A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Old Waiter Character Analysis

The old waiter, the story’s protagonist, is the older of two waiters at a clean, well-lighted café. Hemingway depicts the old waiter as kind, dignified, and wise in his belief that, since life is meaningless, one must prioritize being comfortable and dignified above all else. Because the old waiter understands the importance of small pleasures, he is sympathetic toward an old drunk who likes to stay up late drinking at his café. While the younger waiter hurries to get home, the older waiter is unrushed; he doesn’t want to be anywhere else because he recognizes that lingering at the café is a pleasure. The old waiter is shown to be empathetic, since he carefully considers what led the old drunk to attempt suicide the week before, imagining what it must be like to be 80 and without a wife. He decides that “nothing” was the cause for the attempted suicide—life’s meaninglessness, in other words. He then recites a version of the Lord’s Prayer that replaces many words with “nada,” suggesting that he, too, thinks there is no reason for anything. The old waiter’s own actions mirror the old man’s; when he goes for a drink at the nearby bar after his shift, for example, he quickly leaves because its shabbiness fails to provide him with the atmosphere necessary to feel comfortable and dignified, which are his priorities in life.

Old Waiter Quotes in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

The A Clean, Well-Lighted Place quotes below are all either spoken by Old Waiter or refer to Old Waiter. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Simon and Schuster edition of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place published in 1987.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Quotes

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.
“Why?”
“Because he was in despair.”
“About what?”
“Nothing.”

Related Characters: Old Waiter (speaker), Young Waiter (speaker), Old Drunk
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:
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“I wish he would go home. I never get to bed before three o’clock. What kind of hour is that to go to bed?”
“He stays up because he likes it.”
“He’s lonely. I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.”
“He had a wife once too.”
“A wife would be no good to him now.”
“You can’t tell. He might be better with a wife.”

Related Characters: Old Waiter (speaker), Young Waiter (speaker), Old Drunk
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

“I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing.”
“Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him."

Related Characters: Old Waiter (speaker), Young Waiter (speaker), Old Drunk
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.

Related Characters: Old Waiter, Old Drunk
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

“What is an hour?”
“More to me than to him.”
“An hour is the same.”

Related Characters: Old Waiter (speaker), Young Waiter (speaker), Old Drunk
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the old waiter said. “You have everything.”

Related Characters: Old Waiter (speaker), Young Waiter
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada and our daily nada and nada us our nada as nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

Related Characters: Old Waiter (speaker)
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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Old Waiter Character Timeline in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

The timeline below shows where the character Old Waiter appears in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
Despair Theme Icon
The old waiter tells the young waiter that the old drunk tried to kill himself last week. When... (full context)
Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
Youth and Age Theme Icon
...to his colleague, he asks again why the old drunk tried to kill himself. The old waiter says, “how should I know.” Then, in response to more questions, he reveals that the... (full context)
Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
Youth and Age Theme Icon
...again about the late hour. The old drunk “stays up because he likes it,” the old waiter responds, and the young waiter calls the drunk “lonely,” in contrast to himself, since he... (full context)
Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
Youth and Age Theme Icon
The older waiter asks the younger waiter, “Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” The young waiter... (full context)
Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
Youth and Age Theme Icon
Once the young waiter leaves, the old waiter continues the conversation with himself, wondering why he feels fear when contemplating the old drunk’s... (full context)
Meaning and Meaninglessness Theme Icon
Despair Theme Icon
When he finishes the prayer, the old waiter smiles and gets a drink at a nearby bar. He tells the bartender that he... (full context)