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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

The Older Waiter

Like the old man, the older waiter likes to stay late at cafés, and he understands on a deep level why they are both reluctant to go home at night. He tries to explain it to the younger waiter by saying, “He stays up because he likes it,” but the younger waiter dismisses this and says that the old man is lonely. Indeed, both the old man and the older waiter are lonely. The old man lives alone with only a niece to look after him, and we never learn what happened to his wife. He drinks alone late into the night, getting drunk in cafés. The older waiter, too, is lonely. He lives alone and makes a habit of staying out late rather than going home to bed. But there is more to the older waiter’s “insomnia,” as he calls it, than just loneliness. An unnamed, unspecified malaise seems to grip him. This malaise is not “a fear or dread,” as the older waiter clarifies to himself, but an overwhelming feeling of nothingness—an existential angst about his place in the universe and an uncertainty about the meaning of life. Whereas other people find meaning and comfort in religion, the older waiter dismisses religion as “nada”—nothing. The older waiter finds solace only in clean, well-lit cafés. There, life seems to make sense.

The older waiter recognizes himself in the old man and sees his own future. He stands up for the old man against the younger waiter’s criticisms, pointing out that the old man might benefit from a wife and is clean and neat when he drinks. The older waiter has no real reason to take the old man’s side. In fact, the old man sometimes leaves the café without paying. But the possible reason for his support becomes clear when the younger waiter tells the older waiter that he talks like an old man too. The older waiter is aware that he is not young or confident, and he knows that he may one day be just like the old man—unwanted, alone, and in despair. Ultimately, the older waiter is reluctant to close the café as much for the old man’s sake as for his own because someday he’ll need someone to keep a café open late for him.

The Younger Waiter

Brash and insensitive, the younger waiter can’t see beyond himself. He readily admits that he isn’t lonely and is eager to return home where his wife is waiting for him. He doesn’t seem to care that others can’t say the same and doesn’t recognize that the café is a refuge for those who are lonely. The younger waiter is immature and says rude things to the old man because he wants to close the café early. He seems unaware that he won’t be young forever or that he may need a place to find solace later in life too. Unlike the older waiter, who thinks deeply—perhaps too deeply—about life and those who struggle to face it, the younger waiter demonstrates a dismissive attitude toward human life in general. For example, he says the old man should have just gone ahead and killed himself and says that he “wouldn’t want to be that old.” He himself has reason to live, and his whole life is ahead of him. “You have everything,” the older waiter tells him. The younger waiter, immersed in happiness, doesn’t really understand that he is lucky, and he therefore has little compassion or understanding for those who are lonely and still searching for meaning in their lives.