A Clean, Well Loghted Place- Survival Through Irony

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"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" has with justice been considered an archetypal Hemingway story, morally and aesthetically central to the Hemingway canon. But its crystalline structure and sparse diction have led many critics to judge the story itself a simple one, either about nothingness, "a little nada story," or about the author's positive values, a story "lyric rather than dramatic." I would like to suggest that it is in neither sense simple, but that the feelings and ideas which lie behind it are complex and are expressed dramatically, chiefly through the characterization of the older waiter. The latter is a man of enormous awareness continually torn between what might be called religious idealism and intellectual nihilism, a combination that surfaces in irony in several places in the story. This tension between two modes of viewing the world is developed through imagery that functions as a setting, through characterization, and, more abstractly, through a theme which I take to be the barriers against nada. The most obvious source of imagery is the words of the title, the qualities of light and cleanness, to which one may add quietness. These terms admirably illustrate what Richard K. Peterson calls the "use of apparently objective words to express values"; they may be followed with profit throughout Hemingway's stories, novels, and non-fiction. But in this story each of these qualities exists also in its negative aspect, its shadow side. Light provides the most striking image pattern. The cafe has an "electric light" that the older waiter eventually turns off. A street light is picked up by the brass number on a passing soldier's collar. The older waiter is "with all those who need a light for the night." The cafe where he works is "well lighted"; its "light is very good." In the bodega where he buys coffee "the light is very bright and pleasant." After going home he would be able to sleep "with daylight." Obviously, light is not only the antithesis of darkness but an effective barrier against it, or, rather, as Randall Stewart puts it, the light "at any rate, must be made to do." But it is stated twice that the patron, the old man, "sat in the shadow of the leaves," and the older waiter likes the cafe not only because its light is good but because "now there are shadows of the leaves," Further, the old man particularly liked sitting in the cafe at night because "the dew settled the dust" of the day and "it was quiet and he felt the difference," though he was deaf. Here shadow clearly has a positive connotation, in the sense of shade, of protection from the glare of the light, perhaps because the light is artificial but more likely because any direct light hurts the eyes and exposes the person. In addition, the night is clean and quiet, positive values contrasted to the day's dirt and noise. The older waiter is equally concerned that his "place" be clean. He contradicts the younger waiter's remark that "an old man is a nasty thing" with "this old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk." In contrast to the younger waiter, who wipes "the edge of the table with a towel" to emphasize that the old man should leave, but earlier had poured brandy so that it "slopped over and ran down the stem into the top saucer of the pile," the older waiter emphasizes several times the necessity of cleanness. Bars and bodegas are open all night, and they have light, but one cannot "stand before a bar with dignity, with correctness." Its natural occurrence, however, is at night, when "the dew settled the dust." Its negative aspect is even more evident in that statement of the younger waiter that "an old man is a nasty thing," which, as a generalization, the older waiter does not contradict. Since age, as opposed to youth, is specifically associated in this story with greater awareness and sensitivity, in Hemingway terms "imagination," cleanness may be linked with ignorance and insensitivity. The third positive quality of...
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