Hemingway’s story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, has mainly three characters: an old waiter, a young waiter, and an old deaf man. The story is very simple. An old man, aged about eighty years, tries to spend his night drinking brandy in a Spanish café, but the young waiter becomes impatient, as he wants to join his wife at home and enjoy a sound sleep. At a deeper level, Hemingway has very skillfully put many interesting ideas about human life, particularly the differences in perception when life moves from youth to old age.
Age not only takes away all human enthusiasms but also makes the time a burden. In the story, the old is shown as a hindrance to the desires of the youth, and the young are depicted as impatient and intolerant to the old. This paper takes a critical look at the story to analyze how the author has treated the problem of age in the story.
The brief basic plot of the story
Contrast is the most powerful literary device used by Hemingway in the story to bring out the differences which age imposes on human perception. The old man has nothing left out in his life except death, which was denied by his niece by way of cutting the rope on which he was found hanging. The young and impatient waiter, on the other hand, is eager to rush through life. The second waiter is older and unmarried, and he tries to balance the extreme qualities of the old man and the young man.
The contrasting urge for life among the married and the unmarried is also shown through these two characters. The most powerful symbol, however, is light. The young waiter hates the artificial light at night. He wants to be with his wife. The light which his wife radiates is something that the older waiter has not experienced or understood. The old man is identified with shadow because life as a substance for him is already drained out. The other waiter, says the narrator, “with daylight he would go to sleep” (Hemingway).
The story can also be seen as a contrast between life and death, or as between Eros and Thanatos. It is the life force that is working as the driving force of the young waiter. His urge to be with his wife is motivated by the urge for reproduction. “I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me”, tells the young man. At the same time, the reality is that there are more people like the old man or the old waiter for whom substitutes are required: “There may be someone who needs the café”. Thus, the café and the brandy serve as psychic substitutes, a medium to postpone death, or to drag the existence till death. The old man’s aborted attempt to commit suicide can be linked to brandy, as it helps him to carry on till he gets another chance to end his life.
The older waiter plays a pivotal role in the story. He stands for solidarity and compassion. He can understand the existential problems of others and he is considerate. Unlike the young waiter who says “An old man is a nasty thing”, he realizes the problem of aging. However, he also symbolizes human helplessness, which is reflected in his utterances in Spanish: “pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee”.
He is neither able to satisfy the desire of the old man nor to impose his views on the young waiter. He has to wait many more years, perhaps, to reach the mental poise which the old man symbolizes. His despair is the reason for his insomnia, but he is aware that he is not the only soul afflicted with this in this world: “After all, it’s probably insomnia. Many must have it”. He, like other Hemingway characters, belongs to the lost generation.
Age imposes certain changes in perception. The most interesting thing is time. For the young, every minute, or every hour, is precious as there are many things to be enjoyed and experienced. When the old waiter asks, “What is in an hour?” the young waiter replies, “You talk like an old man yourself”. The time is so precious for the aspiring young man that he tells the deaf old man, “You should have killed yourself last week”.
As a man grows old, time becomes a burden, particularly when sleep deserts him. This must be the implied meaning in the story. In a Freudian sense, the old man in the café must be seen as a man carrying in his subconscious self a vast accumulation of sins, for which the only alternative is brandy or suicide. The young man stays in the café as it is inevitable for him to make money. He works in that unpleasant place only for money. When the other waiter tells him that the old man has enough money, he wonders why then he should commit suicide. He sees everything in terms of money. Money for him brings happiness and not despair. Only the old can realize the futility of everything, including money.
Taking all these conflicting views between the old and the young, one can see that the story at a deeper level deals with appearances and reality. What is a reality for the young man is sure to turn into an illusion when he reaches old age. It may be this fear which prompted him to say “I wouldn’t want to be that old”. The old man does not like crowded and noisy places like bars, though he is deaf, because he knows that this life is only “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.
The story also touches upon the meaning and meaninglessness of life, as seen by the characters of different ages. The old man does not argue or protest when he is asked to go. Instead, he gives tips to the young man and silently leaves the place. He knows the limitation of existential choices. On the other hand, the old waiter tries to argue and convince the young waiter, though he knows it is futile.
The story thus analyzes the human character in the light of the change in age and experience. Happiness and despair must be seen about the character, age, and place. Man becomes insular and selfish when existential problems like money press him, as is seen in the young waiter. At the same time, freedom and lack of responsibility make man compassionate and lonely. The confidence and the desire to live on come from a true man-woman relationship.
There must be someone waiting, to return to, to add substance to life, as is the case of the young waiter. Otherwise, what waits for him is the thought of death, or the perpetual dependence on brandy, as is the case of the old man. The old waiter says, “It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too… deliver us from nada; pues nada”.
Old men in Hemingway stories are mostly “code heroes”, and the old men in this story is also a tutor leaving many things for the young to learn. He has already lived his life and the cool acceptance of death he shows is a fine example for the young to imitate.
He is ready to leave the world the way he leaves the café. His “world-weary detachment is a part of Hemingway’s mood” (Egbert). The young waiter, on the other hand, is not a drinker, or a bullfighter, or a boxer, wasting his life in brothels like his counterparts in other Hemingway stories. He is eager to reach home, instead, and join his wife waiting in bed. Aging is a theme Hemingway always likes to deal with, and he is a master in that. His style in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is conversation and understatement, as is the case in all his stories.
Hemingway Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. 2008. Web.
Oliver, Egbert S. American Literature, 1890 – 1965, An Anthology. New Delhi: Eurasia Publishing House, 2000.