In Ernest Hemingway’s short — A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, the author portrays the conversation and thoughts of an old waiter and a younger one as they work late at a café. Hemingway shows us both sides of youth and maturity. Although youth is often associated with ambition, enthusiasm, and energy, Hemingway shows us that it can also bring ignorance and egocentrism. On the flip side, Hemingway shows that with age comes with wisdom and empathy but with it comes a despair of life. Between these two waiters, the author illustrates a contrast of youth and maturity through their actions, dialogue, and descriptions.
The author sets the scene by introducing us to the old deaf man sitting in the café. The old man “liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference”. The café is like a sanctuary for the old man as he feels alone when he goes home. If old man “became too drunk he would leave without paying”, so the two waiters stayed to check on him.
The young waiter’s egocentrism first appears when he served the deaf man. As the old man called him over to refill his glass, he said to the older waiter, “He’ll stay all night, I’m sleepy now. I never get into bed before three o’clock. He should have killed himself last week.” This piece of dialogue successfully shows that the waiter was only thinking about himself. He wants to close shop solely because he wants to go home. The old man wanted to stay in the shop because drinking at home was different compared to being at a clean café. But because of the young waiter’s ignorance, he did not consider how the old man felt, only how he felt himself.
The older waiter’s reaction to the old man staying late was completely different to the young waiter’s. In contrast to the young waiter, the old waiter is much more understanding of the old man. He empathizes with him because he knows the feeling of nada and knew that the old man liked it here because it was clean and well-lighted. The old man’s empathy can be seen especially when he was talking to the young waiter — “‘I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,’ the old waiter said. ‘With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.’” He is reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café, and out of sympathy he will be here for them. In contrast to the younger waiter’s ignorance, he shows understanding and acts based off of the old man’s needs, rather than his own.
Despite the selfishness of the young waiter, the author also highlights the ambition and confidence the younger waiter possesses. The younger waiter responded to the older waiter’s joke with “‘No, I have confidence. I am all confidence.” He takes pride in himself and the confidence becomes visible to others around. “‘You have youth, confidence, and a job,’ the older waiter said. ‘You have everything.’ This confidence contrasts strongly with the old waiter’s despair and the realization that life is meaningless.
The most eye-catching part of the story is probably when the old man talks about nada and the nothing of life. In comparison with the young waiter’s life, the older waiter lacks “‘Everything but work.’” His life is empty and therefore he sees that “it was all a nothing and a man is a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” Because of this realization, the old man despairs at life because life is a meaningless nada.
Hemingway’s short story that old age and youth can stand for more than just confidence and despair. It also shows that as we each get older we become more selfless and understanding of other people like the older waiter. He also showed us that youth can mean confidence. However, it also comes with a sense of ignorance and egocentrism. Through introducing a simple setting and writing about the thoughts and actions of two characters, Hemingway allowed us to see the contrast between the old and young.