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"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" was published by Scribner's Magazine in
March of 1933, but it was not until 1956 that an apparent inconsistency in
the waiters' dialogue was brought to Hemingway's attention. Hemingway's
thirteen word reply to Judson Jerome, an Assistant Professor of English at
Antioch College, said that he had read the story again and it still made
perfect sense to him. Despite this letter, Scribner's republished "A
Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in 1965 with a slight change in the waiters'
dialogue that they argued would fix the apparent anomaly.
Scribner's decision to alter the original text, the letter Hemingway wrote
to Professor Jerome, and several papers on the subject all add up to a
literary controversy that still churns among Hemingway scholars. I will
argue that the original text is the correct text and Scribner's just
failed to interpret it properly. They failed to notice nuances in
Hemingway's writing that appear throughout many of his other works. They
obviously thought Hemingway's reply to Professor Jerome was made without
notice of the inconsistency. Most important, I believe they did not
evaluate the character of the two waiters in "A Clean, Well-Lighted
Place." A careful examination of the character of each waiter can make it
apparent that the original text was correct and that there was no need for
Scribner's to alter the text.
The dialogue in question results from a conversation the two waiters have
concerning the old man's attempted suicide. One waiter asks "Who cut him
down?", to which the other waiter replies "His niece." Later in the story,
the original text appears to confuse who possesses the knowledge about the
suicide. The waiter who previously said "His niece", now says: "I Know.
You said she cut him down." This seems to assume the knowledge about the
attempted suicide has either passed from one waiter to another, or that we
have incorrectly attributed the first exchange to the wrong waiters. So
which waiter asked about cutting down the old man?
When the disputed dialogue between the two waiters takes place, we do not
know enough about them to develop an outline of character. As the story
progresses, the character of the two waiters emerges through their
dialogue and thoughts, as does many of Hemingway's characters. Once the
character of each waiter is developed and understood, the dialogue makes
more sense when the story is read again.
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The older waiter, who is unhurried and can empathize with the old man,
makes declarative and judgmental statements throughout the story. Much
like Count Mippipopolous in "The Sun Also Rises", the older waiter is a
reflective man who understands life and is not compelled to rush his time.
He says things that convey his nature: "The old man is clean. He drinks
without spilling." and "I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe."
The older waiter shows concern for the old man and it would only be
reasonable to assume that he knows a little about him. So if the older
waiter knows about the attempted suicide, why did the original text
"confuse" the issue?
The younger waiter shows all the impatience of youth and an uncaring
attitude towards the old man. He is more concerned about getting home to
his wife and to bed before three than he is about the old man. This
becomes obvious when he says, "An old man is a nasty thing." We can assume
that because the younger waiter cares only that the old man pays his tab,
he is not paying close attention to what the older waiter is saying about
him. This might be viewed as a long inference, but taken with the original
text it interprets quite clearly.
We have seen that the older waiter possess the character of a man
Hemingway would probably respect and admire. He is reserved,
contemplative, judgmental, and possesses many of the characteristics of a
Hemingway hero. The older waiter was trying to make sense of what he
probably saw as an age of confusion. The soldier that passes by suggests a
conflict is occurring and adds to the old waiter's perception of
confusion. He was trying to tell the younger waiter how honest and decent
it is just to sit in a clean cafe and drink a few brandies by yourself
while trying to make sense of life. He tries to tell him that it is
different to sit in a well-lighted cafe than it is to sit at a loud or
dirty bar. The cafe is a place of quiet refuge and the older waiter
understands this. The young waiter does not pay close attention to what
the older waiter is saying because he is too concerned with his own
Understanding the differences in each waiter's character and the
inferences that can be drawn from them is crucial when attributing the
dialogue to the waiter. Certain proposals made by Otto Reinert (1959) and
Charles May (1971) about Hemingway's unconventional presentation of
dialogue can be debunked if it is assumed the waiters have consistent
characters. Reinert and May suggest that Hemingway wrote two lines of
dialogue, but intended them to be said by the same person who in this case
would be the young waiter. This would switch to whom the proceeding
dialogue is attributed to and puts the younger waiter in the position of
telling the older waiter about the old man's attempted suicide. Reinert
and May say that another double dialogue occurs when the older waiter
says: "He must be eighty years old. Anyway I should say he was eighty."
This switches the dialogue again and explains the apparent inconsistency
in the original text when the older waiter says to the younger waiter,
"You said she cut him down."
This would work well, except the dialogue that Reinert and May suggests is
said by the younger waiter does not seem in line with his character. I
cannot accept that the older waiter is suddenly asking all the questions
and that the younger waiter knows enough about the old man to answer them.
While it is true that we are unable to know who speaks which line during
the first two dialogues of the story, when taken as a whole the characters
of the waiters emerge and we are able to attribute lines to each waiter.
The character of each waiter indicates to me that the older waiter knew
about the old man and was therefore telling the younger waiter about him.
If this is so, then the original text still appears to be inconsistent,
but a look at Hemingway's droll approach to humor will suggest otherwise.
George H. Thomson's article " 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place': Interpreting
the Original Text" first gave me the idea that Hemingway might have imbued
the older waiter with a dry humor that is found in other Hemingway
characters. Jacob Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises" and the narrator in
"Green Hills of Africa" possess this dark humor and Hemingway uses it
effectively to befuddle other characters or to add to the cynicism of a
situation. The narrator in "Green Hills of Africa" pretends to aim at
humans while hunting and the guide misunderstands and takes him seriously.
In "The Sun Also Rises" Jake speaks of a woman with bad teeth smiling that
"wonderful smile." The humor in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is more
subtle, but if it exists as Thomson speculates, then it clears up the
apparent inconsistency in the waiters' dialogue.
When the older waiter tells the younger waiter that the old man tried to
hang himself, the younger waiter asks, "Who cut him down?" Thomson
suggests the younger waiter was not thinking clearly because it is easier
to lift someone up and untie the rope or to untie the rope itself than it
is to cut the rope and let the person fall down. The older waiter notes
this, but decides to barb the younger waiter by replying, "His niece." He
does this without further explanation of the particulars because he knows
the younger waiter is completely disinterested anyway. This is shown by
the younger waiter's next response: "Why did they do it?" Even though the
older waiter said niece, the younger waiter responds with "they"
suggesting he was not listening.
Where the inconsistency is purported to occur in the original text, it is
my feeling that the older waiter is still barbing the younger waiter, but
the younger waiter's aloofness prevents him from realizing this.
Younger waiter: "His niece looks after him."
Older waiter: "I know. You said she cut him down."
Taken literally there is no inconsistency because it was the younger
waiter who suggested someone cut him down. The older waiter simply agreed
with him. I could just imagine the scene when the older waiter said this
to the younger waiter. His eyes would glance up, a thin smile would appear
on his lips, but the younger waiter would not be looking. His
consternation would focused towards the old man who was keeping him from
bed. The older waiter was prodding the younger waiter for suggesting that
to take care of the old man all one had to do was cut him down. When the
younger waiter did not respond to his jab, the older waiter probably just
shook his head and went on to tell him the old man was not so bad.
This might be construed in some camps as just rank speculation, but I
enjoy playing with the original text and trying to interpret what
Hemingway wrote, not what Scribner's wrote. Whether or not Hemingway
intended this apparent anomaly to be interpreted this way is unknown, but
I do believe he intended to write it as it was in the original text. The
effect of what Hemingway wrote must be analyzed through his style and
usage of language, but it must be done through what he wrote and not what
satisfies someone else's common sense.