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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

This story was written by Hemingway in 1933. It details an evening\’s interaction between two waiters, and their differing perspectives of life. Hemingway uses an old man as a patron to demonstrate the waiter\’s philosophies. Hemingway is also visible in the story as the old man, someone who society says should be content, but has a significant empty feeling inside. What follows is a line-by-line analysis, putting emphasis on the philosophies of the waiters.

This story focuses on two waiters at a cafe in Madrid, and their differing outlooks upon life. Their views are shown as they talk about an old man in the cafe, and each contemplate their life.

The old man, who may be a reflection of Hemingway\’s anticipated aging, enjoys drinking in the cafe late at night. This may be a reflection of Hemingway\’s own writing in cafes in Paris. The old man prefers drinking late at night when the atmosphere is much more settled. The waiters kept a careful eye on the old man, as he has been known to leave without paying after too many drinks.

As the two waiters monitor the old man, they younger waiter mentions that the old man tried to kill himself in the previous week. The older waiter asks why, and the younger tells him that he had no reason to kill himself because he had \”plenty of money.\” The older waiter lets the conversation drop after he hears this, because this statement shows the younger waiter\’s perspective.

The older waiter seems to have empathy for the older patron, where the younger waiter has ill feelings to the customer. The older waiter seems to be more aware of a larger sense of existence where everyone plays their role, and the younger waiter seems to believe that he has to simply look out for \’number one\’ and really couldn\’t be bothered to go out of his way for the old man. The younger waiter quickly argued that the old man\’s justification for living should have been his money, and it is interesting to note that the younger waiter considers nothing else in his evaluation of the attempted suicide.

As the two waiters sit at a table, a soldier walks by with a prostitute. The older waiter comments that they\’ll get stopped by the local guard, and the younger waiter replies \”What does it matter if he gets what he\’s after?\” Again, this shows the older waiter\’s awareness, and the careless attitude of the younger waiter.

The old man signals the younger waiter over for another drink, and the waiter declines to server him because he feels that the man is getting drunk and doesn\’t want to get stuck waiting for him to finish. The younger waiter then comments that the old man should have killed himself last week, and how the waiter is tired and simply wants to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

The older waiter, empathizing with the old man, grabs the bottle of brandy and pours a full glass for the old man. This, again, reflects the respect that the older waiter has for the old man. This is the first real hint that the older waiter has a lot in common with the old man.

As the older waiter takes his seat at the table with the younger waiter, the younger waiter comments about the old man\’s drunkenness every night. The old man asks the younger why the old man would want to kill himself. The younger waiter replies that he doesn\’t know why. They discuss the incident, and the younger waiter asks who cut the rope that the man was hanging from. The older replies that it was his niece, and explains that she probably did it our of fear for his soul.

The younger waiter questions the older about how much money the old man has, showing his assessment of what matters in life. The young waiter also expresses his desire for the old man to leave, saying how he wants to get home to go to bed. This shows the younger waiter\’s self-centered approach. He says that he\’s got a wife waiting for him, that old men are nasty, and that he old man has no respect for those that must work. This lets the reader see that the younger man\’s concerns do not extend past himself. The older waiter counters with the facts that this old man is always a gentleman whom enjoys a drink in their cafe, showing his compassion for the older man.

At this time, the old man requests another drink, and the younger waiter attends to him and informs him that the bar is closing. The old man eventually walks out after leaving a paltry tip for the waiter. As the older waiter questions why the younger waiter closed the cafe early, the younger replies that he wants to go to bed. The older waiter questions the value of the hour, and the younger waiter expresses that the hour is more valuable to him than to the old man.

The younger waiter thinks that he insults the older waiter when he says that he is acting just like the old man. The older waiter quickly evens the score by asking the younger waiter if he\’s afraid of going home early, possible finding his wife with another man. The younger replies that he has confidence.

The older waiter adds that the younger has confidence, youth, and a job. The older waiter says how he never had confidence and is no longer young. It is clear in this scene that the older waiter wishes that he had his current knowledge at a much earlier age. He also states that he likes to stay late at the cafe, with others doing the same, others who \”need a light\” for the night. He is hesitant to close the cafe each night, as there may be another person who needs its warm light and friendly atmosphere.

As the older waiter attempts to explain the special characteristics of a friendly atmosphere and how it can ease the darkness of night, the younger waiter simply says \”Good night\” and leaves. The older continues the conversation with himself, explaining how a cafe was better than a bar, the importance of light and absence of music, all things that show not only how the waiter cares about what he does and the service that he provides, but that he is intimately familiar with receiving the comfort of a fine cafe. The older waiter explains the patron\’s fear as a fear of nothingness. He even goes so far as to diagnose all cafe customers as sufferers of nothingness, \”Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada…\”

While the older waiter is walking home, he recites the \”Our Father\” prayer, replacing all of the nouns with \”nada,\” almost in an attempt to get so familiar with his fear that he would no longer be afraid of it. He can see his future as the old man who was in his cafe, and he does not want to end up with nothing, as that man has (even though he does have money, to the concern of the younger waiter.)

The older waiter finds himself in a bar and initially orders a \”nada.\” The barman dismisses it and then pours a drink to the waiter\’s request. The waiter comments to the barman that \”The light is very bright and pleasant, but the bar is unpolished.\” This situation now has the waiter playing the role of the old man in the cafe, and the waiter is hoping that his feedback will improve the bar for anyone who may need it as he does now.

The waiter leaves the bar after one drink, and heads home. He resolves not to think any more for the night. He plans on simply going home and lying in bed until daylight, some three to four hours away, and then go to sleep. The waiter justifies this as \”…probably only insomnia. Many must have it.\”

The role of the younger waiter is to show a naive attitude to society, that he simply has to take care of himself, and that\’s all that will matter. The older waiter is enriched by his years to the point where he is aware enough to see that in a matter of time, he could be ( is? ) a customer in the cafe. He gets as much out of working as he would out of drinking. He is afraid of the dark, afraid of the nothing, afraid of what may happen to him in time to come, and how he many be treated.

I think that it is also possible to see Hemingway in this story as the cafe\’s old patron. The old man is someone that has become a success by society\’s standards, but not by his own. The old man is rich, just as Hemingway was famous, but neither of the two were ever completely satisfied. Hemingway is represented as someone always on safari, or some other showful pastime, perhaps trying just to keep busy, to stay away from the nada.

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