While Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is usually interpreted as an intensely poetic description of despair, it can with equal validity be seen instead as mankind’s never ending yearning to find spiritual peace. Hemingway’s short story displayed this emotional journey in many different ways. First, the title itself is a symbol for man’s desire to find a state of tranquillity, safety, and comfort. Hemingway also showed this in the story’s setting, which was used as a symbol for a sense of order, for it was late, the cafe was empty, and the men there were at ease. Finally, Hemingway showed this desire in the contrasting actions between the young and the old to show the effects that time plays in man’s search for peace.
An added appreciation for this short story, however, can be gained through some background concerning its origins and its relationship to the author’s preoccupations. Hemingway was married four times, won the Nobel Prize in 1954, and in 1960, when he became ill, killed himself following in his father’s footsteps. Hemingway had to deal with despair, depression, and desperation for most of his life, and these feelings could be felt in most of his writings.
One of the major elements in defining man’s true desire for peace in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is the central role that is played by despair. Despair is commonly defined as a sense of hopelessness, and it is displayed in the actions of the older waiter, and in the behavior of the deaf man. The older waiter makes an astonishing revelation or epiphany with regards to the idea of despair, when he makes the statement that “I am of those who like to …
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…, because the Lord’s prayer is meant to give one hope, purpose, and a sense that everything is not all in vain. But by removing words, and replacing them with others the waiter was reaffirming his feelings of hopelessness.
One of the biggest examples of understatement that Hemingway used is when the waiter said, “After all … it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it” (383). Here Hemingway was referring to fear. Man has an inner fear or a feeling of anxiety that he may never find the peace that he is searching for. Many of us wander through life searching, longing, and seeking for a place or state of being where we will feel comfortable. Many of us long for a safe haven or “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribners, 1966.
The Powerful Images of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, By Hemingway
The Powerful Images of Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
The main focus of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is on the pain of old age suffered by a man that we meet in a cafe late one night. Hemingway contrasts light and dark to show the difference between this man and the young people around him, and uses his deafness as an image of his separation from the rest of the world. Near the end of the story, the author shows us the desperate emptiness of a life near finished without the fruit of its’ labor, and the aggravation of the old man’s restless mind that cannot find peace. Throughout this story stark images of desperation show the old man’s life at a point when he has realized the futility of life and finds himself the lonely object of scorn.
The most obvious image used by Hemingway in this story is that of the contrast between light and dark. The cafe is a “Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. It is a refuge from the darkness of the night outside. Darkness is a symbol of fear and loneliness. The light symbolizes comfort and the company of others. There is hopelessness in the dark, while the light calms the nerves. Unfortunately for the old man, this light is an artificial one, and its peace is both temporary and incomplete.
“… the tables were empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind.”
Maybe the old man hides in the shadows of the leaves because he recognizes the shortcoming of his refuge. Perhaps he is drawn to the shadows so that the darkness of his own age will not be so visible as it would be in the full force of the electric light. His body is dark with the effects of illness. Even his ears bring him a sort of darkness as they hold out the sounds of the world.
The old man’s deafness is also a powerful image used in the story. “…the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he could feel the difference.” Deafness shuts the old man out from the rest of the world. In the day, everything must be a reminder to him of his disconnection from the world.