Study Guide

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Dissatisfaction

By Ernest Hemingway

Dissatisfaction

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Younger Waiter

"I wish he would go home. I never get to bed before three o'clock. What kind of hour is that to go to bed?"

"He stays up because he likes it."

"He's lonely. I'm not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me."

"He had a wife once too."

"A wife would be no good to him now."

"You can't tell. He might be better with a wife." (9)

This quote suggests that all good things must come to an end – it's a cliché, but hey, it's true. We learn that the old man, who now has nothing to live for except his lonely drinks in the café, once had a wife and a life of his own; however, in his old age, it's unclear as to whether or not companionship could possibly do him any good.

Older Waiter

"And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?"

"Are you trying to insult me?"

"No, hombre, only to make a joke."

"No," the waiter who was in a hurry said, rising from putting on the metal shutters. "I have confidence. I am all confidence."

"You have youth, confidence, and a job," the older waiter said. "You have everything."

"And what do you lack?"

"Everything but work."

"You have everything I have."

"No. I have never had confidence and I'm not young." (13)

The younger waiter is totally satisfied with his life – he believes in his wife and his way of living, and, like most of us, believes that his youth makes him invincible. The older waiter, however, is past this point in his life; we wonder if dissatisfaction and uncertainty are inevitable consequences of age.

"The light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished," the waiter said.

The barman looked at him but did not answer. It was too late at night for conversation. "You want another copita?" the barman asked.

"No, thank you," said the waiter and went out. He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to 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. (16-19)

In an attempt to make some sense of his profound discontentment, the waiter tries to reason with himself, saying that it's just insomnia. However, we get the feeling that it's definitely more than that – and that there are plenty of people out there with the same sense of dissatisfaction. While he could possibly have tried to sort things out more in the right place, the bar he stops at is unsatisfactory, and the older waiter has no choice but to go home to his own thoughts.

"We are of two different kinds," the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. "It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe."

"Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long."

"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves." (13)

The idea that someone might "need" the café, like the old man, suggests that the world is full of discontented, lost souls, who just need somewhere bright and pleasant to sit and escape from themselves.

Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and light. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was 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 was already nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. (14)

The older waiter's dissatisfaction stems from this realization that the world is simply "nada" – it's meaningless. The best one can do is linger in a quiet, bright place and come to terms with this fact.

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