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Something and Nothing in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” by Ernest Hemingway, is not a story about nothingness. Surely, it reminds us of the nothingness inherent in all of our institutions, all of our needs, and all that we have- but a good, hard look at reality can do the same. It is more so a story of the only substantiality that there is: human dignity.

This fact does not keep Nothingness from assuming prominence in the story. In it, a character (speaking for the author, we can imagine) reflects that everything is nothing. He bitterly mocks the power (or lack thereof) of those institutions that we respect so well to provide something for the people:
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. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.
God is nothing. Mary is nothing. Jesus is nothing. Heaven is nothing. The Bible is nothing. The Universe is nothing. Time is nothing. Sustenance is nothing. Forgiveness is nothing. Sin is nothing. Danger is nothing. It would seem that nothing is anything.

However, that overpowering Nothing serves foremost as a contrast to the only “something” in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”: the café, where one old man, a man who has no control over his own life (or death), and no solace in his money, passes the time drinking. This is the clean, well-lighted place in question. A pleasant, agreeable place, this café provides what Hemingway puts forth as a vital social function; it allows drunks to retain their dignity by drinking in a respectable establishment. Moreover, it represents the human kindness in which even those people who recognize that all else is nothing can find some measure of satisfaction.

The café employs two waiters, and, on the sample night with which the story presents us (and we can envision endless nights like it), is patronized by the above-mentioned old man, who sits at a table and orders drink after drink after drink. He has attempted suicide, even though he has “plenty of money,” leading the younger waiter to conclude that his despair is over “nothing”. The younger waiter almost certainly does not understand that the nothing he speaks of is, for the old man, a palpable entity. It is a loneliness, an emptiness, a powerlessness. It is perhaps the first and only reason for suicide to exist.

The older waiter, whose later ruminations on the nothingness of religion and reality (related above) set the tone for a “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” does not mind that the old man stays so late. These two men have a kinship, in that neither of them have anything to go home to. Both find that the only place worth being, for them, is this clean, well-lighted café: the old man in that he can drink there and, because the place looks clean and tidy, not feel low-down, not feel drunk; and the older waiter in that there he can help people, providing them with alcohol to that end. The waiter is “on of those who like to stay late at the café… With all those who do not want to go to bed.” His greatest fear is nothing, a void that can be filled only by the “light…and a certain cleaness and order” to be found in the café, a dignity that is not reconcilable with drinking in any other sort of establishment. And because he understand why people are drawn to, why they need that place, he is “reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café.” When, in the course of the story, he does not want to leave, he articulates his desire, one he may not understand but, nonetheless, is sure to possess, to go on helping people. The café is the outlet for the human compassion that is the only actuality in his life.

The younger waiter does not understand. He repeatedly speaks down to the old man, “speaking with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners,” and eventually denies him further alcohol and sends him home. To him the old man would be just as well off were he to “buy a bottle and drink at home.” After all, home is a welcoming, entirely not lonely place for the younger waiter- his wife is waiting there for him. But to the old man, home is the essence of loneliness. When he is finally forced to leave, the older waiter takes note that he walks “unsteadily but with dignity.” He may or may not go home. There is nothing for him at home

It comes time, also, for the older waiter to leave. He does not go home, at least not immediately. He has a drink, and while at the establishment that he patronizes, “The light is very bright and pleasant,” “the bar is unpolished.” No bar or bodega possesses the same something to be had at the café. It is very late at night. The waiter incorrectly attributes his sleeplessness to insomnia. He correctly feels that “Many must have it.” We are left with the final message that, while the immense problem of loneliness is underestimated and misunderstood, it is very, very common.

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