Cathedral and Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Among the similarities will be found a style of brevity and compression in both writers, a style of using simple words and a plot in which on the surface very little happens, at least until we look at the use of symbolic devices and careful choice of words that convey a depth of meaning. Specifically the following pages will trace how the symbolism of light and darkness in Hemingway’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and the symbolism of the eyes, that is, insight and blindness as well as the cathedral itself in Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” allows us into an inward journey from callousness of the narrator given to stereotyping by race and disability to a profound and unexpected change in the way he views the world as a redemptive journey to empathy and positivebrelationships.

. By contrast, Hemingway’s cafe may be clean and well-lighted, yet it is surrounded symbolically by a darkness that makes its characters immobile, passively awaiting their fate, ultimately alone in the terror of darkness.

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​It must be remembered though that the spare style, tendency for understatement was specifically learned by Carver from Hemingway. He wrote a long essay reviewing some biographies and then concluded on a note honoring his predecessor whose style he had adapted; “How clear, serene and solid the best work still seems; it's as if there were a physical communion taking place among the fingers turning the page, the eyes taking in the words, the brain imaginatively re-creating what the words stand for and, as Hemingway put it, '’making it a part of your own experience.

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’” ( Carver, 1985) This has several aspects. Foremost is a careful attention to how words convey an attitude as we will find in ‘nada” of the Hemingway story, and in its symbolic references to light and darkness, while in Carver how eyes are compared to blindness in an ironic turn by which the blind see clearly with the mind’s eye compared to the distortion of seeing with prejudiced eyes in Carver’s tale. Sadeq and Al-Badawi (2016) tell us about its character which is quite similar from Hemingway, his acknowledged predecessor. “Throughout this short story, Carver does not weigh the story down with details about characters, time, and place,” they explain.” In fact, aside from the name Robert and the dead wife, Beulah, no names are mentioned. Instead, he leaves the reader to focus on the character’s journey to enlightenment, and fill in whatever gaps they feel are necessary to complete the story in their minds.”

A principal difference is that Hemingway presents the events objectively, from the outside, concentrating on physical objects, gestures and words looked at from the outside like a precise scientific description compared to Carver allowing us to witness directly the deep changes evident in his narrator by following his changing thoughts without intruding or explaining lets us into the intimacy of the subjective, the narrator’s mind by the first person point of view able to convey the wholesome transformation from bigotry towards understanding and acceptance the man.

​Common to the two stories is the astonishing simplicity of the plot. The setting is an ordinary café, and only three perfectly ordinary characters, an old man, deaf and drunk, a younger and an older waiter attending the sole guest, refusing or perhaps fearful of leaving the place of light for darkness enveloping him like the flickering shadow of trees symbolically reminding us of some horror the old man is feeling. The story employs the most imple words and sticking to facts n a less-is-more spirit in which what is contracted somehow projects in all kinds of directions full of meaning.

​In Hemingway’s “Clean Well-Lighted Place”, characters so impersonal that we are not told their name are waiting to close their café, but the last customer, an old man stubbornly stays put, as he does every night trying the patience of the younger waiter watching over a single customer who will not leave and allow him to return to his wife waiting in bed for him Eventually, the old man leaves and the waiters discuss why people seek the light in cafes. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral’ is similarly very simple in its plot. The narrator has all kinds of stereotypes and prejudices, rather shocking his wife by his callousness and suspicion. For many years earlier, his wife had met a colored man called Robert who was blind and married to a woman with the colored name of Beulah,

Earlier, a source of his suspicion, the narrator’s wife wife allowed her face to be touched , a means by which the blind may “see” with their finger. That led to intimate but proper exchange of tape-recording, all of which bewilders the narrator at the start of the story. That the blind man would drop by creates a crisis that is symbolically resolved when the narrator helps Robert draw a cathedral. Then experiencing blindness, he puts himself in the other person’s position an experiences for the first time the wonders of empathy. These are the bare details in which great depth of meaning is evoke

But how can such a simple stories be so full of meaning? It is done through the power of literary devices by which each word has multiple symbolic and metaphoric references while retaining an earthly quality as simple thought or talk. Considerable emphasis is placed on words of the most common type taking on in the course of the unfolding of the story great symbolic resonance. Of special interest are small words employed strategically as devices by which, for example, the narrator’s irritation with his wife for an unwelcome visit by her friend Robert that he always refers to as “the blind man”, diminishing the person to construct a stereotype.

Similarly, the narator’s initial alienation from his wife and the houseguest, her friend, is underlined by pronoun ‘them’ that is applied contemptuously equally to his houseguest and to his wife, in this way distancing himself from his wife, and putting himself in the alienated position of the characters in “A Clean , Well-Lighted Place” Eanes (2014) sums it up, “This not only emphasizes the disconnect he sees within the relationship between himself and his wife, but also his desire to create distance between himself and Robert, the thing he attempts to emasculate in order to make himself feel more masculine.” That feeling of inadequacy is a key psychological component in his disproportionate rage when looked at from the psychological point-of-view, found as well in Hemingway’s story

​In Hemingway’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Place, we feel deeply the waiter’s depression and despair which has so many symbolic meanings:

“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 naday pues nada.Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will benada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us ournada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us fromnada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

There is in him sympathy for lonely men, “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.” Once a religious praise of God, testifying to a belief that has become an absence or emptiness, in short, “nada there is now nothing , neither another human being or God to depend on to light the way and ease the burden.

​By contrast in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral’, there is an example of a loving relationship altogether lacking in Hemingway’s cafe. The narrator, an insensitive male astonishingly oblivious to his wife, given to prejudices, wonders at the fierce love that the blind man has or a woman with a colored name of Beulah had taken over from his wife the care of the blind man who married her in a church without social approval “a little wedding—who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place?—just the two of them, plus the minister and the minister’s wife.” Clearly, they faced social disapproval. But it was a church wedding, because he wanted to please her and when she passed away of cancer eight years later , she passed away she passed away, his loving hands in hers..

‘They’d married, lived and worked together, slept together—had sex, sure—and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding.” He is like then younger waiter of Hemingway’s story, unable to comprehend a loving, caring human relationship. The point though is that the blind man’s love for his wife shows us at the very least that it is possible, that in some ways the blind man who sees with his heart thrives where the deluded husband blind to the value and deeply mistrustful of his wife suffers. (Berina,2014)

​Also worthy of note, the husband with narrow, racist views, ignorant and fearful of blindness, had need to comprehend still another loving relationship between his wife and Robert, the blind man, which began when she allowed him to touch her face as a form of loving communication which continued in the form of long exchanges of tapes. That leads to another difference. Hemingway is objective focusing on gestures , objects and exchanges in a single cafe setting, whereas we follow the mental journey of the narrator allowing us to an inwardness , a psychology. There is in this a journey toward a reaching out. The narrator sharing marijuana opens up, and to his wife’s astonishment, finds the wonder of the human world of shared experiences as he guides the hand of the blind man to draw a cathedral, an experience of overcoming “nada”, the feeling of emptiness for the fullness of life in which human relations thrive.( Sadeq and Al-Badawi, 2016)

This is an important difference between the stories with both husband and wife coming together through the loving agency of a blind man which also involves personal growth and maturation which is not even hinted at in Hemingway’s story. As an example, having drawn a cathedral, eyes shut like a blind man, even when Robert tells the newly-born narrator to open his eyes and look at what he has drawn, he keeps his eyes closed and shows that experiencing another’s blindness opens the heart to give the formerly narrow and fearful person a new sense of freedom and release. Seeing while blind, and being blind while having eyes is a deep irony in the symbolic devices employed in the story. (Simes, 2008 )

A blind man wanting to learn the architecture of a cathedral has in it something of a religious feeling altogether absent in Hemingway’s short story. “it’s really something” is how the narrator describes his experience which has something in it of the transcendence and religious awe associated with cathedrals in which men and women gather in communion specifically excluded in “ A Clean Well-lighted Place’. Eddin Sadeq and Mohammed A-Badawi call it a kind of realization that comes on suddenly and utterly changes the individual called “epiphany’.

As a symbol, light is important to religion as we shall shortly witness at Christmas, or in any culture and religion. The coming weeks will bring joy to many, but despair and suicide to others. The thought involves how we reach for the light, but sometimes live in darkness, which is isolation, a hell on earth especially prominent in this story in which a deaf and drunken old man, alone with his thoughts, is commented on casually by waiters. The story begins with an image of an old man seeking light against the shadow cast by a tree and drinking. It is a metaphor that immediately identifies how in the light of the cafe, he is still cast in a world of darkness. That is how behind the simple plot is a tragedy in powerful words and images. “Everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light,” is a beautiful sentence.

​Phillip Young tells us how that feeling of emptiness expressed in such simple way grows in power until it seems overwhelming to all that is alive under a particularly fearful condition of a universe empty of the kind of light that faith provides, or even having someone care. The older waiter has empathy, for he seems to have no one at home to return to unlike the young waiter

The great skill displayed in the story is the development, through the most carefully controlled understatement, of the young waiter’s mere nothing into the old waiter’s Something-Something called Nothing, which is so huge, terrible, overbearing, inevitable, and omnipresent that, once experienced, it can never be forgotten. Sometimes in the day, or for a time at night in a clean, well-lighted place, it can be held temporarily at bay. What links the old waiter and the old patron most profoundly is their brotherhood in arms against this beast in the jungle.” ​It is a kind of despair in the face of aging and death in Hemingway that we see above in a universe empty of meaning which sets “A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ apart from “Cathedral” in which there is found the possibility of change and redemption.

Updated: Jan 20, 2022
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Cathedral and Clean, Well-Lighted Place. (2022, Jan 20). Retrieved from

Cathedral and Clean, Well-Lighted Place essay
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