Hemingway thinks that he has an answer, or at least a partial answer, to despair. The older characters in the story neither ignore their lives’ meaninglessness nor succumb to pure indifference. Instead, they come to terms with the fact of despair by deliberately countering its effects—namely, by finding comfortable places in which they can enjoy themselves and by prioritizing finding dignity. While this offers none of the comforting measures of, say, the Catholic faith of the person who confidently recites the Lord’s prayer, it serves a similar function: providing a means of living with purpose and peace. By highlighting the old men’s approaches to life in the midst of meaninglessness, Hemingway gives a roadmap for how to assuage despair.
It's important to note that Hemingway does not connect the cause of despair with loneliness or poverty. The old drunk is neither entirely alone, because he lives with his niece, nor is he destitute, as the old waiter clarifies. Instead, the old drunk’s suicide attempt and the old waiter’s fear stem from their mutual recognition that life is without meaning. Both require a drink to “swallow” this truth, of course, but they likewise confront that reality by acting in a dignified manner.
In other words, the old men practice the very habits Hemingway offers as a counterweight to despair. Both the old drunk and the old waiter seek out a quiet place over a loud place, a clean place over a dirty place, and a well-lighted place over a dark place. This provides the ambiance needed not only to enjoy one’s time, but also to function in a dignified manner. While despair might lead some to abandon any concern for how they appear while drunk in public, Hemingway shows the reader an old drunk who is dignified even after a long night of drinking, and even in the face of meaninglessness. This dignity is, in a way, an act of defiance against his despair.
Despair Quotes in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.
“Because he was in despair.”
“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.”
The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.
“What is an hour?”
“More to me than to him.”
“An hour is the same.”