Study Guide

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Mortality

By Ernest Hemingway

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"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

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. (14)

The older waiter comes face to face with some kind of concept of mortality here, realizing that the line between life and not-life is a fine one – all there is, as he sees it, is "nada y pues nada y pues nada" (nothing and then nothing and then nothing).

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.


"He was in despair."

"What about?"

"Nothing." (2)

"Nothing" seems like an inconsequential thing here – but by the end of the story, we see that the concept of nothingness takes on a whole new depth. The nothingness of the world as the older waiter and the old man see it might in fact be a real cause for suicide.

Younger Waiter

"What did he want to kill himself for?"

"How should I know."

"How did he do it?"

"He hung himself with a rope."

"Who cut him down?"

"His niece."

"Why did he do it?"

"For his soul." (9)

This is curious – the older waiter asserts that the old man tried to kill himself "for his soul." We wonder if he might somehow be trying to save his soul by dying, and thus escaping the crushing reality of mortal life.

The Old Man

The old man looked at him. "Another brandy," he said.

"You'll be drunk," the waiter said. The old man looked at him. The waiter went away.

"He'll stay all night," he said to his colleague. "I'm sleepy now. I never get into bed before three o'clock. He should have killed himself last week."

The waiter took the brandy bottle and another saucer from the counter inside the cafe and marched out to the old man's table. He put down the saucer and poured the glass full of brandy.

"You should have killed yourself last week," he said to the deaf man. (6-7)

The lack of seriousness about death that the younger waiter displays shows his naïveté – at this early stage in his life, death isn't a serious issue, and he's not afraid of it.

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