Ernest Hemingway

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Summary

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Famed author Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” was published in 1933 in both Scribner’s Magazine and the short story collection Winner Take Nothing. Written when Hemingway was a young man, the story describes an encounter late at night between two waiters and an old man who is slowly getting drunk in their café. Addressing themes of the pointlessness of existence, the need for human companionship, and the way the young are dismissive of the concerns of the old, the story was later described by Hemingway himself as his favorite of the stories he had written.

The story is set in a small café in an unnamed European country, possibly Spain. After midnight, no one is left in the café except two waiters and an old customer. Although the old man is deaf, he enjoys the stillness that the night brings to the place, and the electric light makes the café pleasant.

The waiters know a lot about the old man, who is a regular at the café. They are carefully watching to make sure he doesn’t get so drunk that he forgets to pay. One of them mentions that the old man recently tried to kill himself. When the other waiter presses him for details, the first waiter doesn’t know why the old man wanted to commit suicide – after all, he has a lot of money.

A soldier with a girl walks by the café. One waiter points out that they will be picked up by the guards (presumably because they are out after curfew). However, the other shrugs that it doesn’t matter – the soldier will get what he wants from the girl.

The customer asks for another brandy. One of the waiters is annoyed that he will get home very late. He snaps that the old man should have killed himself – first to the other waiter, then to the old man himself.

The waiters again discuss the customer’s suicide. He tried to hang himself, but his niece stopped him in time because she was worried about his soul. They wonder how much money he has, and guess that he is eighty years old.

The serving waiter again complains about getting home late – he is never in bed before three in the morning, even though he has a wife waiting for him there. The other waiter points out that the old man also used to have a wife.

The serving waiter is grossed out by the idea of old age, but his colleague disagrees – after all, this old man is clean and well groomed and drinks neatly.

The old man orders another brandy. The serving waiter, speaking in short words to make the drunk man understand him, tells him that he is cut off – the café is closing. The old man carefully stands up and pays, then walks away.

After he leaves, the waiters close up the café. One asks the other why he made the old man leave even though the café should have been open for another half hour. The married waiter is eager to rush home. He proposes that the old man could just drink at his own house, but agrees with the other waiter that drinking alone is different than doing it in a “clean, well-lighted place” like the café.

We suddenly learn that the married waiter is younger. The older waiter tells him, “You have youth, confidence, and a job…You have everything,” while, the older waiter says, all he has is the job at the café. The older waiter says he can empathize with the people who need cafés like this one to be open all night long.

The younger waiter leaves to go home to his wife, while the older waiter continues to ponder what they have been discussing. He decides that a café should not have music or a standing bar. Then he wonders why he is scared. He decides what scares him is the nothingness of life – and the only way to combat that nothingness is with some light and cleanliness. The older waiter says a prayer, replacing most of the words with the Spanish word for nothing, nada.

The older waiter goes to a bar and orders a drink, telling the barman that although the light there is nice, the bar isn’t clean. The barman offers the waiter another drink, but the waiter refuses and leaves. He decides that he really doesn’t like bars, preferring cafés like his to them.

The older waiter resolves to go home – now that there’s daylight, he will be able to go to sleep. Maybe his problem is just insomnia, which many people suffer from.