Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well- Lighted Place”, originally published in the Scribner’s Magazine in 1933 and later in his book Winner Take Nothing, highlights a night at a cafe with multiple unnamed characters. Hemingway centers the short story around a deaf man, who is known to sit at the cafe well after it is closed, observing the environment, asking for unspecified amounts of alcohol throughout that time. Meanwhile, there is a bodega across the street from the cafe, where the barman is able to serve alcohol into the later parts of the night, but the deaf man chooses not to go. In contrast, the older waiter prefers the bodega but perfectly understands the stark difference between the two places. An unspoken connection is formed between the two characters, as the older waiter soon becomes the voice for the deaf man as he advocates for the both of them and reasons for his stance with others. Hemingway portrays the concept of nothingness and order in one’s life to provide insight on how these aspects may be perceived by the characters and how it affects their mental health, habits, and coping mechanisms.
The lack of details, names, and specificity in every aspect of the short story echoes the importance and presence of nothingness. The audience started out with nothing, as some details are slowly revealed, mostly through dialogue and devices. The importance of the concept of nothingness in the short story reflects the isolation felt by the deaf man and the older waiter, both unable to return to a healthy and normal home life. The deaf man lost his wife, feeling a sense of abandonment, as the older waiter suffers with insomnia, giving him no reason to go home until the early hours of the morning. One of the first details revealed about the deaf man was that he was suicidal, trying to kill himself, but failing when his niece saved him. Alcohol is his primary coping mechanism to numb himself from his painful past.
Hemingway, though providing a bare minimum amount of details on the lives of the characters or even their names, still gives the most significant details of the setting. The most prominent use of imagery and symbolism are seen when the environments of the cafe and the bodega are mentioned in the story. Hemingway explains “It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.” (5). Here light is used to indicate the symbol of order and routine that is missing from the lives of the older waiter and deaf man. The cafe symbolizes order through its cleanliness. When the drunk deaf man exits the cafe, his calm demeanor, which reflects nothing of a drunk person, is reflecting the atmosphere of the clean and orderly cafe. In contrast, Hemingway reflects on the environment of the bodega when he says “Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity” (5). This indicates that the bodega is a symbol of embarrassment. In this case both characters struggle to come to terms with their own daily lives, making the bodega a representation of the life they are trying to run away from. As a result of their embarrassment and dissatisfaction towards their daily lives, both characters resort to alcohol as their coping mechanism. On one hand, the deaf man gets drunk with the most dignity as possible, while the older waiter with the least, choosing to face the isolation and embarrassment of a bodega but numbing the emotions with alcohol.
Conversation and dialogue were used throughout most of the structure of the short story, allowing the audience to understand the causal relationships between all characters. The deaf man not being able to conversate or have any dialogue in the short story indicates his bottled-up feelings, as the waiters engage in an intense and long conversation, where the older waiter gives the deaf man a voice, an outlet about voicing mental health and the inexplicable guilt associated with it. The dialogue also allows the audience to assume how fast paced the interaction was. Without proper narration, the hardest job was left to the audience to understand who was speaking and to differentiate the tones of the speakers. Most of the dialogue involved the waiters discussing the deaf man, but one very important and direct statement made by the older waiter later in the story perfectly reflects exactly why the deaf man would be suicidal and why both characters suffer with alcoholism.
One of the most significant interactions made in the story was when the younger waiter talks to the deaf man and says, “You should have killed yourself last week” (Hemingway 2). This sentiment reflects the attitude of those in society who do not suffer from mental health illnesses, like the younger waiter, and fail to recognize or to make an effort to respect others who are suffering. Instead of trying to assist or respect the deaf man, who clearly is unable to help himself in his situation, the younger waiter decides to make harsh and critical comments, inflicting his frustration onto the deaf man. The ignorance shown in this interaction perfectly reflects the stigma surrounding this topic during that time and even now. Mental illnesses and unhealthy relationships, as a result, are heavily highlighted throughout the short story, giving the audience a sense of guilt as all of these events are spectated and none of the characters have made any effort to resolve it.
The conversation the older waiter has with himself towards the end of the story perfectly reflects the sentiments of the troubled characters. Hemingway explains “What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too.” (5). It is clear that nothingness and the lack of knowledge of the troubled characters not knowing how to handle their current situations with ease have forced them into an imbalance and an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The conversation continues with a heavy repetition of the word “Nada”, which means nothing in Spanish (Hemingway 5). The older waiter uses this repetition to show that he has lost all faith, belief and hope of religion or any aspects of his life. This reflects that he has fully internalized the concept of nothingness into his life and revolves around this feeling as he continues to struggle. After ending his conversation with the barman at the bodega, he also acknowledges his preference and understanding of how the cafe made him feel, as the deaf man would also agree, was a more dignified and refreshing atmosphere. Despite feeling that way, the older waiter puts himself through the difficult atmosphere of the bodega to drink, which might be the exact thing that may be causing him anxiety. His daily struggles with insomnia are only aggravated by the way he neglects his mental health and puts himself into stressful atmospheres.
Hemingway, through his short story, is able to help the audience understand three very common perspectives in society. He portrays a man who is struggling but suppresses it, like the deaf man, a man who understands nothing but his perfect life, like the younger waiter, and a man who struggles himself but also empathizes with others and becomes the bold voice for others who are also struggling, as the older waiter does. By portraying the lives of these characters in a short story, Hemingway creates an interesting and realistic dynamic that can still be seen today. Coping mechanisms, such as alcohol use, are often frowned upon and judgement over compassion is still the natural reaction in these scenarios. The interesting dynamic between the younger characters and older characters reflect sentiments of disgust that are often shown to the elderly. Hemingway communicates the importance of stability and what may happen when characters internalize their problems and take nothingness as their reality. Through this short story, Hemingway reminds the audience of the value of words and actions and our impact on others. It is important to understand and respect others when they are struggling and to offer them hope and help. With critical and harsh judgement, others might deteriorate and accept their struggling lifestyles as their permanent realities.
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