Study Guide

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

By Ernest Hemingway

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"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

  • An old, deaf man sits alone, drinking and enjoying the silence of the empty café. Two waiters observe him from afar – they're keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn't walk out without paying.
  • One of the waiters comments that the old man tried to commit suicide the previous week.
  • The waiters discuss the possible causes for the old man's suicidal tendencies – apparently, he was in despair over nothing.
  • A soldier and a girl pass by; the waiters wonder if the soldier (who's out past curfew) will get caught by the guard. One of them decides that it doesn't really matter, as long as he gets what he's after – presumably sex.
  • The old man signals to the waiters and asks for another drink. The waiter that serves him cynically comments that the old man should have just killed himself last week, and rather resentfully pours the man another brandy.
  • The waiters resume their conversation about the suicide attempt – the old man tried to hang himself, but was cut down by his niece, who takes care of him.
  • They return to the topic of the old man's motivations; he has plenty of money, but is old (around eighty).
  • The impatient waiter says that he wants to get home to his wife; he can't understand why the old man has to hang around so late.
  • The impatient waiter is disgusted by old age, but the other waiter has a certain respect for the old man – after all, he's a clean drunk, and doesn't even spill a drop of his brandy.
  • The old man asks for yet another brandy. This time, though, the impatient waiter says no and sends him home. The two waiters watch as the old man pays and walks away. Even though he's drunk and a little unsteady, he's still dignified.
  • The calmer of the two waiters asks why the impatient waiter sent the old man away – it's not closing time yet.
  • The impatient waiter replies that he's in a hurry to get home and go to bed. The other waiter doesn't let this go; he doesn't think that another hour is a big deal.
  • The impatient waiter wonders why the old man can't just buy a bottle and drink alone at home. However, both waiters agree that it's not the same as having a drink in the café.
  • The unhurried waiter, who we learn is older, pokes fun at the younger waiter, asking if he's not worried about getting home earlier than expected – the implication is that his wife might not be ready for him to get there, and perhaps might be having an affair.
  • The younger waiter, however, doesn't take this bait; he's young, confident, and happy about his life.
  • The older waiter claims that while the younger waiter has everything, he has nothing but work – he says that he was never confident, and is no longer young.
  • The older waiter says that he is like the people who need to stay late at the café; he can understand why they have to do so. The younger man reminds him that there are plenty of bars and bodegas to hang out in, but they won't do. The older waiter is only interested in cafés like theirs, which is clean, well-lighted, and pleasant.
  • The younger waiter goes home, but the older one lingers, thinking and walking through the streets.
  • The older waiter continues thinking about the ideal café – bright, clean, and pleasant. The light is necessary; without it, it's too easy to get bogged down in the nothingness of a meaningless life. He sees the world, and man, as "nada" – only the light can keep these dark thoughts at bay.
  • The older waiter stops at a bar; the barman asks what he wants, and he replies, "Nada."
  • The barman dismisses him as "Otro loco mas" – just another crazy. The waiter orders a small cup of coffee.
  • The waiter notices that the bar is bright and pleasant, but not clean; it doesn't fit his criteria. The barman, uninterested, doesn't respond.
  • The waiter makes his way home, where he will stay up all night alone, and not fall asleep in the morning. He wonders if his troubles are just insomnia, deciding that many people probably have the same problem.

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