Study Guide

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Summary

By Ernest Hemingway

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Summary

Two waiters are, um, waiting to close up their café for the night. They only have one customer left – an old man, deaf, drunk, and seemingly peaceful. He's a regular at the café, and the waiters seem to know all about him. Apparently, the old man attempted to hang himself the previous week, but was stopped mid-suicide by his niece. The older waiter and younger waiter debate the possible cause.

Meanwhile, a soldier walks by with a young woman, presumably out beyond curfew. The waiters wonder idly if he will get picked up by the guard, but decide that it doesn't matter, as long as he gets what he wants from the girl.

The old man asks for another drink, and the younger waiter goes to serve him, disdainfully commenting that the old man should have killed himself (this is no Mr. Sensitive). Watching the old man from afar, the two waiters return to their conversation about the his attempted suicide. The younger waiter thinks that old age is a terrible thing, but the older waiter disagrees – after all, this particular old man is still clean and proper, even when he's drunk. The old man signals for yet another drink, but this time, the younger waiter refuses, saying that they have to close up for the night. The old man carefully pays and leaves, drunk but dignified.

As the two waiters close up shop, they continue to argue mildly about the old man, and about people who "need" the café to stay open. The older waiter sympathizes with these people – he recognizes that sometimes someone might need to take refuge in a "clean, well-lighted place," rather than a dark, dim bar or bodega.

After the younger waiter hurries off home to his wife, the older waiter takes his time, continuing their argument in his mind. He realizes that life, when it comes down to it, is simply meaningless – and that we all need a brightly lit, pleasant place to sit to avoid thinking about the dark demons of death and nothingness. He stops at a bar, but finds that it's not to his liking, and continues home, ruefully commenting that his malaise is probably just insomnia.

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