Plot, character and setting
A Clean Well Light Place is an exploration of ideas of existentialism and ‘nothingness.’ It takes place late at night at a cafe, where two waiters discuss an old man, who is filled with despair. One of the waiters is keen to get home to his wife, where as the other wants to stay in the bar. It’s a simple story with deep symbolism. The setting is vague, as is the story. The characterisation isn’t overwhelmingly in-depth - the text is primarily thematic. The setting of the story is unclear in terms of time and place. However, one can examine the context of Hemingway at the time and his influences. He was living in Paris, still suffering trauma from World War I. He was influenced by the work of existentialist writers such as Satre, who once wrote on this concept, saying “Life is a useless passion,’ which encapsulates the themes of this short work by Hemingway.
Hemingway explores the idea of nothingness through the characterisation of the older waiter in contrast to the characterisation of the younger waiter in A Clean Well Lit Place.
Hemingway characterises the old man as lonely, a loneliness brought about by uncertainty on the meaning of life and existence. The man uses the word nada, meaning nothing in Spanish in his thought process, saying "Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. The relentless repetition of the word nada, creates a sense of delirium and a lack of logic - tying into ideas of lack of purpose. Religious reference undermines basic fabrics of human existence, subverting something familiar and almost a ‘refuge,’ in it’s spiritual support. This is undermining both the prayer and the act of saying it and ties back into ideas of existentialism.
How does the text reflect an aspect of American culture?
This poem is not reflective of distinct American ideals but rather the attitudes and ideals that criticised them. Hemingway was one of the writers who used existentialism and rather dark themes to counteract the flaws of attitudes such as the American dream. The younger waiter is young and naive, and through his negative depiction of this character - Hemingway is critiquing naivety and he explores the ideals of ‘nothingness,’ The cafe serves as a symbol for light to distract from the darkness, from the nothingness felt by the waiter, which he describes as 'a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too.’ In the repetition of the word nothing, he fixes the idea in the mind of the reader.