Two waiters in a café in Spain keep watch on their last customer of the evening, an old and wealthy man who is a regular at the café and drinks to excess. They discuss the fact that he tried to commit suicide the week before, but that it could not have been over anything important because he had plenty of money.
The old man asks for another brandy and one of the waiters brings it to him. The two waiters discuss their customer further, saying his niece found him hanging himself and cut him down to save his soul, and that without a wife he must be lonely.
One of the waiters is younger than his colleague is, and expresses impatience to close up the café and get home to his wife. The other one, a middle-aged man, defends the old man, saying that he stays so late at the café every night because he has no one to go home to.
Finally, the young waiter refuses the old man’s order for another drink, and the man pays and leaves. The two waiters close up the café and the middle-aged one again rebukes the other, saying he should have let the old man stay. The middle-aged waiter says he understands the old man’s reluctance to leave, and that he is always hesitant to lock up because someone may “need” the cafe because it is clean, well lighted, and overshadowed by the leaves of trees. The young waiter boasts that he has everything: youth, confidence, and a job. The middle-aged waiter says he and his colleague are indeed different, and that he himself lacks everything but work.
The two waiters part and the younger one goes home. The middle-aged waiter goes to a bar and begins a string of introspective musings. He reveals that he is reluctant to close up the café each night because when he is alone he feels the presence of a great void, a nothingness of which he is afraid. Life, he muses, is a great nothing and a man is a nothing as well. God, he implies, is a nothing, and recites the Lord’s Prayer, inserting “nada” in strategic locations. What he needs, he says, is light, cleanness and order, an environment like the café where he works, to get him through each day.
He wanders into a bar and orders a small cup of wine. He notes to the barman that the bar is unpolished, and then he wanders out. He realizes again that he misses his own café, and predicts that he will have difficulty falling asleep. He muses on the possibility that his depression is just due to insomnia.
“A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is Hemingway’s paean to a type of existential nihilism, an exploration of the meaning, or lack thereof, of existence. It clearly expresses the philosophy that underlies the Hemingway canon, dwelling on themes of death, futility, meaninglessness, and depression. Through the thoughts and words of a middle-aged Spanish waiter, Hemingway encapsulates the main tenet of his existential philosophy. Life is inherently meaningless and leads inevitably to death, and the older one gets, the clearer these truths become and the less able one is to impose any kind of order on one’s existence or maintain any kind of positivity in one’s outlook.
The bases of Hemingway’s philosophy in this story are existentialism, a philosophical system originated in the 19th century by Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche and given full play in the post WWI years by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and nihilism, a related philosophical system popularized primarily by Nietzsche. Existentialism derives from the belief that existence is inherently meaningless and that individuals are solely responsible for giving meaning to their own lives. They must impose their own systems of values and beliefs on themselves and overcome feelings of despair and angst to live by their own values. In this way, they become “authentic” individuals by following their own principles. In existentialism, the individual is the unit of existence and the majority of existentialists reject the existence of a higher power, creator, or “God,” and they are scornful of organized religion. Nihilism is a related belief system that posits, generally, that life is meaningless, futile, and without morality, and that, contrary to existentialism, no system of meaning or morality can be imposed on it by individuals or anyone else.
Hemingway’s particular brand of philosophy in this story, as expressed by the middle-aged waiter, can be described as existential nihilism, a combination of these two belief systems. Life is meaningless and futile, he argues, and though one may try to impose meaning and order on one’s own existence, this effort eventually proves futile as death overtakes us all. Hemingway, like many of his generation, felt a sense of disillusionment and dislocation following his traumatic experiences during World War I, and his embrace of existential nihilism in this story can be seen as a reaction to this feeling.
The thoughts expressed by the middle-aged waiter track exactly with the basic tenets of existentialism and nihilism. For example, the waiter explains: “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.” This sentiment is a perfect expression of existential angst and nihilistic negation, the realization that life is emptiness, that a man’s life means nothing and that his existence signifies nothing to himself, nothing to others and nothing to the universe. The waiter then expresses his particular way of dealing with this realization: “It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” The waiter gravitates toward places that are lighted, clean, and orderly, like the café where he works; this is his way of coping with existence, his own private set of conditions that help him get through each day. However, the fact that the waiter must leave the café and go home, which depresses him and makes him unable to sleep, implies that he is unable to live his entire life adhering to this system of light, cleanness and order, and indicates the fact that his own attempt to impose meaning and structure on his life is futile. The waiter is therefore a failed existentialist, an existentialist who has succumbed to depression and despair and sunk into nihilism.
In addition, the waiter expresses a sentiment common to most existentialists and nihilists: God does not exist. “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name,” he says, echoing the Lord’s Prayer but glorifying “nada.” The repetition of “nada” throughout this comparatively long paragraph serves simultaneously to increase the intensity and urgency of the tone, and to make the entire passage sound slightly absurd.
The words and actions of the middle-aged waiter form the basic philosophical structure of “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” but Hemingway sharply contrasts his beliefs with those of the other two characters, the young waiter and the old man. Unlike the middle-aged waiter, the young waiter is in a hurry; he has something to live for, namely, getting home to his wife. He has “everything,” “youth, confidence, and a job.” He seems to have everything going for him and retains his purpose in life; he does not seem to understand the depression that has overtaken his colleague, nor why his colleague is drawn to the “clean, well lighted” café.
The old man is at a different stage of his life from both the young and middle-aged waiters. He has already tried to take his own life once because “he was in despair” over “nothing,” and stays drinking late at the café because he does not want to go home and because he is lonely. Hemingway does not give the reader as much insight into the old man’s thoughts as into those of the two waiters, so it is difficult to say whether the old man’s despair is of the existential nihilistic variety or is due to a death in the family or any number of other depressing occurrences. On the other hand, the “nothing” that he is in despair over echoes the “nada” of the middle-aged waiter’s later soliloquy, and suggests that the old man has simply gotten tired of the futility of existence and that’s why he attempted suicide.
Hemingway scholars have commented on the presence of three characters in three different stages of life as an allegory demonstrating the progression of an individual’s outlook on life as that individual gets older. At first, the individual lives confidently and unthinkingly, accepting the conventions of job and family as sufficient to give meaning to his or her (in this case, his) life, but as he gets older, he begins to question the types of meaning that have been imposed on his existence and finds them hollow. He may attempt to impose his own set of meanings and values on himself, but ultimately, Hemingway implies, he will fail and slip into the realization that life is nothing and he is nothing. Once this realization is reached and he grows old, he falls into despair at the nearness of death and the futility of his life, and may well choose to end his existence on his own terms rather than wait for events to overtake him. Perhaps, with this choice, he is finally able to take some control over his destiny.
Hemingway, it has often been observed, was obsessed with death, and that obsession can be seen clearly in this story. In fact, his philosophy as expressed by this story can be understood more clearly when considered in relation to death than in relation to life. Life is futile and meaningless because the individual cannot prevent death from overtaking him; his nihilism results not so much from wondering about the meaning of existence than from wondering about the inevitability, meaning, and purpose of death.
There is a simpler explanation for the difference between the depression felt by the middle-aged waiter and old man and the confidence felt by the young waiter: the young waiter is the only one with a wife. It is either because he has a wife or because the fact that he has a wife means that he is not lonely that the young waiter expresses some optimism in his outlook. He himself dismisses his colleague’s suggestion that the old man might be less unhappy with a wife, but this suggestion is obviously born of experience as the middle-aged waiter speaks of dreading another long, sleepless night spent alone in his bedroom. The presence or absence of a wife, however, is likely significant only because if one is alone with one’s thoughts, one is more likely to despair than if one is in company.
One interesting aspect of this story is the fact that the original edition of it seemed to mix up the lines of dialogue between the young and the middle-aged waiters in multiple places. For example, at one point, the young waiter seemed to have the information about the old man’s suicide attempt, and at another point, it was the middle-aged waiter. Hemingway designates the speaker in some of these exchanges as “one waiter,” rather than “young waiter” or “older waiter.” Some critics have dismissed this discrepancy as a typographical error or a result of Hemingway’s idiosyncratic way of writing dialogue and subsequent editions of the story have imposed consistency on the dialogue, but revisionist critics have urged that Hemingway’s original edition should be reinstated. The confusion, they have argued, was deliberately created in order to imply that the speaker could be either the young waiter or the older one; this interchangeability supports the view that the story is an allegory exploring the progression of one’s outlook on life from youth to age.
In terms of imagery, the story uses a number of contrasts to enhance its philosophical meaning: youth and age, darkness and light, cleanness and filthiness, noise and quiet, and nature (shadows of leaves) and manmade objects (coffee machine).