Existentialism is a philosophy about life that says being is more important than the indispensable everyday occurrences. It acknowledges an individuals freedom to choose and says with this knowing there comes an immense sense of responsibility. Despair, hopelessness and anxiety are characteristic of a person struggling with existential thoughts. Nihilism sums up this condition by stating that all values are baseless, nothing is foreseeable and that life itself is meaningless.
The characters in A Clean Well Lighted Place and A Day’s Wait show signs of being both aware and unaware of these elements of existentialism. In the first story, A Clean Well Lighted Place, the old drunk man represents someone who realizes he has no actual plan or fate. His despair is over the realization that theoretically the afterlife does not exist. The drunken man and older waiter share this despair not only because they both realize a man’s need for a clean, well-lighted place but also because they both struggle to fill a void.
The older waiter’s acknowledgement of nothingness in life is evident when he recites the prayer but fills in the perceived nouns God and heaven with nada or nothing. He feels a void with this realization that keeps him awake at night. His assumption that others share his insomnia is somewhat correct but what they, the drunken man and the waiter, actually share is a void. The young waiter has a wife to go home to and a bed, the old drunken man has a bed to go to and a niece that looks after him.
However, the young waiter has a connection with his wife, a perceived similar view of life while the old drunk bares his anxious perception of the world alone because he is well aware that no one can share his world with him. His peculiarity reinforces his aloneness because the more he tries to understand himself and his own choices the farther out of reach he is from another person. The old drunken man serves as a catalyst for the older waiter, who himself is also alone in his thoughts.
The young waiter cannot understand why the old man feels despair if he has wealth. He is not aware of the statement that existence precedes essence. To him having money and all the other propaganda of a well-lived life are what is important not mere existence itself. The two older characters seem aware of this notion, yet they seem to struggle because they are uneasy with the void felt after having life’s propaganda and no meaning.
The young waiter’s daily disturbances block him from reaching this realization because he does not have the secured survival that would leave him to question existence. People who have their food, shelter and clothing taken care of like say the elite are able to delve into more thought concerning the afterlife and life’s meaning. Edna, our character in The Awakening, never worked nor worried about survival and so faced existential anxiety. Children, usually the more sensitive and observant types, may find the time amidst their carefree playing to wonder why they are here and what may come afterwards.
The boy, in A Day’s Wait, becomes ill and he takes the illness as a threat to his immortality. He seems upset yet oddly mature about this perceived fate. His mature handle on the possibility that he might die is, in my opinion, a sign that he has thought about the afterlife. His maturity is obvious when he tells his father he does not mind if he leaves the room and when he would not allow anyone to come near him for fear that the illness will spread. The boy has little fight in him and he seems aware that dying is out of his control.
His morbid attitude affects his father who shares his son’s anguish over the acknowledgement that afterwards there is nothingness. The father laughs at his son’s misconception about the temperature but in his walk, I sense he knows what his son is dealing with. When he is pleased to find the covey near the house after killing two birds, I think Hemmingway is hinting towards the father’s sensitive mood. The boy may not exactly coin his thoughts as “existential”, though he more or less may have an instinctual knowing of the meaninglessness in existential thought.