A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway


As an English major, it’s always taken me by surprise when other students have expressed their utmost dislike for Ernest Hemingway’s work.

In UTM’s ENG110, I read the syllabus during the first week and realized we were assigned to read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, a short story by Hemingway. Having never read him, I decided that reading his work would allow me to finally develop a conclusion about him.

I fell in love. Although this is the first text of his I’ve read, I couldn’t wait to dig deeper in his works of art.

I didn’t let my peers’ opinions of Hemingway cloud my judgement. I enjoyed Hemingway’s use of simplicity. He prides himself on keeping the text uncomplicated. The trick in his writing, I discovered, is his genius way of subtly making you work for the meaning of the purpose of the story. I knew something was there, but I couldn’t put my finger on it right at the start.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” tells the story of two waiters who wait on an old, drunken man in their restaurant. Their reactions to the man are unique, and we come to understand the reasons for their actions.

The best part of reading this work was that there has been lots of discussion by critics over a couple of aspects of the story for years. For example, it is unclear which waiter is speaking when, and how to differentiate between the two.

The story gives an excellent overview of the contrast between light and dark. While one of the waiters has a wife to go home to and a seemingly happy life, the other waiter doesn’t have anything to look forward to. When he ends up at a bar in the final paragraph, he simply explains that all anyone needs in life is a clean, well-lighted place to sit—to escape the darkness and see the world from a more optimistic angle.

It’s apparent that the second waiter has some sort of existential anxiety, a fear of the unknown. He can’t go home to sleep, because it’s dark and he has no one to turn to.

Of course, Hemingway doesn’t reveal anything explicitly. Instead, he forces his readers to work for the answers. It’s only later that we discover that the simplicities in life can be complicated in their own, twisted ways.