In Ernest Hemingway's short story, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place", the concept of
nada is the central and most important theme. As described by Carlos Baker, Nada is "a
Something called Nothing which is so huge, terrible, overbearing, inevitable, and
omnipresent that, once experienced, it can never be forgotten" (Baker 124). It is a
metaphysical state that symbolizes the chaos in everyone's lives. Some people have it
more than others and some deal with this idea differently that others. Either way, nada is
an uncontrollable force that should never be forgotten.
Steven Hoffman, believes that "the only way to approach the Void is to develop a
very special mode of being, the concrete manifestation of which is the clean, well-lighted
place" (Hoffman 176). This cafe is a warrior against this nothingness. The place is clean,
pleasant, and orderly. There is no music. It is a plain and simple refuge against the lonely,
dark world that awaits outside (Hemingway 256). However, this cafe must close at some
time or another thus proving that the cafe isn't enough to combat the nada. It is not even
a place but an artificial, man-made building that tries to fight against this real idea of nada.
If one has the internal qualities, cleanliness and inner vision, they can cope with the
nothingness even outside of the cafe. The old waiter is a prime example. At times the old
man lacks these qualities thus not being able to cope with the darkness. On the other
hand, the young waiter has no concept of this idea thus making him not even realize how
powerful it can be.
The old waiter is the most important character in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place."
The old waiter has completely grasped the concept of nada and is able to deal with it.
Hemingway says," What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he
knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too...Some lived in it and
never felt it but he knew it all..." (258). It was him that recognizes the old man's problem
from the beginning. He realizes that this man is dealing with the most difficult part of his
life, the end. Also, the old man's parody of the Lord's prayer clearly shows that he has
grasped this concept of nada. No one else could use the term this way and not know
what it means. Also, Even though the old waiter has plenty of money, he realizes that this
is not all he needs to escape the darkness. Nothing can escape it.
Unlike the old man, the waiter deals with this darkness in a more positive way.
Hoffman says,"...this character displays true metaphysical courage in raising the concept
of nada..." (Hoffman 185). The old waiter says, "I am one 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....Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who
needs the cafe" (Hemingway 258). The light, order, and pleasant atmosphere is provided
by him. The escape from nothing is provided by him. Without him, the old man would be
lost in the darkness. This makes the old waiter is the true hero of the story.
The character that has been in contact with the nada for quite some time and has
not yet learned how to deal with it the right way is the old man. He is said to be eighty
years old, virtually death, and recently widowed (257). The very wealthy man is
depressed, thus showing the reader why he had tried to kill himself. In his case he has the
light and realizes that there is a destructive force out there called nada. However, unlike
the waiter, he has not yet learned to face this force and often tries to escape it through
drinking or attempted suicide. The old man realizes the importance of this cafe in his life.
This is the pleasant place where he goes to escape the reality of his own life. Even though
the old man believes that this place is an escape, Hoffman says,"...darkness has indeed
invaded this character's place, for he sits 'in the shadows the leaves of the trees made
against the electric light'" (181).
The old man's dignity and style are all that he has to fight this void. Hemingway
believed "that an ordered personal style is one of the few sources of value in an otherwise
meaningless universe" (181). Also, Anthony Burgess once said, "Life is too short for
anything but the one thing that can outface death - human dignity" (Burgess 61). Even
though the young waiter says that "an old man is a nasty thing (Hemingway 257)", the old
man is personalized as a well-cut individual. The old waiter says that the man is clean and
no matter how drunk he gets, he will never spill his drink (Hoffman 181). The old man
keeps his dignity even when facing the dark chaos of nada.
An exact opposite of the old man is the young waiter. The inexperienced waiter
has not yet grasped the idea of nothingness. He can't see the light and does not have the
vision. Therefore he can not deal with it when he is face to face with it. Hoffman believes
that, "...youth and the illusory confidence...are clearly inadequate tools with which to
combat the darkness" (184). Nothing to him means not having something, a personal
item. Hoffman calls the young waiter's idea "the absence of those objects capable of
providing material satisfaction" (178). To add to his ignorance, the young waiter violates
the principle of cleanliness and spill the old man's brandy on the table (258). He believes
his life is fine and that this nada is nowhere present. However, when the old waiter
jokingly accuses the young waiter's wife of infidelity, the young waiter snaps back at him
with anger (258). Therefore, he is not even sure about what his wife is doing. He is so
confident that there is no darkness in his life that he totally ignores the idea of his wife
cheating on him. Hoffman sums up this character's roll when he says, "The ability to
extend outward to others from a firmly established self is once again in direct contrast to
the narrow, selfish pride of the young waiter, who is unmoved by the needs of the old man
and sees love as a matter of blind loyalty and physical gratification" (189).
Nada is the most overwhelming idea presented in this story. It is pictured as a fate
that everyone must come to deal with at sometime or another. However, some people
deal with it better than others. "Those who manage to adjust to life on the edge of the
abyss do so because they see clearly the darkness that surrounds them yet create a
personal sense of order, an identity, with which to maintain balance on this precious
perch" (191). The "precious perch" refers to life itself. Hoffman believes that everyone
must learn to deal with this nothingness in order to survive it in their own lives. If a
person is overtaken by nada, they end up in despair and loneliness. Some attempt suicide
and others commit suicide like the late Ernest Hemingway.
Baker, Carlos. Hemingway...the Writer as Artist. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway and His World. New York: Charles Scribner's
Hemingway, Ernest. "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." Literature: Reading, Writing,
Reacting. Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt
Brace College Publishers., 1997. 256-259.
Hoffman, Steven K. "'Nada' and the Clean Well-Lighted Place: The Unity of
Hemingway's Short Fiction." Ernest Hemingway. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York:
Chelsea House, 1985. 173-192.