A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway, 1932

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by Ernest Hemingway, 1932

Since the initial publication of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the story's quiet tensions have haunted a multitude of readers. More than any other in his 1933 collection, this story captures the spiritual angst of Winner Take Nothing, Ernest Hemingway's third book of short fiction. For many readers, it exemplifies the existential plight of modern humanity.

For more than half a century scholars have judged the story pivotal in the Hemingway canon, though they have argued about the degrees of despair and hope that it offers. Shortly before Hemingway's death, the grounds for discussion shifted. Some critics began claiming that the printed version of the story did not make complete sense; in the extended dialogue between the two main characters, it seemed Hemingway had lost track of who was speaking which lines. Following the lead of F. P. Kroeger and William Colburn, John Hagopian argued in 1964 that an "obvious typographical error" occurred and that it should be corrected to provide "order" to Hemingway's masterpiece. In 1965, acting upon Carlos Baker's advice and with Mary Hemingway's concurrence, the publishing company Charles Scribner's Sons made the suggested alteration. By moving one sentence ("You said she cut him down") up one line to make it part of the preceding speech, Scribner's gave readers a text in which the dialogue between the two characters alternated neatly—although the alteration required that some readers rethink the identity of the speaker of the opening lines.

For the past few decades, most readers coming to the story for the first time read the altered version. Those readers find no footnote identifying the alteration and the possibility for a variant reading. No matter that in 1956—after Judson Jerome brought the issue of the "confused" dialogue to the author's attention—Hemingway reread the story and said that the published story continued to make sense to him. No matter that no galley exists to prove a printer's error. Because manuscript evidence does not prove the case for the "corrected" version, some scholars have requested that the version Hemingway knew and approved be restored. At the very least readers should be alerted that they are reading a variant. The publishing history of the story provides a fascinating instance of textual "authority." Not only do words "slip, slide, perish" (as T. S. Eliot has it), so do texts.

Like many of Hemingway's stories, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is brief. Its characters are few, and its external action is minimal. In accordance with the early morning hour of the action, the dialogue is muted, much of it scarcely above a whisper. As its title suggests the story is concerned with the search for refuge and for transcendent meaning. That should surprise no one, since Hemingway's protagonists typically battle the demons of chaos. Images of light and dark pervade the author's work, and they are certainly in abundance in the stories of Winner Take Nothing. The famous "Our nada" prayer of "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" recalls other prayers and other praying in Hemingway's body of work.

The story is essentially dramatic in method, similar to such Hemingway works as "ToDay Is Friday" and "Hills Like White Elephants." Authorial presence in the story is minimal, establishing setting and providing a few crucial "stage directions." Two waiters watch an old man who sits outside a cafe in the shadows that the leaves make against the electric light. He's a very old man—an image for pondering the ultimate significance of life in the face of impending death. Although he is deaf, the man can feel the quietness of the late hour. Hemingway's story is about such nuances, and deciphering nuance quickly becomes the primary challenge to its readers.

The opening line of dialogue and its tag define the challenge: "'Last week he [the old man] tried to commit suicide,' one waiter said." The reader will have to hear more dialogue before deciding which waiter has broken the silence. The story asks that readers listen carefully; in only a few instances will the narrator provide unequivocal identifications for the speakers of lines.

The opening line not only sets up this task for the reader, it foregrounds the religious dimension of the story. Suicide, against the backdrop of Catholic Spain, is not the incidental topic that it seems to be to the speaker of the line. For the true believer suicide is the gravest of sins because it results from despair, the condition that denies God's mercy and therefore places the suicide beyond God's mercy.

In the course of dialogue that moves toward monologue and becomes interior monologue, the traditional judgment of suicide seems inadequate. With the older waiter we not only sense the isolation of the old man, we also cherish his dignity. Sitting up late, looking into the darkness, the old man appreciates a clean, well-lighted place. He longs for order in a universe that seems to provide mainly darkness and chaos. When he leaves the cafe, he attempts a difficult feat, "walking unsteadily but with dignity."

Although the old man has not wished to inconvenience anyone, his presence has annoyed the younger waiter, who is eager to close the cafe and to get home to his bed and wife. Much of the story contrasts his impatience, his glibness, his insensitivity with the empathy of the older waiter—the telling contrast evident long before the narrator, usually effaced, charges the young waiter with stupidity. The older waiter pays close attention not only to what the old man does but attends carefully to what his companion says. Thus in the text Hemingway published it is the young waiter who breaks the silence in the opening dialogue, reporting on the old man's attempted suicide.

Attempted suicide is a topic that has more than passing interest for the older waiter, for he knows much about loss and isolation. For him, the explanation "nothing" has a philosophical meaning that his companion cannot grasp. He takes very long views, and he is looking to his own future as he looks at the old man—and as he observes, "He must be eighty years old." Hemingway does not identify the speaker of the line nor the speaker of the line that follows it. But the "sound" of the next line ("Anyway I would say he was eighty") resonates in that same gentle voice—a quiet line, one in marked contrast to the unmistakably impatient line of the young waiter that follows. Here the older waiter follows his own line, speaking to himself as much as to the other character. This dramatic device, indeed, opened the memorable exchange: "'He's drunk now,' he said. 'He's drunk every night."' Both of those sentences, in their original publication, are spoken by the impatient, increasingly disgusted younger waiter. They contrast with the meditative "double" speeches on the old man's age. In a story teeming with religious overtones, Hemingway admonishes those with ears to hear.

In the story's concluding episode the older waiter becomes a customer in an all-night bar, though the narrator continues to identify him as the "waiter," one of Hemingway's most successful puns. Readers should catch what the barman who serves the waiter misses. In the face of the barman's impatience and incomprehension of his words, the waiter emulates the old man. Politely, with dignity, he walks into the darkness. More than any other characters in the stories from Winner Take Nothing, he and the old man exemplify the epigraph Hemingway invented for the book: "Un-like all other forms of lutte or combat the conditions are that the winner shall take nothing; neither his ease, nor his pleasure, nor any notions of glory; nor, if he win far enough, shall there be any reward within himself."

—Joseph M. Flora

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway, 1932

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