Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” centers around the conversation of two waiters in a comfortable, homey Spanish cafe. They are discussing one of the regulars, a quiet, dignified old man who comes into the cafe every evening and runs up a tab which he is careful to pay before leaving for the night. He has, we discover, recently attempted suicide.
The younger of the two waiters is impatient with the old man; he just wishes the customer would quit drinking and go home, so that the waiter could go home too. He cannot relate to whatever causes the old man to nurse so many drinks over so long a period, night after night, in the quiet cafe. He especially cannot fathom what could have led the old man to attempt suicide, because the old man “has plenty of money,” and the young waiter cannot imagine a source of despair any more profound than a shortage of ready cash.
The older waiter, on the other hand, understands despair only too well. He is saddened when the young waiter insults the old man (regardless of whether or not the old man heard his remark, it is heartless anyway) and is even more grieved when the young waiter closes the cafe and sends the old man away. As he says to the younger waiter, “You have youth, confidence, and a job. You have everything.” The old man, on the other hand, has nothing—no one to go home to, nothing to look forward to, no pleasure left in life except the small comfort of being able to spend a little time in a clean, well-lighted place.
After the younger waiter leaves to go home to his waiting bride, the older one “continue[s] the conversation with himself.” He knows the value of his cafe; when you have nothing else to live for, a place like that can be a small fortress against the huge, all-encompassing darkness of existence. It is an illusion, but a necessary one. What lies beyond the warm glow of the cafe is nothingness: a great existential nothingness that turns the Catholic faith in a loving God into a horrible travesty. It is too horrible to contemplate that kind of nothingness all the time; sometimes it is necessary to simply muffle it in something lovely and warm, like his cafe.
What is so special about this very short story is the way Hemingway manages to evoke the universal and timeless dichotomy between the young waiter, who, with his whole life ahead of him, is “all confidence” and the elderly patron of the cafe who realizes there is literally nothing to live for. The pivotal character here is the older waiter, who, unlike the young waiter, realizes that the world is “nada and pues nada” (nothing and more nothing), but who nonetheless has the stoicism to keep on living.
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