The Human Condition in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

Bryan Smith (or your name

English 111

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-¬Ěthat 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-¬Ěthat 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.

Related Essays on Other Essays