A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by: Ernest Hemingway

Symbols

The Café

The café represents the opposite of nothingness: its cleanliness and good lighting suggest order and clarity, whereas nothingness is chaotic, confusing, and dark. Because the café is so different from the nothingness the older waiter describes, it serves as a natural refuge from the despair felt by those who are acutely aware of the nothingness. In a clean, brightly lit café, despair can be controlled and even temporarily forgotten. When the older waiter describes the nothingness that is life, he says, “It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” The it in the sentence is never defined, but we can speculate about the waiter’s meaning: although life and man are nothing, light, clealiness, and order can serve as substance. They can help stave off the despair that comes from feeling completely unanchored to anyone or anything. As long as a clean, well-lighted café exists, despair can be kept in check.