A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

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"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Author Ernest Hemingway
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Short story
Publication type Periodical
Media type Print
Publication date 1933

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is a short story by American author Ernest Hemingway, first published in Scribner's Magazine in 1933; it was also included in his collection Winner Take Nothing (1933).

Plot synopsis[edit]

An old, deaf man sits in a cafe, drinking late in to the night. All the other customers have left, and he is the sole patron remaining. Two waiters, one young and one older, sit at a table and watch him, sharing what they know of him through hearsay. One waiter says the old man tried to kill himself the week before. When asked why, the waiter says the old man was despairing over nothing, since he "has plenty of money." (The subject and a level of confusion in the phrasing of dialogue has been a contentious issue, as regards to which waiter is aware of the old man's attempted suicide, with two revisions existing.) [1]

As a young woman and soldier walk by, the younger of the two waiters becomes impatient and starts to talk about how the man might soon be picked up by the guard for being out so late. When the old man raps on his saucer, the young waiter responds, and the old man asks for another brandy. Over his own protests about the old man becoming drunk, the waiter curtly pours the drink, saying to the deaf man that he should have killed himself last week. The old man motions to ask for a little more brandy; the waiter purposefully overfills the cup, slopping brandy into the saucer.

A lengthy conversation between the waiters ensues, beginning on the topic of the old man's recent suicide attempt. It is said that the man hanged himself with a rope, and that his niece cut him down. The young waiter grows more impatient, and wishes the man would leave so he could go home to his wife, complaining that he never gets to bed before three o'clock. The conversation between the waiters proceeds, with the younger waiter growing ever more annoyed with the old man while the older waiter is more conciliatory.

Again the old man asks for another brandy, but this time the young man denies him it, "speaking with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners." "No more tonight," he says, "Close now."

Counting his saucers, the old man reaches into his coin purse and pays for the drinks, leaving a tip. The two waiters watch him go, the old man walking "unsteadily but with dignity."

In their final conversation, the two waiters continue their previous discussion. The young waiter wants to hurry home to his wife, but the older waiter is more thoughtful. After a digression on the benefits of youthful vigor, the older waiter says that he is no longer such, but is now "of those who like to stay late in the cafe," likening himself to the recently departed old man.


Some have argued that Hemingway contrasts light and shadow to differentiate the old man and the young people around him, and uses the deafness of the old man as a symbol for his separation from the rest of the world.[citation needed]

Yet the old man hears all too well. In his mind he hears the bombs and missiles of the First World War, which he experienced and which he survived, and perhaps even went deaf from too many explosions. The older waiter heard them, too, and this is why he feels empathy for the old man. The young waiter did not experience the war, and knows nothing of the terror of war. He knows only how to make a living in a cafe.[citation needed]

In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Hemingway uses the waiters to judge the old man and portray his views toward the type of drinker he is.[citation needed] As a clean drunk, the man does not spill a drop as he drinks and walks "unsteadily but with dignity" when he finally leaves the café. The waiters talk between themselves as the young waiter asks the old waiter the man’s story.

Another way to analyze the relationships between the men is to compare them as one person. The young waiter complains about having to stick around the café waiting for the man to finish drinking. He claims that he has a wife to go home to and he would rather be in bed than in the café. The old waiter defends the drinking man because he can relate and even see himself in the man. He sympathizes knowing that he, too, prefers a clean well lighted place to drink and will later appreciate such a place in his old drinking age. The old man is in his final years of life and the old waiter recognizes that he soon will have the same fate as the old man.[citation needed]

The nada y nada y pues nada speech illustrates Hemingway's style of existentialism, and his rejection of institutions, specifically the Roman Catholic Church. By turning the Lord's prayer into an existentialist ode, Hemingway nullifies the experience of religion or spirituality as a means of salvation for those who lived through World War I.

Historical reaction by other authors[edit]

James Joyce once remarked: "He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read 'A Clean Well-Lighted Place'?...It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written..." [2]


  • In A.E. Hotchner's biography Papa Hemingway, Hemingway is quoted saying that this might be his favourite story. [3]


  1. ^ As outlined in the scholarly article by Warren Bennett in "The characterization and the dialogue problem in Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place". Hemingway Review, Spring 90, Vol. 9 Issue 2.
  2. ^ "Lost Generation"
  3. ^ Hotchner, A.E. (1966). Papa Hemingway. London: Mayflower Books. p. 141. 

External links[edit]