A Clean, Well-lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway
I chose this story because not only is it a very brief but wonderfully ponderable story, but also because Hemingway’s prose and the empathy evoked within this story align uncannily with my most recent read, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
Published first in the Scribner’s Magazine in 1933 and later included in his collection Winner Take Nothing, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. It is a little less than five pages long.
James Joyce once cited his adoration for Hemingway and this story specifically, saying, “He has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’?...It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written…”
Two unnamed waiters, one young, one old, watch an elderly deaf gentleman sitting on their bar’s outside patio as he continuously washes down brandy. It is late into the evening and the younger of the waiters desperately wants to go home.
The bulk of the story is the conversation between the waiters as they discuss the old man. They talk about how the old man is a wealthy widower, looked after by his niece who recently had to cut him down from a rope with which he had tried to commit suicide. The younger of the two is relentless towards to the old man, stating how he wishes that he had succeeded in committing suicide, as the old is preventing him from going home to his wife. He complains that he often never gets to sleep before 3 am. The old man orders another brandy, and the young waiter refuses and tells him that the café is closed, despite it being only an hour till their actual closing time. The old man leaves.
The two waiters close down the bar and discuss the old man. The older of the two likens himself to the old man saying, “I am of those who like to stay late at the café, with all those who do not want to go to bed, with all those who need a light for the night.” After the two leave, the older reflects on the old man, parodying a religious prayer with a nihilistic flare and then attends a nearby bar for one drink. About the bar, he says, “the light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished.” He leaves to go home to his insomnia, citing his dislike for “bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted café was a very different thing.”
On the surface, this is a story about differing degrees of empathy, but diving in a bit, it’s an illumination into differing meanings of life. Where the younger waiter is seemingly selfish and naive in regards to the perspective on the the elderly patron, the contrasting older waiter sympathizes with the old man relating his circumstances to his own. The older of the two recognizes that even the smallest luxuries in life, i.e. a clean, well-lighted place, can sometimes grant the most catharsis and solace to an individual. And it is that tiny grant of happiness and comfort that can be of the utmost importance as life is nothing but a speck in the infinite span of time. The older waiter states, “It is all a nothing and a man was a nothing too.” And his parody of the prayer comments on how many people seek religion to find meaning in life, a grand contrast to the small café that strives to do the same thing. The old man may also represent the notion that despair and sorrow cannot be cured with money and destructive vices such as alcohol.