Bryan Smith (or your name
Dr. Charles Courtney
October 1, 1998
Human Condition and Character in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Ernest Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place presents
three views of the human condition-that of a young man, that of a
middle-aged man, and that of an old man. The two younger men, both
waiters at a cafe, show their different views of life based on their
feelings about an old man's intentions. Hemingway does not distinguish
explicitly between the two waiters; one later learns that one is young
and that the other is middle-aged.
The first paragraph describes an old, deaf man and how he likes going
to the cafe at night in solitude and getting drunk. The old man likes
the quietness and feels comfortable in the cafe, a "clean, well-lighted
place." One can infer from the first paragraph that this old man does
not fit in with the rest of society. He comes at night, a time at
which he feels he is most provided for, and he drinks to get drunk and
feel a sense of contentment. This paragraph prepares the reader for the
first remark, that the old man attempted suicide the last week, by
giving the reader the knowledge that the old man was in despair.
One learns that the younger waiter stated the first remark. The
younger waiter is flat and static. He is somewhat intolerant and
self-centered, for he has his own social life and does not need the bar
to seek refuge. Apparently, the younger waiter took the trouble to find
out the details about the life condition and attempted suicide of the
old customer. After the man orders several brandies one night, the
younger waiter says that the cafe is closed and then closes the cafe.
This younger waiter, who serves the eighty-year-old man, does not allow
the old man to stay and drink. This shows the young man's view of
life-that one is worthless if one does not work and that a worker should
not have to work for or help an old man. The younger waiter is tired
and in a hurry to go home and see his wife. The young man views the old
man as a nuisance and feels that the old man is preventing him from
going home, or seeking refuge. Interestingly, though, the young man is
doing the same to the old man; the young waiter is preventing the old
man from seeking his refuge, the cafe.
The older, middle-aged waiter, in contrast, is round and dynamic; he
shows more sympathy and compassion towards the old man. This waiter is
unhurried and feels that the younger waiter should have permitted the
eighty-year-old man to stay. The older waiter is inquisitive when the
younger waiter starts talking about the old man's attempted suicide.
The older waiter even questions the younger waiter when the younger
waiter says that the old man was in despair about nothing. The old
waiter supports the old man by mentioning the conditions of the old
man's life in a positive manner. This waiter feels that the
eighty-year-old man's cafe is a necessity to the old man, a place where
he can escape the world and seek refuge that is, to him, sufficiently
luxurious because it is clean and well-lighted. In this short story, a
"clean, well-lighted place" is a symbol for all the institutions and
relationships in the world that give meaning to people's lives.
The reader further learns of the older waiter's view of life, which is
similar to that of the old man. The older waiter, who is depressed and
lonely, reveals to the other waiter that he, too, like the
eighty-year-old man, likes to stay up late at night and is different
from the younger waiter. He feels that buying a drink elsewhere is not
the same as ordering a drink and sitting in a comfortable environment.
The older waiter remarks that he prefers to keep the cafe open late at
night for someone who might need it. This suggests that he is lonely
himself and enjoys the thought of subtle companionship. He is older and
wiser than the younger waiter, showing compassion for the old customer
as well as pride in his work. After dismissing the younger waiter, the
older waiter turns off the light and contemplates. He has a nihilistic
view of life; he feels that both before life and after life, there is
nothing. Also, the older waiter shows a sense of insecurity, for he
himself visits a bar, which is well-lighted but supposedly not as
suitable as a "clean, well-lighted place," to see if there really is a
difference. He discovers that there is a difference. The bartender in
this scene regards the older waiter as a crazy man when the older waiter
tells him about a flaw of the bar. This means that more people share
the beliefs of the younger waiter. Hemingway, though, likely had an
attitude closer to that of the older waiter and old man, for Hemingway
places greater emphasis on the old man's feelings and actions, which
implies a sympathetic attitude towards the old man.
The three views of the human condition that Hemingway presents show how
human nature differs. Humans often view others without fully knowing
the experiences and life conditions of others. The younger waiter does
not feel lonely in life. He is energetic because he is younger, and he
has a wife. The older waiter tends to view life as the old customer
does, probably because he has lived longer than the younger waiter.
Comparatively lifeless, the old customer lives eccentrically. He drinks
often because he knows he is old, deaf, and feels he does not have a
purpose in life.