Ernest Hemingway’s, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” was first published in Scribner’s American Literary Magazine. This was a magazine intended for Americans who were interested in literary works and current events. It reached its peak of success during the First World War. A lot of its content had to do with the war and politics. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has a message that is metaphorical, and the reader must really work to find the meaning. It uses the concept of nothingness to make a comment on the way our society views life. This piece is successful in this activity system because it forces the reader to think critically and analyze metaphors, something people interested in literary works would have a field day with. The fact that this magazine focused a lot on WWI makes this piece successful as well. During the First World War, many people thought that society had taken a turn for the worse and the world was a dark place. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” coincides with this way of thinking, and therefore, many people would find interest in this piece.
This piece is difficult to criticize without knowing the meaning first. Hemingway asserts that society’s construct of reality is essentially meaningless through an epiphany reached by an old waiter. Jobs, material possessions, human relationships, even the Gods we pray to are social constructs that only hold value because we give them value. At the end of the day the only thing we can depend on is ourselves. The rest is nothing. The world is nothing. However, this is a harsh reality to come to terms with. He presents the clean, well-lighted place as a way of seeing this reality and coping with it. Hemingway develops this idea through metaphor, irony, and allusion.
Hemingway’s use of irony throughout this piece is beautiful. He plays with the meaning of the words nothing and everything. Two waiters are waiting to close down their cafe, however there is an old deaf man who will not leave. The old man recently tried to commit suicide after his wife died. One waiter asks the other why the old man did it, and this is the interaction:
"He was in despair."
The word play here is almost palpable. At face value, it seems that there is not a thing wrong with the old man. However, when we reach the end of the piece and find that Hemingway is asserting the world we live in is nothing, we are forced to look at this interaction in a new light. The meaning changes and we see that the old man’s realization of the world being nothing has brought him to this suicide attempt. His wife has died and he has realized that human relationships add up to nothing in the end. It is such a strong, dark realization. We find our heads racing when we re read this interaction. Hemingway’s use of simple language, verbal irony, and understatement causes this. He is conveying huge, monumental information in such a simple way. It brings cognitive dissonance to our heads as readers. Nothing comes to mean everything, to define everything in this world.
The use of verbal irony creates a sense of dark comedy here as well. I couldn’t help but smile at this back and forth because there is so much meant by the simple word, “nothing.” The younger waiter does not see this and the reader finds a sense of comedy in the sarcastic understatement.
Hemingway later uses irony with the idea of everything. The old waiter says to the young waiter:
“You have youth, confidence, and a job. You have everything.”
At first glance, this seems like a genuine statement. This young waiter has a job, a wife, confidence, a schedule-in a world of social constructs he has everything. However, it comes to be ironic when the old waiter comes to his epiphany. This young man has everything, but everything in this world is meaningless so he, essentially, has nothing. He is clearly still tied up in social constructs, so he doesn’t even have the realization that his everything is nothing. He is ignorant. We come to realize the old waiter was, again, being sarcastic. We see this sense of dark comedy brought up again through verbal irony and understatement.
Hemingway uses a very successful allusion to religion in this piece to further his point:
“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is 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.”
This is clearly an allusion to the common prayers Our Father and Hail Mary. He is making the assertion that even the God we pray to is nothing. It is a social construct that we have given value too, just the same as everything else. This is such a powerful allusion because this was published in an American magazine. Many of the readers have said these prayers an innumerable amount of times. It really hits home. “Nothing is with thee.” That is such a painful line; it disturbs us, and leaves us with an empty feeling in our hearts. This is successful because the message that the world is nothing should disturb the reader, just as it disturbs the characters in this story. This allusion allows us to feel as the characters in the story did, and understand its message on a new level.
This powerful allusion uses a massive amount of repetition as well. Hemingway mostly employs epistrophe, in which a key phrase is repeated at the end of successive phrases. When I read this prayer, I found my head sort of blurring all the words and phrases together. There is so much nada. My head began to spin. I think this was the affect Hemingway was trying to achieve. We readers find all the words losing meaning and the only thing we can identify is nada. This reflects his message that everything in this world is nada. Everything is meaningless besides nothing. We find ourselves repeating nada in our heads over and over, it is almost like we are coming to this realization along with the older waiter.
Hemingway’s use of climax is perhaps the strongest aspect of the story. He saves the climax for the very end. Everything in the story builds toward this old waiter’s inner dialogue. He recites his version of the Our Father, reveals his epiphany, and the reader’s mind is blown. We are forced to go back and re read the story in a new light. This imitates the process that the old waiter would have gone through after coming to his realization. He would go back through is life and view everything in a different way. He would see through the fake relationships and the unneeded stresses he put himself through. We go back through the story and see the old waiter’s use of sarcasm. We see the hidden meaning behind his words. We are forced to re-evalute the entire story just as he was forced to re-evaluate his entire life. Hemingway uses plain language, but the climax at the end gives these plain words an incredibly complex meaning.
Hemingway writes at a grade level of 3.6 with a Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score of 91.4. However, this is a short story comprised of conversation and a stream of thoughts. It only makes sense to use simple language because it’s realistic. These are waiters at a café; they are not going to speak with a Harvard vocabulary. This waiter is a normal person, going through a normal day, coming to a life-changing conclusion. It makes the realization more realistic and relatable. It hits us more and we find ourselves reflecting on our own lives, analyzing our own “nothingness.” The beauty of the piece comes from the way Hemingway uses simple writing to reveal monumental concepts. He creates double meanings through irony, metaphor, and climax. It is absolutely brilliant. This is definitely a successful piece for a literary magazine audience.
However, there are still questions to be raised about this piece. When I finished reading I found myself wondering why a clean, well-lighted place would help the characters cope with this realization. Why would being in a café somehow make things better? Is the clean, well-lighted place a physical place? Or a mental construct, a way of thinking? There is also the timeless question of who said what? The beginning of the story is comprised of mostly dialogue, but the lines are not assigned to a specific character. The audience is left to guess which waiter is saying what and build two different characters in their mind. Why the confusion? This was obviously done on purpose. Was it to create cyclical quality throughout the piece? Maybe, it doesn’t matter who is saying what because one day the young waiter will come to the same realizations the older waiter has? There are many questions left unanswered, but I think that is part of the magnificence of the piece. It is so complex. It keeps us guessing and coming back for more. We can’t stop thinking about it.
By: Erin O'Connor