Surprisingly, it took me quite a long time to choose a story as this month’s Story of the Month. I knew that I wanted to pick a short story, but I’d already chosen my favorite short stories (“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, “A & P” by John Updike, and “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury) as previous stories of the month. I was desperately rummaging through my mental literary library in search of the perfect story to highlight this month. But it took me going to the Printers’ Ball in Chicago, and seeing a photograph of Ernest Hemingway, for me to finally pinpoint what I was looking for. So, after an exhausting search, allow me to present to you That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for August 2009: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
This short story is just that: an incredibly short story. Clocking in at less than 1,500 words, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” cuts to the chase. Hemingway gets in, gets out, and leaves you speechless. He drops you into a late-night cafe where an old deaf man drinks “in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light” and two waiters, one younger and one older, talk about how the old man apparently tried to commit suicide, but was rescued by his niece. The younger waiter thinks that the old man shouldn’t have anything to be unhappy about, because he has a lot of money. He grows impatient with the old deaf man and refuses to refill his brandy so that he, the younger waiter, can get home to his wife. The old man leaves, and the two waiters close up the cafe. The older waiter reveals that he’s never been confident and that he lacks youth, unlike the younger waiter. He is more sympathetic to the old man’s desire to be in a cafe late at night. The younger waiter leaves, still anxious to get home. The older waiter goes to a bodega and orders a small drink, but this bar isn’t as enjoyable as a “clean, well-lighted cafe.” He finally goes home to fall asleep as the sun comes up, claiming that “It is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”
I normally don’t need to quote much, if any, text from my chosen stories, but I feel it necessary with this story (if for no other reason than the language is beautiful). As satisfied as you feel after finishing this story, you are left with a lot of questions. What exactly did I just read? What does it mean? Does the older waiter really suffer from insomnia? What is the deeper meaning here…and why do I seem to be missing it?
No matter how many times I’ve read this story, I always respond with that same level of confusion. So I have to work through it, recalling the various discussions that I’ve had with teachers and my fellow students regarding this story. It’s like jumping off of a diving board: I’ve walked to the end of the platform and I’m looking straight at the water, but I won’t be able to see into it, to absorb myself in it, until I dive in head first.
I usually find that characters are easier to analyze first (they seem more accessible to me), then plot second. So let’s start with them. It’s rather obvious, especially during all that back-and-forth dialogue, that none of the characters have names. There are six characters: the old man, the younger waiter, the older waiter, the soldier and the girl, and the barman. But, for our purposes, let’s say that there are only three: the old man, the younger waiter, and the older waiter. None of these men have names. They could be anybody. Hemingway gives us no physical description of them, yet we still “see” them through their dialogue. The old man is anyone who is lonely, with no one and nothing left, who just needs to be in the general company of others or else feel useless. The younger waiter is anyone who has everything, yet doesn’t really know it. He is anyone who can’t look past his own situation to understand what everyone else is going through. His life is fine–is great–and it doesn’t dawn on him that not everyone is so lucky. And the older waiter is anyone who is at a point in life when everything is at a standstill. Nothing looks good. Nothing looks bad. Things just are the way that they are, and he is the person to see things for what they are. He is anyone who is so unconcerned with self that he can sympathize with those in a worse place than him, and appreciate the fortune that those in a better place have. He sees what he’s had, what he’s lost, and what’s to come. He doesn’t fight it. He just tries to get through it.
Like Updike’s “A & P,” the age of our characters is important. Just like we saw Sammy’s life unfold in the uneventful lives of the characters Stokesie and Lengel, we see the path that men take as they grow older. They start off young and vibrant, in a hurry to get from one place to the next, having confidence and a wife and a job and, of course, their youth. Then they end up old and alone, cut off from the world and everyone around them–all people who seem to reek of possibilities and potential. And, somewhere in between, is the wretched state when they’re acutely aware of what they no longer have, and what they have yet to lose…nothing really to look forward to. It’s bleak, yes, but brilliantly insightful.
So, does the older waiter really suffer from insomnia? Probably not. Did anything really happen plot-wise? Sort of. An old man is in a cafe. Two waiters talk about him. The younger waiter kicks him out then closes up the cafe, in a hurry to get home. The older waiter, like the old man, has nowhere to go. He wanders into a bar but is unhappy with the environment. He goes home, hoping to fall asleep with daybreak, begrudgingly ready to start it all over again. But it is the older waiter’s insight, his sympathy for the old man’s loneliness, and his smothered jealousy for the younger waiter’s importance and confidence that really drives the story home. It is in his analysis of clean, well-lighted cafes and his “nada prayer” that the story lies. It is a story about finding a place in this world to belong, having a place to go, and having some sort of worth…and also about not finding a place to belong, not having a place to go, and not feeling like you have any worth. It’s intraspective. It makes you look at yourself through the objective eyes of the older waiter.
In many ways, this is the most powerful story that I’ve ever read. It’s more powerful than the lone image of “Bub” and Robert, sitting on the floor, blindly tracing a cathedral on the coffee table. It’s more powerful than Sammy’s realization that life would be hard on him after quitting at the grocery store. It is more powerful than the idea of death–and a freaky undead crowd–catching up with you. The power lies between the lines, behind the dialogue, in the beautifully tragic imagery. Hemingway’s 1,500-word short story is a masterpiece.
I dare you to find something better.
To read a full-text version of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” please click here. (Thanks to Virginia Tech’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies website for posting this story.)