In life, there seems to be a clear parallel between age and contentedness. Those who are young are often full of life, while older individuals tend to isolate themselves. Since those older individuals had to have gone through many hardships and lost some of the people they cared the most about, it is not surprising that they feel despair. Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” exemplifies the relationship between age and attitude through his characters. The story centers around two waiters- one young and one old preparing to close the cafe they work at.
The young waiter is very eager to close up and to get home to his wife. He has little sympathy for the isolated, old man having a drink at the bar. This old man allegedly tried to commit suicide because “He was in despair” (Hemingway). Unlike the young waiter, the old waiter empathizes with the old man because he understands that he just wants a place where he can escape his alienation. Through the subtle dialogue and symbolism within “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” it becomes evident that as a person ages they become isolated and as a result search for several escapes.
The young waiter’s role in this story can certainly not be overlooked. He acts as a foil to the two old men and makes the difference between youth and old age predominant. The contrast between the old men and the young waiter is useful to help the reader understand how age can cause man anguish. The young man, unlike both of the old “can look forward to the welcoming arms of a young woman” (Le 80). He still has someone in his life that he can depend on to keep him company. His wife is his solace in life, which explains why he is in such a rush to get home to her.
Unfortunately since he himself has never been isolated, he is “insensitive to the old man’s needs” (Le 81). He simply does not understand why the old man would like to spend his time men, hanging around a cafe. The old customer, however, “had a wife once too,” but she is no longer with him, which takes a toll on his happiness (Hemingway). Since he no longer has someone to confide in, he resorts to other ways to escape his isolation- one of them being the cafe. find comfort within the clean well-lit cafe. It provides them both with a sense of belonging, especially the old customer who eems most alienated from society.
His old age is not the only thing contributing to his isolation, but also his deafness. Clearly being deaf creates a barrier between him and “the world of sound” (Le 78). He is not able to communicate with those Both of the old men in the story around him and therefore feels confined in life and an overwhelming hopelessness. He looks towards several things to help him avoid the despair he constantly is filled with. Unfortunately, this impending feeling of “loneliness drives him to attempt suicide” (Le 77). However, he is unsuccessful, which ltimately leads him to try and find a different way to find consolation.
His next approach to finding comfort is a more common, yet just as a depressing one- alcohol. According to The Firmament, “alcohol is the downfall of so many,” which holds true for the old man (Le 78). He spends his nights drinking himself into oblivion. The old man “drinking by night has become a habitual activity he cannot get rid of” (Le 78). Drinking nightly has become a routine for him and imposes order into his meaningless life. He feels if he continues to drink eventually he ill forget how isolated he actually is. Another mechanism he takes to avoid solitude is by going to the cafe.
By going to this cafe each night to drink he is able to be in the presence of people and feel like a part of society, while still numbing himself of the despair he feels. This clean well-lighted cafe is not only a comfort for the old customer, but also the old waiter working there. The old waiter enjoys the cafe for the exact same reason the old customer does- it provides him with a refuge where he can evade desolation. Like the old customer, the old waiter has lot of despair in his life due to the absence of human relations.
However, the old customer is almost completely shut out from the outside world through his hearing loss, while the old waiter is still able to communicate with those around him. Regardless, the old waiter still tries finding several things to distract him from his alienation. He seems to initially resort to religion as a comfort, although he realizes religion, “means nothing, [and] offers nothing” (Le 82). It is evident religion no longer supplies him solace when he prays, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be hy name” (Hemingway).
According to dictionary. com, “nada” is the Spanish word for “nothing” (Dictionary. com). By substituting “the Spanish word ‘nada’ for every main term of a prayer” the old waiter is degrading religion to nothing. Within the prayer he negates not only God, but also heaven, showing how hopeless he is that neither of those can provide him consolation. Instead, the only thing that genuinely gives him a sense of hope is the cafe he works at. The cafe is unlike any ordinary bodega in town, it provides him with both “cleanness and order” (Hemingway).
The nature of this cafe is what makes it so gravitating for the old waiter and the customer; it is a temporary escape from the nothingness their lives are filled with. The old waiter recognizes the importance of the cafe in his life and is always, “ reluctant to close up” (Hemingway). He would much rather be in the presence of the clean well lighted cafe, rather be at home in the dark, reminded of his loneliness. Although both of the older men within the story seek comfort within a physical place, others hope to escape alienation through a companion.
Throughout most of the story the waiters are discussing the old man, however all of a sudden their conversation comes to a turn when a soldier and a girl pass by the cafe. The girl who is accompanying the soldier “wore no head covering and hurried beside him” (Hemingway). Since this girl was wearing no head covering there is an implication that she is no respectable women. According to Charles Oliver, she is “probably a prostitute” (Oliver). Though hiring a prostitute is not the most conventional way to escape alienation, it is the route this soldier decides to take.
Considering the soldier just came back from ar, he must have felt great depression after witnessing so many tragic things happening to those around him. Not only would he have been exposed to the harmful sights of war, but he also must have been in solitude for so long that he forgot what human companionship felt like. Rather than continue to reminisce on the despair he feels from the war, he decides to look to this prostitute as a companion with whom he can evade his desolation. Instead of looking for a place or item to help him escape isolation, as the old men do, he instead turns to a companion to make him feel important.