Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

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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.

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