“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” depicts three men—a young waiter, an older waiter, and an old, deaf drunk—trying to determine how to spend their night. Each character reveals their posture toward the meaning of their existence through their attitude towards spending time in the café in which the story is set. The young waiter is eager to go home to his wife, which reflects his feeling that meaning comes from keeping busy and maintaining the socially-expected balance between work and family. The older waiter and the old drunk, however, both want to remain at the café late into the night, which shows that they’ve accepted that they can’t give their lives larger meaning, so their time is best spent making themselves as comfortable as possible. Ultimately, Hemingway favors the view of the older men—that, in the face of meaninglessness, people should spend their time feeling comfortable and dignified, as the two older men feel in the clean, well-lighted café.
The young waiter, who thinks that there is no reason to stay at the café, draws purpose and meaning from clearly-defined obligations. He wants his job and his family to be in balance, so he rushes the old drunk out of the café so that he doesn’t have to stay at work too late. By portraying the young man as brash and impatient, however, Hemingway discourages readers from adopting his perspective. During the waiters’ conversation about the old, deaf drunk man’s suicide attempt, the young man comes off as callous and even cruel. He says directly to the old drunk that he “should have killed [himself] last week,” a feeling that the young waiter seems to express purely because he is impatient to get home to his wife and get some rest. Even though the old drunk can’t hear him, the young waiter’s spiteful attitude shocks the reader into disliking him.
Furthermore, Hemingway depicts the young waiter as petty in his belief that the old drunk has “no regard for those who must work.” While it’s true that it’s much past midnight and the old drunk man is the only café patron left (and therefore the only reason that the waiters must stay at work), the usual hour at which the café closes has not yet arrived, so the old man’s behavior is not explicitly disrespectful of the waiters’ time. Beyond that, the young waiter—whom Hemingway describes as “the waiter who was in a hurry”—seems indifferent to the man’s despair, caring only for his own desire to go home early. In general, the young waiter comes off as being preoccupied and petty, unable to empathize with the old man or slow down and enjoy his own night.
The older waiter and the old drunk, however, are unhurried and seem to take pleasure in the simple things: both men prefer “a clean, well-lighted place” to enjoy instead of going home to be alone at night. Hemingway encourages readers to take the views of the older men seriously, since their life experience gives them insight into the fact that one should prioritize comfort and dignity in the face of life’s meaninglessness.
Hemingway makes clear that both older men find life meaningless through the drunk man’s suicide attempt and the older waiter’s response to it. After the young waiter leaves, the old waiter asks himself what it was about the old drunk’s suicide attempt that makes him afraid. “It was not fear or dread,” he says, “It was a nothing he knew all too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too.” This suggests that the older waiter finds the idea of death familiar—the nothing of death is essentially the same as the nothing of life, suggesting a uniform meaninglessness. In this way, the old drunk and the older waiter share an attitude about meaning, which is why the older waiter can empathize with the old drunk (as he clearly does when he tells the younger waiter that he doesn’t like to close the “pleasant café” for people who like to stay out late).
Furthermore, the old drunk and the older waiter seem to grapple with their understanding of meaninglessness in similar ways. While the old drunk is clearly more perturbed (as he’s abusing alcohol and attempting suicide), both men are conspicuously unhurried to do anything else in their lives, and both men enjoy the small pleasures and comforts of the moment. The old drunk, for example, enjoys sitting “in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light,” which the older waiter completely understands. When the young waiter suggests that the old drunk could go to a bodega, which is open all night long, the old waiter says that the young waiter does not understand the value of enjoying one’s time in a quiet, clean, well-lit place like the café. This suggests that the older waiter, like the old drunk, finds it important to make sure that every moment in life is comfortable and pleasant, while the younger waiter is more goal-oriented, as he believes that, since the old drunk would be able to drink at either a bodega and a café, the experience would be interchangeable. Hemingway suggests that the older men treat life’s meaninglessness in the right way. They’re not focused on goals, or grudges, or keeping busy; instead, both older men enjoy the moment they’re experiencing and seek out the small pleasures that make them feel content in the face of nothingness.
Meaning and Meaninglessness ThemeTracker
Meaning and Meaninglessness Quotes in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
Everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.
“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.”
“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."
The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.
“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the old waiter said. “You have everything.”
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.