A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear


A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear: In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway suggests that life has no meaning and that man is an insignificant speck in a great sea of nothingness. The older waiter makes this idea as clear as he can when he says, “It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too.” When he substitutes the Spanish word nada (nothing) into the prayers he recites, he indicates that religion, to which many people turn to find meaning and purpose, is also just nothingness. Rather than pray with the actual words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” the older waiter says, “Our nada who art in nada”—effectively wiping out both God and the idea of heaven in one breath. Not everyone is aware of the nothingness, however. For example, the younger waiter hurtles through his life hastily and happily, unaware of any reason why he should lament. For the old man, the older waiter, and the other people who need late-night cafés, however, the idea of nothingness is overwhelming and leads to despair.

The Struggle to Deal with Despair

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear: The old man and older waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” struggle to find a way to deal with their despair, but even their best method simply subdues the despair rather than cures it. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear The old man has tried to stave off despair in several unsuccessful ways. We learn that he has money, but money has not helped. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear We learn that he was once married, but he no longer has a wife. We also learn that he has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to quell the despair for good. The only way the old man can deal with his despair now is to sit for hours in a clean, well-lit café. Deaf, he can feel the quietness of the nighttime and the café, and although he is essentially in his own private world, sitting by himself in the café is not the same as being alone.

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear: The older waiter, in his mocking prayers filled with the word nada, shows that religion is not a viable method of dealing with despair, and his solution is the same as the old man’s: he waits out the nighttime in cafés. He is particular about the type of café he likes: the café must be well lit and clean. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear Bars and bodegas, although many are open all night, do not lessen despair because they are not clean, and patrons often must stand at the bar rather than sit at a table. The old man and the older waiter also glean solace from routine. The ritualistic café-sitting and drinking help them deal with despair because it makes life predictable. Routine is something they can control and manage, unlike the vast nothingness that surrounds them.

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear: Two waiters in a café in Spain keep watch on their last customer of the evening, an old and wealthy man who is a regular at the café and drinks to excess. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear They discuss the fact that he tried to commit suicide the week before, but that it could not have been over anything important because he had plenty of money.

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear: The old man asks for another brandy and one of the waiters brings it to him. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear The two waiters discuss their customer further, saying his niece found him hanging himself and cut him down to save his soul, and that without a wife he must be lonely.

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear: One of the waiters is younger than his colleague is, and expresses impatience to close up the café and get home to his wife. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear The other one, a middle-aged man, defends the old man, saying that he stays so late at the café every night because he has no one to go home to.

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear

A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear: Finally, the young waiter refuses the old man’s order for another drink, and the man pays and leaves. The two waiters close up the café and the middle-aged one again rebukes the other, saying he should have let the old man stay. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear The middle-aged waiter says he understands the old man’s reluctance to leave, and that he is always hesitant to lock up because someone may “need” the cafe because it is clean, well lighted, and overshadowed by the leaves of trees. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear The young waiter boasts that he has everything: youth, confidence, and a job. The middle-aged waiter says he and his colleague are indeed different, and that he himself lacks everything but work.

The two waiters part and the younger one goes home. The middle-aged waiter goes to a bar and begins a string of introspective musings. A Clean Well-lighted Place and The Bear He reveals that he is reluctant to close up the café each night because when he is alone he feels the presence of a great void, a nothingness of which he is afraid. Life, he muses, is a great nothing and a man is a nothing as well. God, he implies, is a nothing, and recites the Lord’s Prayer, inserting “nada” in strategic locations. What he needs, he says, is light, cleanness and order, an environment like the café where he works, to get him through each day.

He wanders into a bar and orders a small cup of wine. He notes to the barman that the bar is unpolished, and then he wanders out. He realizes again that he misses his own café, and predicts that he will have difficulty falling asleep. He muses on the possibility that his depression is just due to insomnia.

 “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is Hemingway’s paean to a type of existential nihilism, an exploration of the meaning, or lack thereof, of existence. It clearly expresses the philosophy that underlies the Hemingway canon, dwelling on themes of death, futility, meaninglessness, and depression. Through the thoughts and words of a middle-aged Spanish waiter, Hemingway encapsulates the main tenet of his existential philosophy. Life is inherently meaningless and leads inevitably to death, and the older one gets, the clearer these truths become and the less able one is to impose any kind of order on one’s existence or maintain any kind of positivity in one’s outlook.

The bases of Hemingway’s philosophy in this story are existentialism, a philosophical system originated in the 19th century by Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche and given full play in the post WWI years by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and nihilism, a related philosophical system popularized primarily by Nietzsche. Existentialism derives from the belief that existence is inherently meaningless and that individuals are solely responsible for giving meaning to their own lives. They must impose their own systems of values and beliefs on themselves and overcome feelings of despair and angst to live by their own values. In this way, they become “authentic” individuals by following their own principles. In existentialism, the individual is the unit of existence and the majority of existentialists reject the existence of a higher power, creator, or “God,” and they are scornful of organized religion. Nihilism is a related belief system that posits, generally, that life is meaningless, futile, and without morality, and that, contrary to existentialism, no system of meaning or morality can be imposed on it by individuals or anyone else.

Hemingway’s particular brand of philosophy in this story, as expressed by the middle-aged waiter, can be described as existential nihilism, a combination of these two belief systems. Life is meaningless and futile, he argues, and though one may try to impose meaning and order on one’s own existence, this effort eventually proves futile as death overtakes us all. Hemingway, like many of his generation, felt a sense of disillusionment and dislocation following his traumatic experiences during World War I, and his embrace of existential nihilism in this story can be seen as a reaction to this feeling.

The thoughts expressed by the middle-aged waiter track exactly with the basic tenets of existentialism and nihilism. For example, the waiter explains: “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.” This sentiment is a perfect expression of existential angst and nihilistic negation, the realization that life is emptiness, that a man’s life means nothing and that his existence signifies nothing to himself, nothing to others and nothing to the universe. The waiter then expresses his particular way of dealing with this realization: “It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” The waiter gravitates toward places that are lighted, clean, and orderly, like the café where he works; this is his way of coping with existence, his own private set of conditions that help him get through each day. However, the fact that the waiter must leave the café and go home, which depresses him and makes him unable to sleep, implies that he is unable to live his entire life adhering to this system of light, cleanness and order, and indicates the fact that his own attempt to impose meaning and structure on his life is futile. The waiter is therefore a failed existentialist, an existentialist who has succumbed to depression and despair and sunk into nihilism.

In addition, the waiter expresses a sentiment common to most existentialists and nihilists: God does not exist. “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name,” he says, echoing the Lord’s Prayer but glorifying “nada.” The repetition of “nada” throughout this comparatively long paragraph serves simultaneously to increase the intensity and urgency of the tone, and to make the entire passage sound slightly absurd.

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