A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
The Deceptive Pacing of the Story
Hemingway does not waste words on changing scenes or marking the passage of time, leaving it up to us to keep track of what’s happening and the story’s pacing. For example, only a brief conversation between the waiters takes place between the time when the younger waiter serves the old man a brandy and the time when the old man asks for another. Hemingway is not suggesting that the old man has slugged back the brandy quickly. In fact, the old man stays in the café for a long time. Time has lapsed here, but Hemingway leaves it up to us to follow the pace of the story. The pace of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” may seem swift, but the action of the story actually stretches out for much longer than it appears to. The sitting, drinking, and contemplating that take place are languid actions. We may read the story quickly, but the scenes themselves are not quick.
Just as Hemingway doesn’t waste words by trying to slow down his scenes, he also refrains from including unnecessary transitions. For example, when the older waiter leaves the café and mulls over the idea of nothingness, he finishes his parody of prayer and, without any transition that suggests that he was walking, we suddenly find him standing at a bar. Hemingway lets the waiter’s thoughts serve as the transition. When he writes, “He smiled and stood before a bar,” we’re meant to understand that the waiter had been walking and moving as he was thinking to himself. And when the waiter orders a drink at the bar, the bartender offers him another just two sentences later. Again, Hemingway is not suggesting that the waiter gulps his drink. Instead, he conveys only the most essential information in the scene.