“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”: The Time of Despair
“This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town; And beats high mountains down”. Much like J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of that famous riddle from The Hobbit, Earnest Hemingway believes that time is a predator; ultimately everything that has a beginning has an end, and in time it will fade from all memory. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, Earnest Hemingway portrays the theme of Time through dynamic contrasting imagery and ironic tone.
Hemingway employs contrasting imagery to display the struggle between light and dark throughout the story. The old and deaf man constructs his sanctuary at this clean and well-lighted café, yet he sits within the shadows of the trees in the darkness. Hemingway introduces the contrasting ideas of light and dark: “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.” The very same place the old man seeks refuge is where he hides in the shadows, drinking and feeding his depression and misery. The old waiter is empathetic with the old man, understanding and acknowledging the implicit nature of time. The old waiter is conscious of the future, and recognizes the glum truth that everyone dies alone. The young waiter however, thinks only in the present, and is selfish and impatient. Hemingway shows the disparity in the perception of time between the two waiters: “I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a Nasty thing.” To which the old waiter replies “Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, Drunk. Look at him.” Time is the ruler of maturation, and while on the surface the old man appears to be useless, his presence at the café gives it meaning. Just like the soldier’s night with the prostitute will only temporarily solve his need for companionship, the cafe can only provide...
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