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The Elements of Despair in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, a Short Story by Ernest Hemingway

The feeling of depression and loneliness is a universal emotion among many people. In “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway, Hemingway tells a short story about an old man who stays late at cafes as a way to cope with depression. To do this, Hemingway effectively uses short phrases dialogue between the waiters, a well-lighted setting, and religious references to emphasize the struggle of dealing with loneliness and despair.

As the old man drinks alone at night in a cafe, the reader learns about the old man who lives alone with a niece and has tried to commit suicide through the dialogue between the older and younger waiter. Through the exchange, the more former waiter, like the old man, likes to stay late at the cafe and understands on a more profound scale to why they are hesitant to go home at night. However, the younger waiter, being insensitive and rude, cannot see anything past himself and is eager to close up and return home to his “ wife waiting in bed.” The younger waiter eagerly wants to go home to his wife and insults the old man, who is deaf, saying “You should have killed yourself last week.” The older waiter defends the old man against the younger waiter’s criticisms by pointing out that “This old man is clean… He drinks without spilling.” As the younger waiter tries to leave, Hemingway gives the older waiter the line of “You have youth, confidence, and a job… You have everything” to say to the younger waiter to reveal the difference between the older waiter (along with the old man) and the younger waiter. The younger waiter has reason to live (his wife) and his whole life ahead of him when the older waiter says “He has everything.” The younger waiter, cannot understand how lucky he is nor understands the older waiter and old man who are lonely and searching meaning to live. As the waiters conversate, the reason behind the old man’s and older waiter’s reluctance to go home becomes more coherent that they both lonely and suffer from the feelings of nothingness— an angst about their place in the universe and the uncertainty about the meaning of life.

Also, Hemingway’s use of the well-lighted setting provides the old man and the older waiter as a place to deal with their despair. The older waiter provides the detail that “this is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good.” The cafe itself represents the opposite of the theme (loneliness and depression) because of it’s cleanliness and good lighting which symbolizes order and peace. The cafe serves as a common place for many people to take refuge from despair which makes the older waiter reluctant to close up since “there may be someone who needs the cafe.” When the older waiter says “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night,” the cafe can be symbolized like a night light which provides a sense of safety for children during the night and takes them to see the next day. Later into the story, the older waiter describes the nothingness that is life saying: “It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” The “it” in the sentence assumes that although life has no meaning, light, cleanliness, and order can keep despair in check. That’s why, as long as the cafe remains open late at night, people can take refuge from the darkness of despair.

Furthermore, Hemingway uses religious references to strengthen the theme of the feeling of nothingness that leads to depression and loneliness. Hemingway substitutes the Spanish word “nada” (nothing) into the prayers he recites to imply that religion, which helps people find meaning and purpose, is nothingness. Rather than saying the actual prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven,” the older waiter says, “Our nada who art in nada” which takes out both God and the idea of heaven. He, which the reader can assume that he does not believe in religion, mocks religion with prayers filled with the word “nada” to show that religion is not a viable solution to dealing with despair compared to the well-lighted cafe. Seemingly, religion is the way to find meaning to live but proves to be ineffective for the older waiter and the old man.

All in all, Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” consist of short phrases dialogue, a well-lighted setting, and religious references to emphasize the struggle of dealing with loneliness and despair. The feeling of nothingness is a common emotion of when people lose sight of meaning in their lives and their place in the universe. The clean well-lighted cafe acts as a refuge for people like the old man and the older waiter who are dealing with these feelings. “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” can be perceived as a story about a place that makes people cope with their despair.

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