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In the short story, A Clean Well Lighted Place, Hemingway explores his existential beliefs concerning the reasons for human existence. He sets the story during the Spanish civil war and employs three characters to communicate his views. In the story Hemingway espouses his belief that human beings should not deny their desires, arguing that true happiness lies in the individual s ability to live their life with a sense of personal dignity. He proposes that religion is a lie and offers human beings false hope.
He constructs three characters who are identified by their age and occupation. These three men are symbolic representations of human beings at different stages of their lives. The old man is retired and nearing the end of his life, the young waiter s career is only just beginning and the middle-aged waiter is represents the transitory phase between youth and senescence. Hemingway s representation of the three men draws, the reader s attention to these key aspects of age and profession.
The old man has lived his life and although he is wealthy, he has realised that this world has nothing more to offer him and the next world doesn t exist. His wife has died and he is an inconvenience to the rest of his family: He hung himself with a rope. Who cut him down? His niece. Why did they do it? Fear for his soul His niece saves him because she feared for his soul. This suggests that if there had not been a religious concern, there would have been little concern for the welfare of the old man. As a result, the old man is content to stay late in the caf and drink.
However, although he is inebriated, the old man still conducts himself with dignity: The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity. The younger waiter is disgusted by the old man s presence, failing to acknowledge the inevitable nature of life: that he, too, will be old one day. I wouldn t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing You should have killed yourself last week.
The younger waiter is desensitized and indifferent towards the old man and regards him as unimportant. He resents the old man s presence because it prevents him from returning home to his wife and family. In a capitalist society, the old are sometimes viewed by the young as being unproductive and an irritating burden to society. However, the old man s accumulated wealth empowers him and the younger waiter is forced to serve him.
His resentment is highlighted by his actions: the waiter took the brandy bottle and another saucer and marched out to the old man s table. The young waiter begrudgingly serves the old man and goes through the repetitive motions with little enthusiasm: the verb marched conveys a notion of obedience as the waiter must respond to the dictates of the old man. The waiter believes that his time is important because he has purpose in life: he has a job, a wife and home and his whole life in front of him. What is an hour? More to me than to him.
The younger waiter believes that he is a productive member of society, unlike the old man. You have youth, confidence, and a job, the older waiter said. You have everything. The reader is able to relate to the younger waiter s attitudes and values as they are consistent with our own.
However, by juxtaposition ing the two characters, Hemingway encourages the reader to re-evaluate their beliefs and question their purpose in life. Through the use of third person limited narrative point of view, and especially through the use of narrated interior monologue, Hemingway positions the reader to sympathise with the older waiter who is the custodian of his beliefs. The older waiter is more tolerant and compassionate towards the old man and, as a consequence, the reader looks upon him favourably. They are positioned to approve of his values and attitudes and endorse his point of view.
Age has shown the older waiter that there is little purpose to human existence other than to enjoy its pleasures. When the two waiters see a soldier crossing the road with a prostitute, they each react differently. The guard will pick him up What does it matter if he gets what he s after? The younger waiter is concerned about the risk the soldier is taking whereas the older waiter is more philosophical and understands the soldier s desire to enjoy his life. The younger waiter fears incarceration that would compromise his life, whereas the older waiter believes that imprisonment is insignificant if the individual is able to enjoy the moment.
After the old man and the young waiter have departed, the reader remains with the older waiter and through narrated interior monologue, is informed about his views. It is through this character that Hemingway encourages the reader to embrace his belief that existence is essentially meaningless: What did he fear? It was all a nothing that he knew to well and a man was nothing too. The older waiter understands the old man s desire to drink in a clean, well-lighted place where he can enjoy the peace and quiet of the city and live his life with dignity for there is nothing else in life. Through a parody of the Lord s Prayer, Hemingway debunks the promises proffered by Catholicism: Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada By replacing key words such as Father and Heaven from the prayer, Hemingway negates the Catholic church s promises and suggests that there is no God or heaven. The individual has nothing but the life they currently live. However, Hemingway does not endorse anarchy; he proposes that the individual should strive for personal dignity, as does the old man.
It is for this reason that the older waiter is reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the caf. The older waiter and the old man have arrived at this understanding but the young waiter is incapable of comprehending this realisation. At the beginning of the story, it is ironic that the old man who is enlightened about life, is seated in the shadows whereas the young waiter who is in the dark about life, is seated in the light of the caf. Primary literary tools used: a) direct speech b) third person limited npov narrated interior monologue c) parody d) characterisation.
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