Theme of Aging and Suffering in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well Lighted Place”

-Anup Joshi
Theme of Aging and Suffering in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well Lighted Place”

This research paper explores the theme of aging and suffering in Earnest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean Well Lighted Place”. The major characters of the story, the old man, the older waiter and the younger waiter are referred by their age rather than their name. Hemingway valorizes the age of the characters over their name so as to portray suffering and isolation that humans come to face as they grow older. Theme is the meaning or core part of any fiction. As Robert Scholes claims, “We must not only carefully look at the work itself but also look away from the work toward the world of ideas and experiences. Discovering themes or meanings in a work involves us in making connection between the work and world outside it. These connections are the meaning” (130).

The story is simple and tells a simple incident at a café but when looked from the aura of deep meaning, we can find serious theme embodied within it. According to Kirszner and Mandell, “every element of a story can shed light on its themes” (302). So, the researcher claims that multiple elements of the story converge to depict the theme of aging and suffering.
The old man does not possess a wife and “liked to sit late [at café] because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference” (233). He had even attempted to commit suicide but failed. He has no connection to the world except for his niece. He is all alone and struggles with his despair by staying at a clean well lighted café, drinking brandy which leads him to oblivion. His life is meaningless and he is forced to live, for he fails to end his life. Like Samuel Becket mentions in his drama Endgame, “You are on earth. There is no cure for that” (40), the old man also has nowhere to seclude. He is bound to suffer. When a waiter at café asks for what reason the old man was in despair and tried to commit suicide, other waiter replies “nothing” (233).This implies that for an old man, one does not need any other reason to suffer, the ‘old age’ itself is sufficient.
Similarly, the older waiter also resembles the old man to whom young waiter states, “you talk like an old man yourself” (235). He confesses, “I have never had confidence and I’m not young” (235). Parallel to the old man, he likes to stay late night at the café and wants to escape from the loneliness and darkness his place has to offer. He is also insomniac and cannot sleep properly at night. He has no family and wife. His condition is not as vulnerable as old man because he still works, does not drink heavily like old man and is not suicidal. But it is clearly evident that he is also in verge of becoming identical to the old man. Aging will only make his lonely life worse and fill it with the dark hues of despair and woe.
The younger waiter, on the other hand is carefree, confident and nothing like the older characters of the story. He is married and is in rush to ascend to bed with his wife as soon as possible. He is conscious about time and reminds the old man, “you’ll be drunk” (234). Unlike the older men, his use of diction is quite optimistic and full of zeal. He does not know about the existential reality of life. He shows indifference to the suffering of the old man and the older waiter. He is full of hope and enthusiasm. As Kirszner and Mandell suggest, “a narrator’s or character’s statement can reveal a theme” (302), his statements portray himself as opposite to the old man and older waiter. “He [the old man] is lonely, I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me…I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing...[An hour is] More to me than to him…I have confidence. I’m all confidence…I want to go home and into bed” (234, 235). Whereas the diction of older characters are full of words like “nada”, “another brandy”, “I’m reluctant to close up”, “nothing” et cetera. These are all pessimistic word choice and portray the sombre life of old characters. “Nada” which is Spanish word for “nothing” is used twenty-two times in the story. The repetition of this word is done for numerous times just to show the worthless reality of life. This symbolizes that the world has no meaning at all and is full of absurdities and sufferings.
            From the characterization of these three characters, we can understand how Hemingway has postulated a motif that aging is directly proportional to suffering and loneliness. Younger people are happy and attached with the family and society. But as one grows, he becomes detached from the same society and is bound to live a life of despair and suffering. One day the life will be totally burden for him. As Kriszner and Mandell suggest, “The title of a story can often provide insights into the theme of a story” (302). The title “A Clean Well Lighted Place” connotes that this place is different from filthy, dark place. The personal space of the old man is full of solitude, darkness and misery. A Clean Well Lighted café is the only place he can elope from his goalless life full of forlornness. There is no music and noise like in a bar and one can drink peacefully. Moreover, the old man can find peace and order in a well-lit café. According to Brown, Charles:
The title “A Clean Well Lighted Place” is a masterful work of understatement in itself, because it fully describes or characterizes man’s search for peace. Man has an inner emotional yearning to find a state of order…Therefore Hemingway’s title, through the use of understatement suggests that man’s innermost hungers are to find a place where there will be order, security and certainty. (Par. 8)
            Besides, about the place, the older waiter asserts, “I am of those who like to stay late at the café…with all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night” (235). He takes the place as an escape from the reality. But for the younger waiter, a clean well lighted place is an obstacle for his married life.
            According to Kriszner and Mandell, “A story’s conflict can offer clues to its theme” (303). The conflict of this story also justifies our theme of aging and suffering. One of the major conflicts in the story is the conflict between two waiters, older waiter and young waiter. The older waiter insists young waiter to serve drinks to the old man and let him stay. But younger waiter strongly resents the idea. He even says rude things to the old man. When the old man demands more brandy, he replies, “You should have killed yourself last week” (234). On the other hand, the older waiter is sympathetic towards the old man. He understands what it is like to be an old lonely deaf man. But young waiter has no regard for the distress of old man. He is in hurry to go home to his wife. The young waiter does not hesitate to say, “An old man is a nasty thing” (234). The old waiter is older than the young one; so he can understand the dilemma of life whereas younger waiter is unaware about the dystopian world of loneliness.
            Similarly, Kriszner and Mandell claims, “The point of view of a story can also help shed light on theme” (303). The point of view of this story has also contributed to clarify the theme of the story. M.H. Abrams interprets, “More radical instances of the unintrusive narrator, who gives up even the privilege of access to inner feelings and motives, are to be found in a number of Earnest Hemingway’s short stories; for example,…“A Clean Well Lighted Place” (241). The story is told in third person point of view. The narrator does not focus on a single character. Though the old man is important character of the story, we do not hear his story from his mouth. We come to know about his age, wife, suicide attempts and property through the conversation of two waiters. And during their first conversation, we do not even know which dialogue is uttered by which waiter. The waiters are just referred by “one waiter said” (233) as if they are the trivial characters. The narration technique of Hemingway makes us assimilate that old man or old waiter or younger waiter are not merely fictional characters, but are mimicry of the real people. The resemblance of characters with readers signifies that this story is about our own world. Hemingway trivializes the names and other aspects of characters and concentrates only on limited aspects. He does not apprise us where the old man and the young waiter go after the café is closed. But he tells us that the old waiter goes to a bar and then finally to bed, where he is unable to sleep. Hemingway refers he is more of an insomniac guy than lonely. After café, Hemingway has focused solely on older waiter because he is the link between the younger waiter and the old man. He finds life meaningless and even dismisses religion as “nada”. He cannot define himself through any discipline. His despondency suggests that the older waiter is in process of developing into someone like the old man in near future.
            Set in post war America of 1920s and 1930s, the older characters of the story are facing the identity crisis. They are strangled by the depression war has brought. They do not know the purpose of their life and find solace only in clean, well lighted cafes. The older waiter thinks “Certainly you do not want music” (236). The old man is also irritated by music, noise and wants to drink peacefully without a company. They are all alone and melancholic without the enthusiasm for life and future. This existentialist reality is the key of their suffering. They are facing identity crisis as Green and Lebihan allude:
Finding a satisfactory definition of the human self, as it is positioned in the world and as it experiences itself and its world, has been one of the most pressing philosophical problems; predictably there is no obvious route that we can offer through the maze of theories that wrestle with the question of ‘Who am I?’ (140)
We are bound to repeat same mundane acts every day. Life is meaningless and human is an insignificant being. The older waiter makes this idea clear when he concludes, “It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too…Our nada who art in nada” (236). Emphasis on the word “nada” suggests the futility of human life. The supposition of old waiter about insomnia, “many must have it” (236) refers that he has started to believe absurdity of life as a universal phenomenon. On the other hand, the younger waiter is unknown about these absurdities of life and lives a life of carefree individual tuned with the world. When he will come to know the futility of our existence with his aging, he will also be a desperate man. And then he will have no place of comfort to recluse because there will be yet another young waiter in café in hurry to close the cafe and get home. We humans are stuck in mundane cyclic life. Life has become a cliché and we all are obliged to undergo similar situations the people before us have gone through. The hues of youth will fade away from the younger waiter too and he will be dismantled from the world. As poet W.B. Yeats laments, “ere time transfigured me”, the time is going to mould him into a “nasty” old man figure. He will have to suffer from the same loneliness and disparity.
            In conclusion, the story “A Clean Well Lighted Place” is a story about three men who are at different states of life; a deaf old man about eighty who visits café late night to get drunk and two waiters of the café (one young, another older). Recently attempted to commit suicide, the old man is living a hollow life of despair and anguish. Young waiter is full of energy with “everything” he needs, a wife, a job and confidence. He is indifference to the suffering of the old man and forces the customer to leave the café earlier, so he could retire to bed with his wife. On the other hand, older waiter understands the suffering of old man and is himself in search of reason to strive on living to the next day. He has no reason to go home and urges to stay at clean, well-lit café. To be more precise, the age of characters of the story is directly proportional to their suffering and melancholy. The older they grow to be, the miserable they become.

Works Cited
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston:Thompson Wadsworth,2005. Print
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame.  London:Faber & Faber, 2013 . Print
Brown, Charles. “The search for peace in “A Clean Well Lighted Place”.” National Great
Book Curriculum. June 24, 2016. Web. <>
Green, Keith and Lebihan, Jill. Critical Theory & Practice: A Course book. Special
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Hemingway, Earnest. “A Clean Well Lighted Place”. Literature: Reading, Reacting and
Writing. Kriszner, Laurie and Stephen Mandell. 4th ed. Boston: Heinle and Heinle Thomson Learning, 2000. 233-236.
Kriszner, Laurie and Stephen, Mandell. Literature: Reading, Reacting and Writing. 4th ed.
Boston: Heinle and Heinle Thomson Learning, 2000. Print
Scholes, Robert, Nancy R. Comley, Carl H. Klans and Michael Silverman, eds. Elements
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Yeats, William Butler. “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner”.  Poetry Archive. June 14,
2016. Web.

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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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