Skip over navigation

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway

Important Quotations Explained

Existentialism and the “Lost Generation”

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”

The older waiter makes this comment near the end of the story when he and the younger waiter are about to leave the café, and it reveals his own loneliness and despair. Until this point, the old man seemed to be the only one who wanted to stay at the café, but now the older waiter seems to need the café as well. A few lines before this, he reveals that he is someone who likes to stay at cafés late into the night, so his reluctance has two meanings. First, he understands why the old man and others may want or need to stay late, and he keeps the café open as a gesture of kindness and generosity. Second, he himself needs the café, so he is reluctant to close it because he, like the old man and others, will then be without a place to sit and wait out the night. While the younger waiter is rushing to get home, the older waiter leaves the café sadly, once again displaced and alone.

2. 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 nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

This quotation appears near the end of the story, just after the older waiter leaves the café, and it explains the nature of what afflicts the older waiter and the old man, as well as all those people who want to stay in cafés late at night. We learn that this affliction is not fear or dread, and from the way the older waiter phrases his thoughts, we know that the affliction is not something that is clear, concrete, or easily described. Hemingway fills this passage with the vague pronouns it and that, never clarifying exactly what it and that refer to. We learn only that the affliction is “a nothing.” The older waiter repeats “nothing” over and over again, emphasizing the idea.

The lack of specificity in this passage is confusing, but Hemingway is being vague on purpose. By using vague pronouns and saying only that everything is “nothing,” he conveys the idea that the problem keeping the older waiter and the old man awake at night is related to something huge, even infinite, something beyond what language can describe: the purpose and meaning of life. Existential questions such as the meaning of life and existence make the night a dangerous, empty place for the people who dare to consider them. Only a clean, well-lighted café provides a refuge from these thoughts.

Follow Us