52 Stories #20: “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

cull pistol establishment during nighttime
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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s selection is Hemingway’s 1933 classic story, “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.” I got the idea to read this one from FX Turk via the Gut Check Podcast. Thanks for the inspiration, fellas.

So what’s this story about? More than just “alcohol,” lemme tell ya.

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The Pitch

An old man drinks alone at a table, while 2 waiters watch and comment.

The Payoff

That really is the entire story, in that one line of description–but it’s so much more than that. This sparse story carried an emotional heft I wasn’t ready for. It resonated deeply with a past season of my life, and I found myself unexpectedly moved. Definitely seek this one out and read it. (I would further recommend finding a printed version, rather than one of the many PDFs floating around the internet. Due to Hemingway’s complete disdain for dialogue attribution, any formatting errors in digital copies end up confusing the reader as to who is speaking at certain points.)

The Takeaways

I have a few thoughts about this story, so sit back and pour yourself a beverage (with or without a saucer to catch the spillage):

  • First: Hemingway’s economy of language. I was fully engaged in a scene he describes in only the barest of terms. I could hear the music, I could feel the breeze, I could smell the city. With the briefest strokes, he paints a complete picture.
  • At its heart, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is about how people (men, specifically) battle loneliness. The married waiter wants to rush home to sleep beside his wife. The soldier outside is pursuing the company of (presumably) a prostitute. But both the old man who drinks and the older waiter who watches lack such companionship. In a way, they are each other’s company, as they silently occupy the same space. This is why the waiter is hesitant to rush the old man out the door. The old man, despite being rich and having some family nearby, had attempted and failed to kill himself when the loneliness became too much. Now, he just drinks alone in the cafe until closing time.
  • As the old man goes and the old waiter closes shop, the waiter then tries to find somewhere else to go. Here is where the title comes into focus: he, like the old man, sought a clean, well-lighted place–someplace he could sit by himself but in the presence of others, so that he didn’t have to confront the loneliness and silence of his empty apartment. It was the emptiness, the all-encompassing nada, that he was avoiding. The waiter recites a version of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, as the words are overcome and replaced with nada, nada, nada. It’s this nada that lonely men avoid by seeking out cozy spots to drink (or read, or write). There was a season of my life in which, despite having family and friends nearby, I myself ate many meals and spent many evenings in clean, well-lit places, reading, scribbling notes for stories unwritten, hiding away from my own nada.
  • [Now that I think of it, it makes all the more sense that for many years my favorite piece of art was Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, which depicts the epitome of a “clean, well-lighted place.”]
  • “After all, [the waiter] said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” These final words were a bit heartbreaking, because he’s right. There may be many who have trouble sleeping because they feel isolated.

“A Clean, Well-lighted Place” was short but surprisingly moving, and I grokked it on a fundamental level. One of my favorites thusfar.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

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