The Hopeless Waiter: an Explication of a Passage in Hemingway’s a Clean, Well-lighted Place


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The story of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” introduces problems and insights that many people face in the world. It sparks ideas for the reader to think about in the world around them as well. In particular, the long passage from the older waiter does a good job of conveying these troubles. Studying this passage alone, it is evident through the details what the older waiter is trying to get across. “What did he fear?” (154), is answered in his conversation to himself. Although Ernest Hemingway begins his story with a simple conversation, it is not until the passage of the older waiter that we find the themes of loneliness and despair in the world of nothingness surrounding him.

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It is evident from early on that the older waiter enjoys the well-lighted café and the company that joins him at night. He is very fond of the deaf man and his life because he endures the same pain as him. “It was the light of course but the place must be clean and pleasant.”(154) Both the deaf man and the old waiter enjoy the light and order of the café because it brings them a sense of joy and relief to their life. They can escape the loneliness surrounding them in this uncluttered, tranquil café. The silence brings them peace, and the cleanliness brings it to order. “Certainly you do not want music.” (154), referring to the silence that puts their thoughts at ease. For the waiter and the old man, the music would be a distraction rather than an escape. Even though their thoughts are dark, the silence in the night is soothing to them in a world filled with chaos. The old waiter says, “Some lived in it and never felt it.” (154) He loves this café because the loneliness comes alive when he is home. He feels it when he is home, but not at work. The café provides an illusion of company for him, feeding off the stories of customers, and being surrounded by light. The older waiter with no wife does not want to return home alone. Lastly, “he continued the conversation with himself.” (154) He enjoys expressing his beliefs and complaints with the world, no matter who he is talking to because this also provides him company. He appreciates the brightness and order that the café provides him to escape from the loneliness outside.

The café provides a sense of company for the old waiter, but it only subdues his sense of despair, rather than curing it. He mocks the Our Father prayer, “Our nada who art in nada,” (154) describing that a god is not a proper way to deal with despair. This is the reason that he waits out the nighttime in the café because there is no way to escape hopelessness. He drinks and talks through the night to subdue it instead. Although this cannot be done just anywhere, bars and bodegas will not do it for him, because they are not clean and brightly lit. The waiter says, “Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours.” (154) The waiter is filled with so much despair, that he is not able to have pride in his decision to drink at a bar late at night. He has lost hope in himself and the world he lives in. It becomes late in the night during this passage from the old man, “Turning off the electric light,” (154) as he closes up the café. This is the old waiter’s routine. He tries to stay as late as he can, as he has nothing to go home to, and his home only brings back his troubles. So, he waits until it is late enough, and he closes the café. This routine for the waiter seems to aid him with his despair.

The troubles that the old waiter faces all amount to one core belief, that there is no meaning to the life around him. He is consumed with this thought of nothingness. He introduces this thought by saying, “It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.” (154) This idea of meaningless nothing in the world creates a thought that everyone is insignificant, and nothing matters. With being insignificant, also comes the idea of not being able to change it. So, the waiter just accepts it instead. He goes on to substitute the word nada (nothing) into the Our Father prayer. With this, he is mocking the fact that people go to religion to help cure this thought of nothingness. Instead, he feels as though religion and faith also have no meaning. He goes on to say, “Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.” (155) In his mind there is nothing to turn to cure this idea or thought. There is no way out for him to go through life like the younger waiter, who is unhappy but carries on anyway. That is why he needs the late-night café, to subdue these thoughts and escape for just a couple of hours, with his dignity and sanity still intact.

The theme of Hemingway’s story is very evident through the older waiter’s quotes. The dark thought of nothingness creates the other troubles that the older waiter faces. Loneliness and despair stem from feeling like nothing matters, and with nothing to cure this idea of no meaning, he truly only has the café to escape. The older waiter dwells on the story of the deaf man so much because he relates to it. The waiter does not want him to leave the café because he knows the deaf man does not want to go home, and he himself does not either. He understands why he tried to commit suicide, and he appreciates that the deaf man enjoys the same company as the clean, well-lighted café. At the end of the night, he goes home to sleep, only to start his routine over again the next day.

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