange between the waiters, nor is it likely that he would care.

On one level, this pervasive quality of loneliness and uncaring in the customer is mirrored in the older waiter, but thete exists an important difference.  Certainly, there is no optimism in the older waiter, and virtually everything he says and thinks goes to a dismissal of life as pointless and unrewarding.  As the younger man asserts the quality of his life as what he desires, for example, the older man corroborates the view: “’You have youth, confidence, and a job,’ the older waiter said. ‘You have everything’” (p. 48).  At the same time, the reader can almost hear the older man’s tone as ironic, and as reflecting a kind of pity for the other’s ignorance and innocence.  While, however, the older waiter appears to share the patron’s cynicism and awareness of life’s meaninglessness, he also places a kind of faith in his role at the cafe and the superior quality of the setting.  These things are not powerful aspects of life as rich and meaningful but, to this character, they provide a vitally needed grounding, and one distancing him from the despair driving the patron to drunkenness and thoughts of suicide.  Consequently, the older waiter’s trust in the value of a clean and comfortable setting, and one in which people like himself serve, provides him with a purpose lacking in the patron.

The role of that setting, moreover, is a character in itself.  Without question, the cafe has far more meaning to the older waiter than it does for the younger, who appears to see it only as a job.  The latter is eager to go home to his wife but the older man has no such imperative, and cannot understand the other’s motives in hurrying the patron out: “’Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?’ the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. ‘It is not half-past two’” (p. 48).  This in turn emphasizes how, for the older man, the cafe is a kind of home, a feeling evidently shared by the patron.  It offers, as the older man reinforces, sanctuary in the form of cleanliness, service, and respectability.  It is in fact a vitally needed “way station” of human existence, which gives it the quality of an active presence or character.

Lastly, it is easy to perceive the incessant negativity of the older man’s thoughts as mocking faith, but this ignores a more fundamental reality.  There is certainly an element of mockery in the expression of the thinking: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada” (p. 48).  What is actually occurring here, however, is an affirmation of a different faith.  For the older man, trust in a benevolent God and hopes for happiness are delusional.  It is his faith in the cafe and its purpose that is real, and it is this that causes him to smile at the story’s close.

Ultimately, then, Hemingway reveals his underlying theme in the title of, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Employing only three characters and presenting a scene lacking in drama, there is nonetheless the exposure of what may be called a “cynical faith.”  A patron comes by the cafe to get drunk and step away from his despairing life, a young waiter exhibits all the optimism and arrogance of youth, and an older waiter takes everything in, concluding that, if life and faith are indeed meaningless, men may create meaning through addressing the emptiness and providing sanctuary.  The message is clear: in a lonely world lacking in faith and purpose, a man must turn to a sense of community, the simplicity of a quality refuge, and daily rituals to find meaning and comfort and to continue to choose to survive.

References

Hemingway, E. (2013).  “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In X. J. Kennedy & D. Gioa     (Eds.), The Literature Collection: An e-text [VitalSource digital version] (p. 48).   Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

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