Written around March 2001
Existentialism is “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.” It was a philosophy that was followed by great writers like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and T.S Eliot, and which is seen extensively in the work of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s beliefs concerning existentialism are the driving force behind his short story, ”A Clean Well Lighted Place”. The story centers on issues such as depression, loneliness, aging and despair, but all are set around the theme of existentialism.
Readers are immediately introduced to the underlying concepts of existentialism in the very first discussion in the story. This occurs between two waiters, one old and one young, who discuss their last customer, an old drunk, who is still at the café. The old drunk had tried to hang himself a week before, but when the young waiter asks, “Who cut him down?” the older replies, “His niece” but only for “the sake of his soul” (234). The older waiter says this with bitter sarcasm, understanding that the old man’s niece was wasting her time, as he (the waiter) does not believe in souls. Critics have often suggested that the older waiter represents Hemingway, who himself ended his own life.
Hemingway’s attitude towards life is typified in the old waiter’s thoughts as he wonders the streets looking for a clean well-lighted place. He begins the Lord’s Prayer with “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name” (236) and continues though the prayer replacing most of the nouns and abstract nouns with “nada”. The overall effect emphasizes the atheist standpoint of existentialism and the corresponding belief that life has no meaning to it outside of the actions which humans choose.
The title, “A Clean Well Lighted Place” is an example of what does give meaning to these men’s lives. The young waiter, representing inexperience, says that the old drunk could just “buy a bottle and drink it at home” (235), but the older waiters responds with “No, it’s not the same” (235) understanding that these clean, bright cafés are the only reason that he is able to get though the night, without collapsing into utter despair. But there is one thing that Hemingway believes that these men who share his philosophy have no matter what: dignity. When the old drunk leaves, the waiters see “a very old man walking unsteadily, but with dignity” (235), this is the same dignity that the old waiter has in his search for a “clean well-lighted café” (236) which had the cleanliness that the “bars and bodegas” lacked (236).
“A Clean Well Lighted Place” ends with the older waiter giving up on finding a refuge for the night in one of the immaculate cafés where “you do not want music” (236) nor do you want to “stand before a bar” (236) that he searches for. He goes home to bed. He suffers, however, from what he believes is “probably only insomnia” (236). What Hemingway is saying is that existentialism is sometimes like insomnia, and understanding it creates a situation of not being able to live in the hours of the day – even though these have meaning for most people.
The waiter closes with the thought that his is not an isolated case of insomnia as “many must have it” (236). In this Hemingway displays a certain pity for others like himself for whom, sometimes, the emptiness can be too much to bear.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean Well Lighted Place” Literature: Reading Reacting, Writing. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen G. Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1994. 233-236.