A Clean Well Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway is a cryptic short story about a deaf man in a bar late at night with the waiter getting frustrated with him because he wishes to go home. The dialogue slowly turns to two waiters who inject a symbolic exchange. This entire piece of full of symbology and is in my opinion a story up the the interpretation of each individual reader. “In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. In this sequence we see the first comparison made between light and darkness, and we see the daytime being described as dusty and the in the night the dew eliminated the dust.
This state of moistness or lubrication perhaps represents a state of mental lubrication, free from the dullness of the day. It’s also interesting that a deaf man would be able to tell the difference between the sounds of the day and sounds of the night. In my opinion this means that at night when it’s expected to be desolate the man feels more at home than he does in the daytime when there is expected to be commotion. “Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said. “Why? ” “He was in despair. ” “What about? ” “Nothing. ” “How do you know it was nothing? ” “He has plenty of money. “” This is a humorous dialogue about the condition of money vs happiness. The man is described as being in despair, but yet they know now what he has to be despaired about if he has means to provide him happiness. However they do not see the true ironic sadness of the situation.
A old man is sitting alone in a cafe at night downing shots of brandy. It is obvious to the reader that the old man does not have a very pleasant life. They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him. ”
This is the second time the “shadow of the leaves of the tree” is mentioned, this is demonstrative by the author that this is important and essential symbology to understand. Obviously the eaves can produce no real shadow since it’s night, however since it is under an electric light the leaves produce a false shadow from a false light. The legal definition of false light is a “portrayal that is highly offense to a reasonable person” but not so much so that it’s defamation. This allows the old man sitting there to perhaps portray himself as offensive to the waiter, as we will see in a later exchange, but not so much so that he defames himself. The man is also able to view from the terrace the soldier and the women passing by. This might be the man looking down and reminiscing on memories of old.
Another exchange that struck me was between the two waits discussing the events of the attempted suicide of the man. “”He’s drunk now,” he said. “He’s drunk every night. ” “What did he want to kill himself for? ” “How should I know. ” “How did he do it? ” “He hung himself with a rope. ” “Who cut him down? ” “His niece. ” “Why did they do it? ” “Fear for his soul. ” “How much money has he got? ” “He’s got plenty. ” This exchange shows the audience the severity of this mans drinking, and drinking almost goes without symbology itself as an expression of relieving anything from stress, to recreation, to wallowing in pity.
They again fail to recognize the plight and sorrow this man has, they suffer from a delusion that this man’s great wealth brings him joy and happiness, however again we can tell that it doesn’t. The waiter’s also state that the man’s niece who came and saved him did so out of fear for his soul, not fear for his life, but fear for his soul. To me this is indicative that this man’s life is in such a sorrowful that it’s not worth saving, but his soul is all that remains of him, and the only thing that is worth saving of him.
Again we see in the continued dialogue between the two waiters, and we see the more they speak the more they reveal about this man. They also continue to speak about him in a false light, that is being offensive without defamation. “”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. ” “His niece looks after him. You said she cut him down. ” “I know. ” “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. ” “I don’t want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work. ” The man stays up late because he is lonely, and had a wife, but the other waiter speaks of him in a false light because he says “A wife would be no good to him now” which would be in my opinion considered offensive. They also speak ill of his age, however the other waiter defends him by saying he is clean and doesn’t spill, even while drunk. Being clean represents the man exercising a lack of vulgarity, and he is civilized and dignified by not spilling, even in a compromised state of being intoxicated.
They also continue to be offensive to him by one of the waiters stating “I don’t want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work” The exchange between the two waiters further reveal the reason and life behind the lonely man in the cafe. “”Why didn’t you let him stay and drink? ” the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. “It is not half-past two. “”I want to go home to bed. ” “What is an hour? ” “More to me than to him. ” “An hour is the same. “
“You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home. ” “It’s not the same. “No, it is not,” agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry. “And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour? ” “Are you trying to insult me? ” “No, hombre, only to make a joke. ” “No,” the waiter who was in a hurry said, rising from pulling down the metal shutters. “I have confidence. I am all confidence. ” “You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older waiter said. “You have everything. ” “And what do you lack? ” “Everything but work. ” “You have everything I have. ” “No. I have never had confidence and I am not young. ” “Come on.
Stop talking nonsense and lock up. ” “I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night. ” “I want to go home and into bed. ” The hurried waiter speaks that he wishes to leave so he can get some sleep, and they reveal that the extra hour saved by the waiter meant more to the man than it did to the waiter. The two waiter’s eventually get into the topic of having youth and confidence, where one states that he has great confidence and youth and the other says he has never had confidence and is not young.
This statement reveals more about the nature of the old man, showing that the old man lacked youth and confidence that he used to have, and drinks to regain what’s left of his dignity and pride, as demonstrated earlier. The older waiter also states that he doesn’t desire to leave earlier, as to provide a sebastion of hope and light for those who need it, like the deaf man. The waiter thinking to himself while sitting at the bar shows us the real reason why the deaf man tries to commit suicide, and the real reason why a clean and well-lighted place is needed in the middle of the night. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.
You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. We see here now that the man wanted to end his life because it was nothing and he was nothing, and that a empty hollowness that he had.
He did not despair and was not in grief, but simply felt an emptiness and only a clean well-lit place such as this cafe provided. In closing we find the older waiter conversing with himself “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia.
Many must have it. ” We find here that this older waiter does to some extent feel the same emptiness as the old man does. He find the daylight as a time to sleep, opposite of normal. He finds the daytime as a lack of activity, and the night as a time for activity. The waiter is in some ways institutionalized and imprisoned to the service of those who feel empty. After all of this we find the significance of all of this imagery and symbolism we see the story of a man whose life has essentially finished it’s course, only that his heart remains beating.
We see a man who is often looked down upon because of the extent of his drinking and is seen in a “false light”. We find a man who does not drink to forget or drink to remember or drink because he is in sorrow or grief, but he drinks because of nothing. He drinks because he feels nothing and experiences nothing. We find that his wife and days of youth and confidence have left him and not he has absolutely nothing. This man and many others like this find cafe’s such as this one that are clean and well-lit to be bastions and beacons of hope to those who have this feeling of nothingness.
Courtney from Study Moose
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