A Clean, Well-Lighted Place – Ernest Hemingway

When you read Hemingway’s short-story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, you will immediately notice the importance of light, especially in contrast with darkness; even the title indicates this. Below, I will explain the symbolism behind this contrast, and then more specifically about the darkness in an old man’s life. I will also describe why the café is so important for the old man and how Hemingway puts this forward in his short story.

“Clean, Well-Lighted”, that is what the title reads. It is obvious why the old man wants a clean café. He goes there to relax and forget; it is a place to escape from his dissatisfying life and the world. A clean and tidy café is more welcoming and cosy than a dirty bar or bodega.

Furthermore, the old man is deaf, so his other senses are more developed. This makes him more sensitive to light and darkness. The light also contributes to the cosiness, but it has even another underlying meaning. It represents all that is good in the world and more importantly: it keeps away the darkness, which symbolises evil. In this particular short story, the evil is loneliness, death and oblivion. 

The old man knows that he is about to die; he even tried to hurry things up with a suicide attempt. It is clear that he is fed up with life, but he still has his dignity and pride: “The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.” (Hemingway 3). Though it is clear that the old man wants to die, he is still afraid of the emptiness and the loneliness. That is why he prefers the clean, well-lit café: to keep the darkness, and by that the nothingness, away.

Up to this point I have focused on what the darkness symbolises, but the contrast between light and dark can also be seen as an allegory of the contrast between youth and old age. Youth is represented by the light and old age by the darkness. For this comparison, the café is also a good setting for the short story, because three age groups are represented: the young waiter, the middle-aged waiter and the elderly regular. The middle-aged waiter finds himself in between, but tending to the darkness as well; that is why he can sympathise with the old man when he is attacked by the young waiter.

To conclude, this short story by Hemingway is filled with a lot of allegories and a great deal of symbolism. We were asked to focus on the importance of the “Clean, Well-Lighted Place” in the story and for the old man. I wanted to show that this place means more to him than just some café were he can go and get drunk; it is his escape from reality and himself. The light keeps away the loneliness and emptiness, but he does choose to go and sit in the shadows of the leaves. This proves that he has given up and is almost ready to disappear into the shadows himself. 

Happy reading,

Loes M.

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