Contemplating Nihilism in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”

“It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree made against the electric light” (opening lines).

Late at night, an old man sits in a cafe in the shadow of a tree while drinking brandy. Two waiters, one older and one younger, sit inside and talk about the old man. According to rumor, the old man was once married, and now he is deaf. He recently tried to commit suicide by hanging himself but was rescued by a relative. He is perhaps eighty years old. The younger waiter wants to close the cafe for the evening and hurry home to his wife (it is around 2:00am), while the older waiter sympathizes with the old man. The young waiter is a busybody, while the older waiter embraces the serene quiet that only comes at nighttime.

In youth, young men believe they know everything, they possess everything, and the world exists for the taking. The older generation seeks simplicity while things are slowly taken away from them (i.e. the old man’s deafness):

“‘You have youth, confidence, and a job,’ the older waiter said. ‘You have everything'” (382).

The young waiter’s ‘everything’ is contrasted with the nothingness (or ‘nada’) contemplated by the older waiter. Their clean cafe is lit only by mechanical lights. Not unlike Praxagora at the beginning of Aristophanes’s Assemblywomen, the technology of electric light in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” illuminates certain truths not visible during the day. And what are these truths? The story echoes James Joyce’s The Dead in its contemplation of darkness and emptiness (Joyce once praised Hemingway for “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” as the greatest short story ever written). The cafe becomes a refuge from the creeping sense of darkness, the nihilism that is felt in somber moments of silence. The older waiter sees the dignity in the old man, and he ponders an inversion of the Lord’s Prayer –“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada” (382).

We are, at first glance, led to pity the old man sitting outside the cafe, however in another light we may also take pity on the young waiter -a busy man, and a married man, who is incapable of slowing down while the dust settles in the evening to contemplate the nature of things. Modern man, an endlessly busy and industrious creature, is not necessarily the most sympathetic or compassionate human archetype. The young waiter seems to have no patience for the old man and he also has no time for the quiet and contemplative nature of the night. The clean well-lighted place is a safe-haven from the emptiness and it is not meant for everyone. Is the clean well-lighted place merely a home for fearful escapists? Or is it a place where some people may desire to confront the emptiness in a comfortable manner? Perhaps the cafe sits on the edge of nothingness. The old man drinks alcohol in an effort to find calm for himself but also to discover a sense of honesty (i.e. “in vino veritas”) while on the edge of reality.

The antidote to our modern age of nihilism is an orderly society, or a clean and well-lit place. The cafe is clean and somewhat well-lighted (despite the waiter spilling over the old man’s cup with brandy) and it is contrasted with the bodega at the end of the story which is described as well-lighted, but not decidedly not clean. The cafe is a more welcoming space for certain people. The philosophy of the future is compassionate, and Hemingway offers us the chance at comfort, especially in old age or when gazing out into the void.

“A Clean Well-Lighted Place” was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1933. Scribner’s Magazine was a periodical of Scribner’s Publishers that operated from 1887-1939.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories. New York, Scribner, 1955.

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