A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by

Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Summary

In a quiet café, an old deaf man decides to stay late into the night to get drunk. The young waiter serving him is frustrated that he’ll be stuck at the café serving the old drunk instead of at home in bed with his wife, a grievance he airs to the older waiter working with him. The older waiter, however, sympathizes with the old drunk, highlighting the fact that the man tried to commit suicide the week before. He imagines that it must be nice for the old drunk to stay up late in a quiet, clean, well-lighted place.

Eventually, the old drunk waves the young waiter over to ask for more brandy, which irritates the young waiter even more. When he arrives to take the order, the young waiter warns the old man that he will get drunk. The old man, however, does not reply, and the young waiter reluctantly returns to get a saucer and some brandy. While pouring the brandy, he tells the old waiter that he wishes the old drunk would have killed himself—then he repeats this sentiment to the old drunk himself, who cannot hear the young waiter since he is deaf.

The young waiter and the old waiter discuss why the old man tried to kill himself. While the younger waiter argues that he's "lonely" or that old people have nothing to live for, the old waiter speculates that the suicide attempt was not from loneliness or destitution, but rather out of despair about the meaninglessness of life. Moreover, the old waiter finds the old drunk to be admirable in his manner: he is dignified in the face of meaninglessness and despair, as he doesn’t get drunk in an unseemly way. To this, the young waiter replies that the old waiter is “talking nonsense.”

After requiring the old drunk to leave the café, the young waiter finishes his conversation with the old waiter and leaves as quickly as possible. The old waiter, however, continues the conversation with himself, trying to locate the reason for both his empathy for and his fear of the old drunk. He decides that both his empathy and fear spring from his knowledge that “it was all a nothing and man was a nothing too.” In other words, he decides that what’s bothering him is how the old man’s behavior reminds him of the meaninglessness of life. Upon this realization, he recites the Lord’s Prayer, swapping out many of the words with “nada.” He also recites the Hail Mary, swapping out words for nothing: “Hail Mary, full of nothing. Nothing is with thee.”

After finishing his soliloquy, the old waiter decides to go to a bar to get a drink. After telling the barman he would like “nada” to drink (and getting called a crazy person), he decides that, like the old drunk, he does not want to get drunk in a dirty place. In order to face meaninglessness with dignity, he needs a quiet, clean, well-lighted place. He then goes home and waits until the morning to fall asleep.