Lorraine Balint---- Intro. to Literature----- Sept. 22, 2003
1.) Hemingway's prose style is clean, crisp, and "simple". Annette Benert, however, suggests that "A Cean, Well-Lighted Place" is not "simple" but that "the ideas behind it are compex." Drawing from information in her essay, present your perspective. Is the story simple or complex? Why?
It is now customary, when reading any piece of fiction, wherein the author utilizes
such a pared-down style, to consider it as having hidden meanings, and to identify
and analyze any that appear to exist. In this story, at least, there is plenty,
in a few short pages, to conjecture with.
Add to that observation, the brief excerpt of the Hemingway interview on Page 192 (bearing the date of 1964, which must be the year it was finally published, because Hemingway died in 1961.)
In it, the author admitted to reworking each project at every phase (which in those days meant writing in pencil, then typing, then in the preliminary proof), and distilling the results to convey the purest essence of sensation, sight and emotion. In the process, he tried to "put himself into the heads" of people he observed in daily life, to determine, and then understand, where they were coming from, without necessarily passing judgment on right or wrong in human interaction.
This excerpt, however, was too brief, or, perhaps, did not originally contain, information about the idealogy or personal psychological images Hemingway injected into his work, or how much was unintentional versus what was deliberate. But it seems unlikely that a writer doesn't lavish such attention on work that he/she only intends as light entertainment, too easily accessible to a casual reader.
In any case, even without Ms. Benert's through rundown of the imagery and ideas in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", it seems clear that there's a lot going on behind the economical language in the story. If we examine the circumstances as they might have played out in reality, bearing in mind Hemingway's discipline of considering what was going on beneath the surface, there's almost no such thing as a simple story.
The action takes place in a cafe in some unnamed Hispanic country, very probably Cuba, where Hemingway lived for some time. The original religion of the characters is, or was, Catholic, evidenced by references to suicide being a danger to the soul, and the older waiter's nihilistic parody of prayers, especially the "Hail Mary." Initially, the story relates that the two waiters are simply keeping their eyes on their last customer because of his occasional tendency to depart without paying his tab, but it turns out that there's more to it than a fear of getting ripped off, or considerately preserving their "good client"'s credit.
The older waiter, himself, though whatever early religious beliefs he'd once held have burned out, is almost a God- or Christ-like figure, responsible for keeping the light on in the establishment, and showing a compassionate knowledge of at least one of his emotionally neediest patrons, the old man. There is no history on the older waiter, as there is with the old man, whom we soon learn, has attempted suicide, has a lot of money, was married at one time (whether the wife left him, or died, or both, is not stated), and has at least one niece who, it seems, cared more about her uncle's soul than the possibililty of inheriting his money if his hanging was successful. Yet, aside from his desperate loneliness and attempts to assuage it with drink, the old man is not the major character.
We learn a bit more about the younger waiter; he's married, still eager to get home to bed, and to his wife (maybe anxious about her activities in his absence), impatient and a bit sloppy, "confident", and in denial, as young people usually are, that he might some day end up like the old man, or even the senior waiter. Though not "unjust", he lacks empathy--- annoyed at the old man, he remarks to him that the suicide attempt should have been successful, but it's an empty shot at sarcasm, because he knows the man is deaf.
He is conventional--- in the untagged conversation about the soldier and his girl, one waiter is anxious about the street guard arresting the soldier, probably because he has left his post to hook up--- the impression is that it is the younger waiter who would be so concerned. And though there's no mention of children, they still might be in his future, and so, being a waiter for life might not be his ultimate ambition, another possible explanation for him to rush around. In short, at this point in his life, he has reasons to be attached to the ordinary patterns of life, which include bedtime at a reasonable hour, while it's still dark.
The older waiter, whatever his past, has apparently transcended all these issues. It is only implied that he has been through practically everything the younger man is now going through, and more than some of what the older man is currently experiencing. Though he thinks in atheistic terms, he is more outwardly compassionate than the younger man, yet yearning, like the older man, that someone would understand HIS desire to stay where darkness, dirt and indignity (death) will not threaten or, worse, tempt him.
He claims that he keeps the cafe open for those who need it, when HE seems to need it more than anyone. (Yet, it is never stated who actually OWNS the cafe where the older waiter works--- if not himself, then some landlord who desn't mind paying the electric bills for all those hours the older waiter likes to keep it open.) Then, because he, too, is in denial, when he cannot sleep until daylight, he tells himself it is just insomnia, which "many must have." Many DO, but mostly, not for the same reason.
The eccentric requirement for order is so imbued in his character, he even comments on the relative condition of a probably adequate neighborhood bar. His reverie about "nada" is so obliterating, he barely realizes that he's arrived there, and makes the bartender think he's a bit crazy---maybe from sleep deprivation? He isn't completely virtuous, either--- he might allow the drunken old man to stay at the cafe, but, as a waiter, must cater to the patron's order for more liquor. Though the old man is already at least eighty, this couldn't be good for him either physically or mentally--- it certainly didn't stop him from trying to kill himself a week earlier, and, if his niece is not vigilant, might try again, and succeed. Then, one wonders, how the older waiter would feel about THAT. Sad? Justified?
So many inferences like those above can be gleaned from this story, besides the
obvious symbolism of the lights and shadows and "nada", that even though
written in spare prose, the "simple story", like every person's, is more
complex than meets the eye.
2.) How, according to Benert, does Hemingway create through imagery, setting, and characterization, "barriers against nada"? How do the "two modes of viewing the world" in the story create a tension in the story that presents Hemingway's theme? Explain.
In Benert's view, the imagery of light (mostly artificial light at night) and its interplay with shadows (from leaves of nearby trees, though likely, artificially placed and / or preserved), cleanliness (a relative state of order imposed by the standard of particular human beings), and, to a lesser extent, quiet (the kind that only exists at night in areas occupied by people) are the main barriers against "nothingness".
Light brings clarity, color, and form to objects, which is certainly distracting, and can give the illusion that nothing terrible will happen in its orbit, which is, of course, FAR from true. It also fails as a shield against nada when it makes flaws all too obvious. Cleanliness is another form of security which often proves false, and if the light makes slovenliness more apparent, it's a double whammy. Quietness, though one might associate it with nothingness (think "white noise"), is a barrier if it keeps one free from obnoxious racket and from hearing speech that one doesn't want to hear. But it also keeps one from hearing alarms of danger, from hearing certain unhappy but necessary truths, and from realizing pleasant sounds and speech that might console, inspire, or amuse.
Another type of shield, liquor, (also mainly a human invention, though intoxicants are present in nature and partaken by other creatures) is faulty because, as Benert writes, "It impairs physical functioning", but it impairs mental functioning as well. It is not stated whether the old man was drunk or sober when he tried to hang himself--- perhaps he was so sober for once that reality, or nada, overwhelmed him with despair---- then, again, maybe he was impaired enough to screw up his suicide attempt, the better for his niece to have a chance to rescue him.
Human relationships are also considered a "temporary and /or illusory" shield against nada, especially between men and women. (Hemingway had plenty of real-life problems with women, not to mention his children, which is reflected in some of his writing.) Given that real-life research indicates that a break-up, or death of a spouse is, in many cases, takes a greater toll, emotionally, on men than women, and this, as so much of Hemingway's work, deals mainly with the point of view of male characters, this seems a pretty valid observation.
The inability to sleep, particularly the older waiter's inability to sleep in the dark, is another recurrent theme. If I recall correctly, in "The Sun Also Rises", the protagonist says something to the effect that everyone sleeps alone, even if a companion is present, because that is when one is most at one with, and must therefore deal with, his/her most private existential thoughts and emotions. In this story, the theme is carried further--- because the senior waiter, in his habitual (not "fearing" or "dreading") state of wakefulness for the duration of the artificially-lit night-time hours until morning, is somehow more sensitive and aware. (However, in his rather obsessive actions, he behaves like many people with sleep-related disorders.)
The setting, a cafe (most likely in Cuba) is also a barrier against nada. During the day, no doubt, it was a very social place, full of busy people stopping by for meals, pursuing their life interests and pushing thoughts of nothingness out of their heads. At night, when it becomes the responsibility of the two other waiters, it becomes a different place, too bright, too clean (due to the lack of late-night patrons) and too quiet, but a refuge still for the lonely. Because one could sit and linger (unlike a bar, a sometimes noisy environment where one had to stand until it was no longer possible for the legs to hold one up, or in a bodega, a shop, where one made their purchases and left immediately, perhaps to a lonely home) the reality of nada could be kept at bay. Plus, the streets around the cafe don't seem to be safe, with soldiers and guards and prostitutes to impose harsh reminders of how quickly one's life could be snuffed out and one would have to face the truth about "nada".
As for the characterizations and how they represent various barriers against "nada", Benert claims the old man is just a part of the setting, with his manifest problems, which have never been leavened by the attitude the senior waiter has taken. On the other hand, stands the junior waiter, who has yet to face whatever crises brought on the other waiter's belief-or-lack-thereof-system. They form a trinity of life experience that has gone forth without strong faith in the organized religion with which they are most familiar, and has elements of the amoral.
Between both, only the older waiter has found a balance--- caring for his fellow man, and doing right, without that particular anchor, and without getting too involved with others' lives (aside from learning some facts, as he has about the old man's suicide bid.) Consider the different ways both waiters deal with the self-destructive old man. The younger waiter may be insulting to him, but he DOES make an effort to set a limit on his drinking and suggests alternate ways for him to spend the rest of the night. In HIS willingness to accept the old man as he is, and catering to his wishes, however deleterious they might be, the older waiter has some things in common with the previous story of Gimpel. That character, after a lifetime of taking deception as his due, has come to the conclusion that all he is told is relative in truth, and all that he's required to do is listen and be kindly non-judgmental, but detached. The difference is, of course, that Gimpel is acting in large part due to devout religious belief, while the waiter has long since lost his.
Benert compares the older waiter to the tramps in "Waiting for Godot", as one who has long since realized that there is nothing to wait for. But in replacing faith in a higher power with faith in electrical power, faith in spiritual sanctity with faith in a polished counter and shined floors, and faith, not in hushed prayers, hymns, and chants, but in pure quiet, this has become HIS religion. The older waiter lives a monastic existence which grates on his more worldly young co-worker; the older man is preaching some great truths, albeit skewered by his perspective and odd habits, that the younger doesn't want to hear.
The senior waiter's practice of surviving with dignity in spite of life's apparent meaninglessness has no influence upon the despairing old man, though the latter may drink his liquor daintily and not stumble when walking afterwards. Still, this old man's life of diminishing returns HAS been spared by his well-meaning niece, the barely-mentioned religious-minded, non-cynical parallel of the younger waiter, who, though she, too, apparently cannot control her uncle completely, still believes he is eligible for a place in an afterlife beyond this world's empty values.
The tension in the story, then, is between, on the one side, those who relentlessly
seek and cling to life, pushing inconvenient others out of the way in order to avoid
considering nothingness, and those who have been pushed aside in the process and
/or broken by their realization of it.... And, on the other side, those who, like
the older waiter, who accept that it exists, yet endeavor to fight it when it overwhelms
them, and to offer a haven for others drifting into it, while seeking a haven for
3.) Benert asserts that in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", "characterization is even more important than imagery." How does she defend her claim? What examples does she provide? Are you persuaded by the way she supports her point of view?
Contrary to Benert's argument, it appears that the characterizations go hand-in-hand with the imagery. The old man, especially, is melded into his environment, sitting with the circle of the light as he wishes, with some shadows from leaves to hide and protect him to a certain extent. When he is made to leave, stripped of his shield, though he walks "with dignity" in the gloom, his gait is still unsteady, and being very old, is a pathetic parting image. The young waiter, anxious to get home to wife and bed, is quite willing to brave the dark to seek his darkened bedroom, though there are police or soldiers patrolling the streets. The older waiter is almost inextricably tied to the light, over which he has dominion in the cafe. When he says his "nada" prayers" after closing the cafe, he suddenly finds himself in a brightly-lit bar, smiling away, with no description of his journey--- it is almost as if he has materialized there the instant he turned off the cafe lights.
In the previous questions, the roles of the three major protagonists have been described. While the old man IS presented as more or less a starting point for the great existential debate between the two waiters, he is also the one with the most biography in the piece--- he has had eighty years of life, with all its good and bad, and, whether he ends it himself or just passes away, it will surely be soon. Thus, everything he has been through, which is well-known to the elder waiter (perhaps, before he went deaf, the old man was one of those drunks who tells their life stories to bartenders and waiters) becomes grist for the conversation, as "the way things are."
By not giving the characters names, and simply referring to them in the objective sense as "the old man", the "older waiter" and the "younger waiter", Hemingway takes the opportunity to make plays on the word "waiter", as Benert points out. The younger waiter is the ironic "hurried waiter", brash, unimaginative, and impatient, eager to get on with his life. The older is the "unhurried waiter", who could wait all night for another lost soul to enter the cafe, or to simply sit there in the light itself until daybreak, because he has nothing else to wait for. He is the one who has taken the time to learn about the old man, and probably other patrons AND the younger waiter, while the younger waiter hasn't taken much time, until now, to learn about him. Not that the younger waiter is, at this time in his life, capable of understanding much, until more of life's inevitable, inexhorable, and inexplicable disappointments and tragedies touch him.
Bernert cites other analyses of this story to shore up her own analysis, especially in the peculiar tendency of Hemingway's to leave long stretches of dialogue untagged, that is, unascribed to either of the speakers, thus creating ambiguities in who means what, a notable quirk in an author who slaved so over his writing, thus it must have been intentional. She provides examples of the older waiter's double-edged statements which indicate that, though he is understanding and patient to a fault, he still has human moments of sarcasm, but with good intentions of bringing up points that the younger waiter is just too dense to catch on.
In a couple of the examples Bernert cites, when Older waiter tells Younger waiter that the old man attempted suicide, Younger waiter asks why, and older waiter attempts to explain it was some nameless despair, in spite of the fact that the old man has money. Yet, just a short time later, Younger waiter asks a similar question, and gets an exasperated "How should I know" from Older waiter. Later, when Younger waiter tells Older waiter he has no fear of the night because he has confidence, Older waiter says that the other has "Everything--- Youth, confidence, and a job", all of which, like the younger man's relationship with his wife, could be swept away some day. (All of which may have happened to Older waiter at some point.)
Benert considers the Older waiter to be different than the old man, because he is determined to survive and fight the good fight against "nada", without seeking oblivion in drink or suicide. Still, given that the older waiter was probably middle-aged, perhaps late 40's or early 50's (while the younger waiter is apparently in his 20's), another 30 years would have to pass before one came to the conclusion that the older waiter would NEVER pursue those options, once the enchantment of light (or, as I made humorous allusion to, the electric bill), cleanliness, and quiet were also seen as high-maintenance, illusory shields against nothingness, and he continued to refuse to seek distraction in human relationships and pastimes.
Moreover, if this was real life, one suspects his resolve might fade, when his eccentric obsessions about these qualities alienate others and overwhelm his positive characteristics of "awareness, sesnisitivity, human soldarity, ritual (verbal and physical) humor, and courage."