Ernest Hemingway originally published "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in 1926, but the story appeared again in 1933 in Winner Take Nothing, a collection of Hemingway short stories. In only a few pages, the story deals with several of the hard-hitting themes we see in many of Hemingway's works – namely, loneliness, isolation, and the futility of modern society. Critics often see these themes emerge as reflections of the cultural and spiritual malaise of the disillusioned, post-World War I Western world. This story, with its suggestion of war (the presence of the soldier and the guard) and disconnected, lonely characters, manages to bring three vast concepts – loneliness, age, and death – to the reader in an incredibly effective, tragic yet subdued way. And, because Hemingway is Hemingway, he manages (amazingly) to do it in under 1,500 words.
You've all probably heard the depressing expression "Nothing is certain but death and taxes." In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Ernest Hemingway one-ups (or shall we say one-downs?) this grim proverb, by swapping out taxation and replacing it with something even worse: loneliness. Though the characters we meet in the story are all in different stages of life, we know that the same fate awaits all of them – and, by extension, perhaps all of us.
What is this universal fate, toward which Hemingway thinks we're headed? Well, death, naturally – but before it comes for his characters, they're doomed to a kind of living purgatory, simply waiting to die. The old man tries to hurry along this process by hanging himself, but his niece thwarts him by cutting him down. Since suicide doesn't work out, he is forced to keep living a sort of half-life, drunk and lonely.
Right about now, you may be wondering what the point is of this story – is it simply to tell us what we already know, that we're all going to grow old and die some day? Well, yes, that's part of it, but not all. The other important part is the fact that Hemingway wants his characters to accept this fate with dignity; the old man certainly does, and we see the older waiter in the process of coming to terms with it. The younger waiter, however, resists the idea that he could be that old man some day – like many of us – he thinks that his youth and confidence will last forever. However, the story gloomily concludes that these valuable things are ultimately, like everything else, defenseless against the overwhelming nothingness of existence.