The older waiter and the old drunk man share the perspective that, since life is meaningless, people should seek comfort, dignity, and enjoyment. The younger waiter, by contrast, is always too hurried to enjoy the present moment—he seems to think that he can impose meaning on his life through work or family. Hemingway depicts this difference in perspective not as an innate feature of their personalities or values, but rather as a difference based on their ages. The young waiter is naïve—he doesn’t have enough life experience to give up on finding meaning and focus on finding comfort instead—while the older men have learned over time that the best way to live is to prioritize comfort and dignity. This suggests that wisdom comes inevitably with age, and that the worldview of the old should be taken seriously by virtue of their experience.
The old waiter and the young waiter’s perspectives on the old drunk reveal their attitudes towards aging. The young waiter says of the old drunk, "I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing." To this, the older waiter replies, "Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him.” A little later Hemingway completes the thought. “The [old] waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.” While both the young and old waiters agree that growing old can be lonely and difficult, the older waiter recognizes the value of dignified living and he respects the way that the old drunk has aged, since it shows his wisdom and dignity.
In contrast, the young waiter cannot see the old drunk for who he is at all. He senses that the old drunk’s loneliness contributed to his suicide attempt, but his empathy stops there. “He’s lonely,” the young waiter says. “I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.” Therefore, the young waiter fails to empathize with the drunk man because he himself has never experienced what that man has gone through, demonstrating a weakness of youth.
Hemingway then compares the values of youth with the values of age. After the old waiter makes a joke about the young man’s certainty that his wife is, in fact, waiting for him in bed, the young waiter replies that he is confident that she is. “You have youth, confidence, and a job,” answers the old waiter, “You have everything.” But by virtue of having “everything,” the story suggests the young waiter fails to understand the nothingness that is at the core of life. That having “everything” prevents the waiter from understanding life is clear from his inability to understand the old drunk’s suicide attempt and the old waiter’s beliefs about the virtues of living with dignity. The young waiter believes that the old waiter is talking “nonsense,” since he doesn’t understand how dignity could coexist with everything being lost. For the young waiter, dignity is found in doing things of consequence, which accounts for his constant hurry. However, through the wisdom and simple enjoyment that the old men exude, Hemingway suggests that it’s only once everything is inevitably lost through time and aging that people become wise and knowledgeable enough to grapple with how they should spend their days.
Youth and Age ThemeTracker
Youth and Age 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.
“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."
“What is an hour?”
“More to me than to him.”
“An hour is the same.”