The clean, well-lighted café of the story's title is its central image. This kind of café is a kind of idealized space; in it, even the loneliest, most despairing of men can find some kind of comfort. The café represents a space in which one can escape from troubles – in this case, from the despair of everyday life. The older waiter explains why these specific elements are necessary in his ideal space: he needs the café to be clean and quiet (music is absolutely out), and most importantly, he requires a lot of light. But why? What does that light do for these characters? Why can't the older waiter or the old man be content to sit in a dimly-lit bar to drink undisturbed?
The answer is simple – light chases away the dark. You know that feeling of insecurity and dread that can creep in at night? That's what these characters are feeling; the older waiter expresses it best when he describes the awful nothingness of life – "nada y pues nada y pues nada" (14). Nothing can offer him comfort, and this vast spiritual emptiness is overwhelming. Hemingway suggests that only the light of a pleasant café, and the numbing effect of drunkenness, can push away the dark realization that we are all nothing.