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“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899. He was the son of Dr. Clarence Edmonds and Grace Hall Hemingway. He grew up in a small town called Oak Park, Illinois. Hemingway was brought up in a somewhat conservative household by his parents who pushed the value of politeness and religion. It was not until he began English classes in school that his writing talent began to shine.

After he graduated from high school, Hemingway turned his back on university and he decided to move to Kansas City. It was there where he got his first job as a writer. He was a reporter for the Kansas City Star. The Star was the first to introduce to him the news-writing format, which demands brief, to the point sentences and the smooth flowing of ideas. It seems that Hemingway adapted this style to his fiction writing. Hemingway demonstrates this talent in a short story called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”.

This is a story about lonely old men who have place to go when darkness falls. The cities and villages must be full of such men, who drink in search of the sleep that will not come, and crowd into dirty café as a way to deny the quiet desperation which can lead them to an even more abrupt self-destruction. The piece is beautifully crafted, with the story within a story underscoring the ubiquity and commonality of the tales of lonely old men. The young waiter, impatient, to get home to his wife, does not understand the significance of his cafe to this old man’s man. The older waiter, who does understand, walks into the night himself, unable to find his own clean, well-lighted place in which to pass a lonely and sleepless night.

The most evident forms used by Hemingway in this story is that of the distinction between light and dark. The cafe is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. It is a shelter from the darkness of the night outside the cafe. Darkness is a symbol of fear and loneliness. The light portrays comfort and the company of others clients. There is despair in the dark, while the light calms the nerves. Unfortunately for the old man, this light is an artificial one, and its peace is both momentary and imperfect.

Maybe the old man hides in the shadows, because he recognizes the weakness of his shelter. Or may be he is drawn to the shadows so that the darkness of his own age will not be as visible as it would be of the electric light. Hemingway describes old man body as a dark with the effects of illness.

The old man deafness is also a powerful symbol used in the story. Deafness closes the old man from the rest of the world. During the day, everything has been a reminder to him of his separation from the rest of the world. The traffic, the stores, the noise from the cafes along the street, the sweaty animals, and the full streets fill the town with noise all day long. The old man knows this and realizes that he is completely separated from the sounds that he hadn’t thought much of as a young man. In this cafe, so late at light, he is not missing much. Practically, he prefers to miss the conversation about him between the two waiters. The younger waiter is disgusted by the old an. The same thing he may have been thought about the old man when he was young. One might even conclude that the old man chooses to be deaf rather than to face the nastiness of senility and hear the words of scorn spoken by his juniors.

Another tool used by Hemingway in this story is the symbol of Nothing. Nothing is what the old man wants to escape. The older waiter, who sometimes acts as the voice of the old man’s soul, describes his colleague:
“The Nothing is a relentless monotony, unbroken by joy or sorrow. It is unending emptiness without comfort or companionship of man or God. It is the senselessness of each heart-beat that is just like the last and refuses to give in to death. The old man’s loneliness is empty. His days of retirement without useful work or purpose are empty. The emptiness of a life without progress of meaning is Nothing, and this Nothing afflicts the old man with a powerful grip. The only escape from this Nothing is blissful unconsciousness, permanent only in death.”

The old man's and death is further discussed through the metaphor of insomnia and sickness, which he evidently shares with the older waiter, insomnia keeps the two awake through the hours of darkness, just as a persistent life keeps the old man breathing when he would rather die. In the second paragraph of the story, the older waiter informs the younger that their elderly customer had tried to commit suicide the week before. The old man is racked with despair – at his loneliness, the darkness of his life, his isolation from the world, and the Nothingness that penetrate in his existence. He wants rest, but it is withheld from him. Even when he tries to take his own life, his niece cuts him down from his noose. Peace is far from this man, and what little relief he may find is incomplete like the artificial light of the cafe. He tries to get drunk with whiskey, but that also fails to bring him rest. There is only left the hope that, as drunk as he is, he may pass out when he arrives home.

This story is filled with symbols of hopelessness. The contrasts between light and dark, youth and age are cruel. The end of the short story desert the story with a feeling that there is no escape from the depression of the last years of older man life. Perhaps it is author’s own terror of old age and infirmity that he is trying to share with the reader.

Word count: 998

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