Analysis: James Joyce once said: “Hemingway has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”? It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written.”
It would be difficult to argue with Joyce.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is an intake of breath. It fills your lungs with icy air, expanding, the sharpness prickling your chest, and then it emerges as a sigh -- a lonely, forlorn sound of utter despair.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is about the fear of death – our collective terror at the shadows that surround the edges of life. It is about loneliness and emptiness and feeling like no one understands you or even cares to understand you. It is about the inability of human beings to connect with each other.
Hemingway’s critics – and there are many – fail to separate the man from the artist. Hemingway the man became a buffoon; a performer on the world stage who at the end of his life became a parody of himself. But Hemingway the artist was genius, but you need to remove the myth of the man from the beauty of his prose.
Hemingway wrote about a dozen novels, but his short stories are where his concise, economical style shone through. He was a master of the unspoken – evoking powerful emotions from what was being said between the lines. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is just such a work. On the surface, the story is about two waiters and an old man; a simple, even mundane, portrait of a few hours at a café along a dirt road.
But there is so much more lingering at the edges, crackling in the dialogue, and in the way Hemingway captures the humanity of his characters. The stage is set in the opening lines of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
“It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man like to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.”
The young waiter is impatient – a cocky young man with a job, a wife, and a lot of confidence. He is frustrated that the old man sits at the café drinking all night long; keeping him at his post when he’d rather be sleeping next to his wife. He fails to understand that the old man comes to café for solace – it is a safe haven against the cruelties of life and his pending death.
The older waiter understands it perfectly. He is the old man’s kindred spirit. “You do not understand,” he tells the younger waiter. “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”
Yes, the older waiter is saying, here is life and safety, but even here we will be reminded of death.
Hemingway takes “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” a step further as the older waiter goes to a bar for a night cap. He recites the “Lord’s Prayer” to himself and replaces all the nouns with the Spanish word “nada” – nothing. It is a kick in the teeth to religion – an acknowledgement by Hemingway that there is no great beyond – no clean, well-lighted place after life ends.
There is only nothingness.
The story ends like a heart-wrenching melody: “Now, without thinking further, he would go home o his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said, to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”