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The Search for Peace in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
The Search for Peace in
"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

Charles Brown

While Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is usually interpreted as an intensely poetic description of despair, it can with equal validity be seen instead as mankind's never ending yearning to find spiritual peace. Hemingway's short story displayed this emotional journey in many different ways. First, the title itself is a symbol for man's desire to find a state of tranquillity, safety, and comfort. Hemingway also showed this in the story’s setting, which was used as a symbol for a sense of order, for it was late, the cafe was empty, and the men there were at ease. Finally, Hemingway showed this desire in the contrasting actions between the young and the old to show the effects that time plays in man's search for peace.

An added appreciation for this short story, however, can be gained through some background concerning its origins and its relationship to the author's preoccupations. Hemingway was married four times, won the Nobel Prize in 1954, and in 1960, when he became ill, killed himself following in his father's footsteps. Hemingway had to deal with despair, depression, and desperation for most of his life, and these feelings could be felt in most of his writings.

One of the major elements in defining man's true desire for peace in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is the central role that is played by despair. Despair is commonly defined as a sense of hopelessness, and it is displayed in the actions of the older waiter, and in the behavior of the deaf man. The older waiter makes an astonishing revelation or epiphany with regards to the idea of despair, when he makes the statement that "I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe. With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night" (382). Here he was showing that in one's lowest level of despair, man's one and only desire is to find a safe haven, and to acquire a sense of security.

Finding a sense of security and meaning to life was very important to Hemingway who was known to feel that the individual quest for meaningful values was a universal one, probably because Hemingway himself struggled to find the true meaning of his life, or the true sense of his purpose.

The despair that Hemingway himself felt is best shown in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" when the older waiter was intertwined in a conversation with himself. He said that: "It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada" (383).

Nothing and then nothing. When one is in a state of despair, the only thing that one is looking for is a way out of one's situation, or a road that will lead to a peaceful end to one's feelings of hopelessness.

Hemingway, however, presented a remarkable example of man's search for an end to his state of hopelessness. When one waiter commented on the deaf man's attempt at taking his own life, he said "Last week he tried to commit suicide." The other waiter replied "Why?" Then he said, "He was in despair" (379). This summed up man's desire, at his lowest level of depression, to find peace, safety, and a sense of serenity. Hemingway showed man at his lowest level searching for escape.Throughout the entire story the deaf man was struggling to find an end to his feelings of hopelessness, and Hemingway portrayed this in many different ways. The first was that the deaf man enjoyed the cafe the most when it was empty, because it gave him a sense of peacefulness. The second was sitting in the shadow the leaves of the tree made, which gave the idea that he was almost hiding from the world that was surrounding him. The third was his drinking, which he used as a crutch, or as a means of escape, and this was shown in the conversation between the two waiters. One waiter said, "He's drunk now." To which the other waiter replied, "He's drunk every night" (380). This showed the deaf man's inner most desires to find peace from this troubling road.

Hemingway also used the technique of understatement to fully enhance his ideas of man's search for peace. This could be seen in a number of situations throughout this story, but one could not begin to fully expound upon the ideas of understatement without first examining the title. 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. Man also has an innate aspiration to find a state of security, or symbolically speaking, a well-lighted environment. Along with these other attributions man also yearns to find a place where he belongs or a position of certainty. 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.

In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Hemingway said, "In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust." Here he was referring to the hustle and the bustle of city life. During the day the streets are busy and full of people hurrying here and there, but at night sleep falls, and over most of the city feelings of tranquillity and peace are felt.

At one point in the story the deaf man had gotten drunk and left the cafe, but although he was intoxicated he still walked with dignity. Here Hemingway was showing that even at a person's lowest depths or times of despair, there should always remain a sense of self-respect. When the older waiter was at the bar, he recited the Lord's Prayer, but he replaced many of the key words, with "nada." Here with the use of understatement, Hemingway was showing the extent of despair felt by the waiter, because the Lord's prayer is meant to give one hope, purpose, and a sense that everything is not all in vain. But by removing words, and replacing them with others the waiter was reaffirming his feelings of hopelessness.

One of the biggest examples of understatement that Hemingway used is when the waiter said, "After all ... it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it" (383). Here Hemingway was referring to fear. Man has an inner fear or a feeling of anxiety that he may never find the peace that he is searching for. Many of us wander through life searching, longing, and seeking for a place or state of being where we will feel comfortable. Many of us long for a safe haven or "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."

Works Cited

  • Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribners, 1966.

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