“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway: Analysis

June 9, 2021

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One of the most prominent and recognized writers of the twentieth century is Ernest Hemingway. The writer is well-known for his short stories that are written in a peculiar style and disclose important issues of the society during that period. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place was published for the first time in 1933 in Scribners Magazine (Gale 3). It is is a short story of the humans purpose in life and the role of nothingness in it, which can be traced in the storys plot, themes, motifs, symbols, and even stylistic characteristics.

Plots summary

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place has an interesting plot. Events take place in a Spanish cafe, where two waiters are waiting for the last customer to leave, so that they can finally close the place and go back home. It is almost morning of the next day already. The young waiter is impatient and insults the old man, who is drinking brandy. The man tried to commit suicide by hanging himself a week before, but was prevented from doing so by his niece. The main reason why he is sad and drinks is because he feels lonely, despite the fact that he has money and a family member who is taking care of him. At the same time, young waiter wants to go back home to his wife. However, his counterpart who is much older understands that the man feels loneliness and the presence of nothingness, which is why he does not want to go home. After the customer finally leaves and waiters close the cafe, the older waiter is full of thoughts and emotions. He does not want to go home straight away. He walks into an all-night caf? and orders a little cup of nada, which is the Spanish word for nothing. The waiter in the caf? thinks he is crazy and serves him coffee. After finishing his drink, the old waiter goes home and tries to overcome the darkness and nothingness that is present in the night (Hemingway 295-301). Thus, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is a short, but engaging story with strong ideas and implications.


The meaning of life is the central theme of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Hemingway introduces the vision of life where it is difficult to find a purpose for human existence and despair is something that is difficult to fight. By providing the example of the old customer who drinks brandy, the author demonstrates that nothing can make sense to a human being in the times of Hemingway. For instance, money, marriage, relatives, and even the attempt to kill oneself cannot help to find meaning. It was not fear or dread. I was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too (Hemingway 299). At the same time, Hemingway introduces a way to overcome emptiness and despair which is to sit in a public place and drink without going back to an empty house. Thus, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place presents a story with the theme of nothingness at its center.

At the same time, Hemingway presents two different perceptions of nothingness. The first incarnation is the 80 year old customer, who has plenty of things, but he completely surrendered to nothingness and lives in it. The other incarnation is the old waiter who is well aware of nothingness. However, despite the fact that he is surrounded by it, the old waiter does not allow nothingness to destroy him, but works in a well-lighted and clean bar in order to provide refuge for people who suffer from loneliness. Furthermore, the old waiter is a much deeper character than old man, because he clearly understands the state of the customer and predicts that the young waiter may face the same situation (Ammary 63). Thus, Hemingway does not portray nothingness in a one sided manner, but demonstrate it from different points of view.


Another important element of the short story which serves as its main motif is the feeling of loneliness. First, the old mans status and even his affliction, that being deafness, demonstrate that he is alone and needs to overcome all challenges and despair by himself. Secondly, the old waiter, who is working in the Spanish caf?, has the same feeling, despite the fact that he does not say it out loud. Moreover, while chatting with his counterpart, the waiter says you have youth, confidence, and a job, you have everything (Hemingway 298). Nevertheless, the young waiter is not bothered by the feeling of loneliness yet, so he does not think that one day he can be in the same situation. Such attitude demonstrates how immature the young waiter is and how little he knows about the life and its meaning. What is more, young waiters reliance on his job and marriage makes him vulnerable (Hoffman 177). At the same time, the older waiter acts similarly to their late customer; he goes to a caf? in the middle of the night in order to escape his feelings. Furthermore, he cannot fall asleep after coming back home. He tells himself that it is insomnia to comfort himself, but deep inside he understands that that is not the real reason for his sleeplessness (Hemingway 295-301). Thus, loneliness is the core motif of Hemingways short story.

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The Spanish caf? serves as a powerful symbol in Hemingways story. The author presents the caf? as a safe heaven, a perfect, idealized place where a person can come to and stay, and maybe even find some kind of comfort:It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order (Hemingway 299). Caf? is the direct opposite of nothingness, but it cannot fully change life. However, staying there brings clarity and order to a persons life. Such condition helps to establish a certain kind of control over nothingness and loneliness or event forget about them for a short period of time. Thus, the caf? has a symbolic meaning, because it is the opposite of problems, difficulties, and emptiness of life.

The other symbols that contrast each other are light and darkness, which represent such feelings as security and fear. Light is the symbol of the company of others, comfort, and security. However, it is significant that the light in the story is not natural, which means that people who look for security in the caf? will not find artificial security instead of a real one. However, such kind of light is a temporary solution to fight with the exestential despair. Conversely, darkness symbolizes the fear of nothingness in the word (Gerhard 3). When the person remains on their own with thoughts of suicide and overwhelming despair, it motivates them to search for a light. Furthermore, the story makes the assumption that there is nothing permanent in the world, so a human being does not have something they can rely on while fighting against personal fears. Despite the fact that both the old man, who is the customer, and the old waiter recognize the darkness and are afraid of it, each deal with this in their own ways (Gerhard 2-3). Thus, light and darkness are important symbols of the short story.

Characteristics of Hemingways writing style in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is written in the minimalist style. The main features of this style is the absence of character names and rich figurative language, as well as simple vocabulary, sentence structure, and plot. However, such an approach makes the short story clearer and helps to convey the message more efficiently without needlessly attracting attention to minor details instead of going directly to the essence of the topic. At the same time, a significant feature in Hemingways work is repetition. For instance, while describing the environment, the author repeats the world shadow: who sat in the shadow the leaves of the trees made against the electric light, in the shadow of the leaves of the tree hat moved slightly in the wind, and sitting in the shadow (Gale 18). Furthermore, Hemingway in his story plays the role of an effaced narrator, who only provides the most important details to the readers, instead of describing everything (Gale 18). Thus, Hemingways short story has minimalist features.

Several other characteristic of Hemingway style are reflected in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place as well. First, the writer uses dialogues to describe and identify the characters of the story (Werlock 144). He does not make attributions of each line to a particular character, but the general tone of each thought and expression makes it clear who says what (Hoffman 173). Second, the author includes the ideas of existentialism and nihilism in his short story that can be traced in the type of despair the characters experience, the loss of faith, and certain cultural landscape features (Werlock 145). Third, the peculiarities of Hemingways style are reflected in the usage of the Spanish word nadainstead of its English equivalent. He puts religious context in these words and describes the reality of the twentieth century as the death of God and faith (Ammary 63). Thus, Hemingway uses various writing techniques in his short story.

Many critics assessed Hemingway work. For instance, after A Clean, Well-Lighted Place publications reviewers argued that this short story is the authors parody of himself with the presence of self-indulgent masochism (Galo 4). At the same time, Hoffman, who conducted an analysis of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place argues that this piece can be viewed as the stylistic climax of Hemingways career in short fiction (173). In his work, Hemingway is less interested in metaphysics of the things, but pays attention to practical steps that each person takes in certain situations and circumstance. The writer follows his well established canon, so only one character of the story manages to successfully overcome their challenges; others just attempt to cope with despair, fear, and darkness unsuccessfully (Hoffman 173). Thus, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place attracts the attention of professional literature critics.

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is a short story that describes the events of one night and focuses on three main characters. The action is predominantly taking place in a caf?. The main topic of the story is the meaning of life. Moreover, nothingness as perceived from different perspectives can be viewed as the storys central theme. At the same time, loneliness serves as the motif of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Hemingway uses symbols, such as the caf?, light and darkness, to convey his message. The integrity of the short story is supplemented by the authors peculiar writing style that can be characterized as minimalism, existentialism, and nihilism. Furthermore, dialogues and inclusion of the Spanish word nada complete the integral picture of events and characters. Lastly, this short story was reviewed and highly praised by professional literature critics.