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


Literary works like poems, short stories, novels, plays, and others provide us with a way of understanding the society we live in as well as true human nature. They usually act as magnifying glasses through which the ordinary man in the society can gain an insight into the complexities and interplays surrounding human interactions in the society. They are also creatively crafted by the intelligent segment of the society with a view of addressing social evils and injustices such as corruption, oppression, and discrimination among others in the society. This task is a critical overview of the short story titled ‘A Clean Well-Lighted place’ with a view to establishing its relevance in the interpretation of human nature and life.

Story Overview

‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ is a short story authored by Ernest Hemingway. It was first published in 1926 and was later included in Ernest’s collection titled ‘Winner Take Nothing’. The story has three main characters that are presented to us as Old Man, Older Waiter, and Young Waiter. It is worth noting that the story was authored roughly one decade after the end of the First World War and thus there is the possibility of the author’s attempt to expose societal understanding of human life and human nature by two categories of generations, that is, the young and the old. Two generations held different perceptions and attitudes about the worlds they lived in and human life itself.

Themes in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”

“A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is Hemingway’s creative way of demonstrating how different people of his time understood the meaning of their lives Becnel and Bloom (147). The story deals with many human themes some of which include: loneliness, despair, courage, and age. However, it is worth noting that the number of themes identifiable in a given piece of literature depends on the individual reader or analyst. Meaning readers can identify a different number of themes from a piece of literary work and support them sufficiently and adequately.

The theme of hopelessness or despair is evident in Hemmingway’s story. In the conversation about the Old man by the two waiters, we learn that the Old man attempted to take away his life due to despair. Even though we are informed that he had plenty of money, it could not prevent him from a strong feeling of despair that made him try to quench it by taking away his life.

On one hand, the young waiter wonders why someone who has plenty of money should wish to take away his life since to him money may be synonymous with hope and inspiration. On the other hand, the old waiter obviously as a result of his maturity understands far too well that at certain moments in an individual’s life money may be meaningless in the face of despair. The older waiter identifies with the old man because soon he too shall be old and unwanted and thus he foresees a situation whereby he may despair. Thus, unlike the insensitive young waiter, he sympathizes with the old man.

The theme of loneliness is clearly demonstrated in the story. We are told that the old man lives alone. His loneliness is in fact emphasized by the mention of his absent wife who we are not told what befell her. In fact, it appears that it is the loneliness that makes him find solace at the cafe and drink till late in the night. The older waiter is also lonely and he too prefers drinking until late in the night rather than going to his lonely room to sleep after closing their café. This explains why he was urging the younger waiter to serve the old man another drink since according to him one hour could not make any difference. Their loneliness is clearly brought out through contrast by the young waiter’s hurry to go home to his wife who is waiting for him in bed.

The theme of courage is presented through the older waiter and the young waiter who are two of the three main characters in the story. The young waiter is presented to us as confident about life because he has everything. He is youthful and has money and thus literally speaking he has nothing to fear. In addition to money and youthfulness, he has a wife. On the contrary, the older waiter has nothing and is presented to us as ordinary folk of the society confronted by fears and hopes about an uncertain life which to him is nothing including the man himself.

However, it is important to note that Hemingway is crafty in showing how the meaninglessness of human life pushes man to add substance to life by way of engaging in various activities be they religious or secular. In the case of the older waiter what is needed to stave off the feeling of meaninglessness is a clean well-lighted place. The clean well-lighted café is used as a symbol of order and meaning by the author and that is why the old man and the older waiter are fond of drinking in the cafe until late in the night because they find life meaningful while there. Hemingway succeeds in showing how people find meaning in the human condition that has a tendency of being underpinned by a feeling of nothingness by either turning to religion, their relationships, indulging in worldly things, or helping others. This argument is supported by the fact that even though the older waiter dismisses life and man as nothing he sees a solution to the problem in a clean well lit place.

Age is an eminent theme in this story. The main characters in the story are an old man, an older waiter, and a young waiter. Other characters are also persons of different ages. Hemingway shows clearly how age affects our perceptions, understanding, and attitudes towards life. The young waiter is confident about life while the old man and the older waiter experience peculiar hopelessness about life. At one point the young waiter is heard saying that the old man is a nasty thing and that he would not want to get as old as the old man. This is a clear show of an inexperienced young man who mistakenly thinks he would be young throughout his life or for the better part of his life.

A Critical Overview of Its Relevance in the Understanding of Human Nature and Life

Hemmingway’s short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is acknowledged by many as one of the best of his short stories. The story is evidently a creative attempt in showing how persons of different ages during his post-war period perceived life. How they perceived Life in a world that was slowly but surely getting alienated from the traditional values that regulated human conduct. To be sure despite any negative criticism that may be leveled against Hemingway his short story is a perfect attempt in explaining how humans find meaning in life by engaging themselves in various activities. He shows how man creatively overcomes the human condition of nothingness. Thus his play is relevant in understanding human nature and life not only during his time but also today.

Works Cited

Becnel, Kim.E and Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s how to write about Ernest Hemingway. New York, NY: InfoBase Publishing, (2008).Print.

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