An old man sits alone at night in a café. He is deaf and likes when the night grows still. Two waiters watch the old man carefully because they know he won’t pay if he gets too drunk. One waiter tells the other that the old man tried to kill himself because he was in despair. The other waiter asks why he felt despair, and the first waiter says the reason was “nothing” because the man has a lot of money.
The waiters look at the empty tables and the old man, who sits in the shadow of a tree. They see a couple walk by, a soldier with a girl. One of the waiters says the soldier had better be careful about being out because the guards just went by. The old man taps his glass against its saucer and asks the younger waiter for a brandy. The younger waiter tells him he’ll get drunk, then goes back and tells the older waiter that the old man will stay all night. The younger waiter says he never goes to bed earlier than 3 a.m. and that the old man should have killed himself. He takes the old man his brandy. As he pours it, he tells the old man that he should have killed himself, but the old man just indicates that he wants more brandy in the glass.
The younger waiter tells the older waiter that the old man is drunk, then asks again why he tried to kill himself. The older waiter says he doesn’t know. The younger waiter asks how he did it. The older waiter says he tried to hang himself and his niece found him and got him down. The younger waiter asks why she got him down, and the older waiter says they were concerned about his soul. The waiters speculate on how much money the old man has and decide he’s probably age eighty.
The younger waiter says he wishes the old man would leave so that he can go home and go to bed with his wife. The older waiter says that the old man was married at one time. The younger waiter says a wife wouldn’t do him any good, but the older waiter disagrees. The younger waiter points out that the old man has his niece, then says he doesn’t want to be an old man. The older waiter points out that the old man is clean and drinks neatly. The younger waiter says again that he wishes the old man would leave.
The old man indicates that he wants another brandy, but the younger waiter tells him they’re closing. The old man pays and walks away. The older waiter asks the younger waiter why he didn’t let him drink more because it’s not even 3 a.m. yet, and the younger waiter says he wants to go home. The older waiter says an hour doesn’t make much difference. The younger waiter says that the old man can just drink at home, but the older waiter says it’s different. The younger waiter agrees.
The older waiter jokingly asks if the younger waiter is afraid to go home early. The younger waiter says he has confidence. The older waiter points out that he also has youth and a job, whereas the older waiter has only a job. The older waiter says that he likes to stay at cafés very late with the others who are reluctant to go home and who need light during the nighttime. The younger waiter says he wants to go home, and the older waiter remarks that they are very different. The older waiter says he doesn’t like to close the café in case someone needs it. The younger waiter says there are bars to go to, but the older waiter says that the café is clean and well lit. They wish each other good night.
The older waiter continues thinking to himself about how important it is for a café to be clean and well lit. He thinks that music is never good to have at a café and that standing at a bar isn’t good either. He wonders what he’s afraid of, deciding it’s not fear but just a familiar nothing. He says two prayers but substitutes “nada” (Spanish for “nothing”) for most of the words. When he arrives at a bar, he orders a drink and tells the bartender that the bar isn’t clean. The bartender offers another drink, but the waiter leaves. He doesn’t like bars, preferring cafés. He knows that he will now go home and fall asleep when the sun comes up. He thinks he just has insomnia, a common problem.
Character Analysis The Old Man – A deaf man who likes to drink at the café late into the night. The old man likes the shadows of the leaves on the well-lit café terrace. Rumor has it that he tried to hang himself, he was once married, he has a lot of money, and his niece takes care of him. He often gets drunk at the café and leaves without paying.
The Older Waiter – A compassionate man who understands why the old man may want to stay late at the café. The older waiter enjoys staying late at cafés as well. He thinks it’s very important for a café to be clean and well lit, and he sees the café as a refuge from despair. Rather than admit that he is lonely, he tells himself that he has insomnia.
Like the old man, the older waiter likes to stay late at cafés, and he understands on a deep level why they are both reluctant to go home at night. He tries to explain it to the younger waiter by saying, “He stays up because he likes it,” but the younger waiter dismisses this and says that the old man is lonely. Indeed, both the old man and the older waiter are lonely. The old man lives alone with only a niece to look after him, and we never learn what happened to his wife. He drinks alone late into the night, getting drunk in cafés. The older waiter, too, is lonely. He lives alone and makes a habit of staying out late rather than going home to bed.
But there is more to the older waiter’s “insomnia,” as he calls it, than just loneliness. An unnamed, unspecified malaise seems to grip him. This malaise is not “a fear or dread,” as the older waiter clarifies to himself, but an overwhelming feeling of nothingness—an existential angst about his place in the universe and an uncertainty about the meaning of life. Whereas other people find meaning and comfort in religion, the older waiter dismisses religion as “nada”—nothing. The older waiter finds solace only in clean, well-lit cafés. There, life seems to make sense.
The older waiter recognizes himself in the old man and sees his own future. He stands up for the old man against the younger waiter’s criticisms, pointing out that the old man might benefit from a wife and is clean and neat when he drinks. The older waiter has no real reason to take the old man’s side. In fact, the old man sometimes leaves the café without paying. But the possible reason for his support becomes clear when the younger waiter tells the older waiter that he talks like an old man too. The older waiter is aware that he is not young or confident, and he knows that he may one day be just like the old man—unwanted, alone, and in despair. Ultimately, the older waiter is reluctant to close the café as much for the old man’s sake as for his own because someday he’ll need someone to keep a café open late for him.
The Younger Waiter – An impatient young man who cares only about getting home to his wife. The younger waiter is usually irritated with the old man because he must stay late and serve him drinks. He does not seem to care why the old man stays so long. His only concern is leaving as quickly as possible.
Brash and insensitive, the younger waiter can’t see beyond himself. He readily admits that he isn’t lonely and is eager to return home where his wife is waiting for him. He doesn’t seem to care that others can’t say the same and doesn’t recognize that the café is a refuge for those who are lonely. The younger waiter is immature and says rude things to the old man because he wants to close the café early. He seems unaware that he won’t be young forever or that he may need a place to find solace later in life too.
Unlike the older waiter, who thinks deeply—perhaps too deeply—about life and those who struggle to face it, the younger waiter demonstrates a dismissive attitude toward human life in general. For example, he says the old man should have just gone ahead and killed himself and says that he “wouldn’t want to be that old.” He himself has reason to live, and his whole life is ahead of him. “You have everything,” the older waiter tells him. The younger waiter, immersed in happiness, doesn’t really understand that he is lucky, and he therefore has little compassion or understanding for those who are lonely and still searching for meaning in their lives.
Themes Life as Nothingness In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway suggests that life has no meaning and that man is an insignificant speck in a great sea of nothingness. The older waiter makes this idea as clear as he can when he says, “It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too.” When he substitutes the Spanish word nada (nothing) into the prayers he recites, he indicates that religion, to which many people turn to find meaning and purpose, is also just nothingness. Rather than pray with the actual words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” the older waiter says, “Our nada who art in nada”—effectively wiping out both God and the idea of heaven in one breath. Not everyone is aware of the nothingness, however. For example, the younger waiter hurtles through his life hastily and happily, unaware of any reason why he should lament. For the old man, the older waiter, and the other people who need late-night cafés, however, the idea of nothingness is overwhelming and leads to despair.
The Struggle to Deal with Despair The old man and older waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” struggle to find a way to deal with their despair, but even their best method simply subdues the despair rather than cures it. The old man has tried to stave off despair in several unsuccessful ways. We learn that he has money, but money has not helped. We learn that he was once married, but he no longer has a wife. We also learn that he has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to quell the despair for good. The only way the old man can deal with his despair now is to sit for hours in a clean, well-lit café. Deaf, he can feel the quietness of the nighttime and the café, and although he is essentially in his own private world, sitting by himself in the café is not the same as being alone.
The older waiter, in his mocking prayers filled with the word nada, shows that religion is not a viable method of dealing with despair, and his solution is the same as the old man’s: he waits out the nighttime in cafés. He is particular about the type of café he likes: the café must be well lit and clean. Bars and bodegas, although many are open all night, do not lessen despair because they are not clean, and patrons often must stand at the bar rather than sit at a table. The old man and the older waiter also glean solace from routine. The ritualistic café-sitting and drinking help them deal with despair because it makes life predictable. Routine is something they can control and manage, unlike the vast nothingness that surrounds them.
Motif Loneliness Loneliness pervades “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and suggests that even though there are many people struggling with despair, everyone must struggle alone. The deaf old man, with no wife and only a niece to care for him, is visibly lonely. The younger waiter, frustrated that the old man won’t go home, defines himself and the old man in opposites: “He’s lonely. I’m not lonely.” Loneliness, for the younger waiter, is a key difference between them, but he gives no thought to why the old man might be lonely and doesn’t consider the possibility that he may one day be lonely too. The older waiter, although he doesn’t say explicitly that he is lonely, is so similar to the old man in his habit of sitting in cafés late at night that we can assume that he too suffers from loneliness. The older waiter goes home to his room and lies in bed alone; telling himself that he merely suffers from sleeplessness. Even in this claim, however, he instinctively reaches out for company, adding, “Many must have it.” The thought that he is not alone in having insomnia or being lonely comforts him.
Symbols The Café The café represents the opposite of nothingness: its cleanliness and good lighting suggest order and clarity, whereas nothingness is chaotic, confusing, and dark. Because the café is so different from the nothingness the older waiter describes, it serves as a natural refuge from the despair felt by those who are acutely aware of the nothingness. In a clean, brightly lit café, despair can be controlled and even temporarily forgotten. When the older waiter describes the nothingness that is life, he says, “It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” The light it in the sentence is never defined, but we can speculate about the waiter’s meaning: although life and man are nothing, light, cleanliness, and order can serve as substance. They can help stave off the despair that comes from feeling completely unanchored to anyone or anything. As long as a clean, well-lighted café exists, despair can be kept in check.