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The main focus of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is on the pain of old age suffered by a man that we meet in a cafe late one night. Hemingway contrasts light and dark to show the difference between this man and the young people around him, and uses his deafness as an image of his separation from the rest of the world. Near the end of the story, the author shows us the desperate emptiness of a life near finished without the fruit of its' labor, and the aggravation of the old man's restless mind that cannot find peace. Throughout this story stark images of desperation show the old man's life at a point when he has realized the futility of life and finds himself the lonely object of scorn.
The most obvious image used by Hemingway in this story is that of the contrast between light and dark. The cafe is a "Clean, Well-Lighted Place". It is a refuge from the darkness of the night outside. Darkness is a symbol of fear and loneliness. The light symbolizes comfort and the company of others. There is hopelessness in the dark, while the light calms the nerves. Unfortunately for the old man, this light is an artificial one, and its peace is both temporary and incomplete.
"... the tables were empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind."
Maybe the old man hides in the shadows of the leaves because he recognizes the shortcoming of his refuge. Perhaps he is drawn to the shadows so that the darkness of his own age will not be so visible as it would be in the full force of the electric light. His body is dark with the effects of illness. Even his ears bring him a sort of darkness as they hold out the sounds of the world.
The old man's deafness is also a powerful image used in the story. "...the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he could feel the difference." Deafness shuts the old man out from the rest of the world. In the day, everything must be a reminder to him of his disconnection from the world.
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"The Powerful Images of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, By Hemingway." 123HelpMe.com. 13 Oct 2019
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Another tool used by Hemingway in this story is the image of Nothing. Nothing is what the old man wants to escape. The older waiter, who sometimes acts as the voice of the old man's soul, describes his adversary:
"It was all nothing, and a man was nothing, too...Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada nada be thy name thy kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee..."
The Nothing is a relentless monotony, unbroken by joy or sorrow. It is unending emptiness without comfort or companionship of man or God. It is the senselessness of each heart-beat that is just like the last and refuses to give in to death. The old man's loneliness is empty. His days of retirement without useful work or purpose are empty. The emptiness of a life without progress of meaning is Nothing, and this Nothing afflicts the old man with a powerful grip. The only escape from this Nothing is blissful unconsciousness, permanent only in death.
The old man's death-wish is further played out through the metaphor of insomnia, an ailment which he apparently shares with the older waiter insomnia keeps the two awake through the hours of darkness, just as a tenacious life keeps the old man breathing when he would rather rest in his grave. In the second paragraph of the story, the older waiter informs the younger that their elderly customer had tried to commit suicide the week before. The old man is racked with despair - at his loneliness, the darkness of his life, his segregation from the world, and the Nothingness that permeates his existence. He wants rest, but it is withheld from him. Even when he tries to take his own life, his niece cuts him down from his noose. Peace is far from this man, and what little relief he may find is incomplete like the artificial light of the cafe. He tries to drown himself in whiskey, but that also fails to bring him rest. There is only left the hope that, as drunk as he is, he may pass out when he arrives home.
This story is filled with images of despair. The contrasts between light and dark, youth and age are harsh and well defined. The reader leaves the story with a feeling that there is no escape from the doldrums of the winter years of life. Perhaps it is Hemingway's own terror of old age and infirmity that he is trying to communicate to the reader.
Hemingway, Ernest. "A Clean, Well Lighted Place." Literature for Composition. 4th ed. Ed. Sylvan Barnet, et.al. New York: HarperCollins 1996. 1169-1173.