Essay about Nothingness in A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

Essay about Nothingness in A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

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Nothingness in A Clean Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway


Man is often plagued by the question of his own existence. Existentialism is a subjective philosophy that is centered upon the examination of man’s existence, emphasizing the liberation, responsibility, and usually the solitude of the individual. It focuses on individuals finding a reason for living within themselves. The philosophy forces man to make choices for himself, on the premise that nothing is preordained, there is no fate. Men must find a truth in themselves, a truth that they must be able to live for. Existentialism is in harsh contrast to a belief in a higher power or a god. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is a story by Ernest Hemingway about men in successive stages in the philosophy of existentialism, revealing ultimately how the philosophy will fail them.


Nothingness is a condition man is faced with when his life has no meaning, when there is no reason to exist. It is the hollowness or emptiness man experiences when he feels that his life has no significant meaning. If there is nothing to believe in, then life is nothing. The older waiter in the story recognizes the existence of nothing: "Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y pues nada y pues nada" (202). As existentialists, men are forced to make all decisions in their lives for themselves, with nothing to believe in except for the positive result of their choices. Existentialists are plagued with dread over their potential confrontation with nothingness, an anxiety that comes with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for the choices they must make. In contrast, men of religious faith have little fear of nothingness because they believe that there is a reason behind decisions they make based on the intent of their higher power. Light, cleanliness and order play important roles in the story. The artificial light and good order of the café represent the truth, or reason for existence, that the existential man has created for himself. Darkness, in contrast, represents the nothingness of life.


The soldier in the story is an example of the first stage of existentialism in Hemingway’s denunciation of the philosophy. The soldier does not believe in a higher power, nor does he recognize the existence of nothingness. What he does know is that ther...


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...e old man tries to kill himself: " ‘Last week he tried to commit suicide’, one waiter said" (199). Ironically, the old man is saved by his religious niece for "Fear for his soul" (200). The old man sits "in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light" (199). The man sitting in the shadow of the tree represents living in the nothingness. He lives inside of the nothingness surrounded by the artificial light, or artificial truth that he has created for himself. The only relief he has is to numb the sting of the emptiness he feels inside with brandy.

Nothingness is a feeling that man, no matter what his beliefs, is faced with from time to time. However a man of religious faith can fall back on the belief that his life is in the hands of his creator. It is comforting to know that there is a higher power that has a master plan to life. An existentialist must rely upon himself for a reason for living. However, as Hemingway’s story suggests, it is hard to find a personal truth to believe in strongly. Existentialists are more prone to face and succumb to the nothingness that comes with the emptiness of a life without religious faith.

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