In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway suggests that life has no meaning and that man is an insignificant speck in a great sea of nothingness. The older waiter makes this idea as clear as he can when he says, “It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too.” When he substitutes the Spanish word nada (nothing) into the prayers he recites, he indicates that religion, to which many people turn to find meaning and purpose, is also just nothingness. Rather than pray with the actual words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” the older waiter says, “Our nada who art in nada”—effectively wiping out both God and the idea of heaven in one breath. Not everyone is aware of the nothingness, however. For example, the younger waiter hurtles through his life hastily and happily, unaware of any reason why he should lament. For the old man, the older waiter, and the other people who need late-night cafés, however, the idea of nothingness is overwhelming and leads to despair.
The old man and older waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” struggle to find a way to deal with their despair, but even their best method simply subdues the despair rather than cures it. The old man has tried to stave off despair in several unsuccessful ways. We learn that he has money, but money has not helped. We learn that he was once married, but he no longer has a wife. We also learn that he has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to quell the despair for good. The only way the old man can deal with his despair now is to sit for hours in a clean, well-lit café. Deaf, he can feel the quietness of the nighttime and the café, and although he is essentially in his own private world, sitting by himself in the café is not the same as being alone.
The older waiter, in his mocking prayers filled with the word nada, shows that religion is not a viable method of dealing with despair, and his solution is the same as the old man’s: he waits out the nighttime in cafés. He is particular about the type of café he likes: the café must be well lit and clean. Bars and bodegas, although many are open all night, do not lessen despair because they are not clean, and patrons often must stand at the bar rather than sit at a table. The old man and the older waiter also glean solace from routine. The ritualistic café-sitting and drinking help them deal with despair because it makes life predictable. Routine is something they can control and manage, unlike the vast nothingness that surrounds them.
Loneliness pervades “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and suggests that even though there are many people struggling with despair, everyone must struggle alone. The deaf old man, with no wife and only a niece to care for him, is visibly lonely. The younger waiter, frustrated that the old man won’t go home, defines himself and the old man in opposites: “He’s lonely. I’m not lonely.” Loneliness, for the younger waiter, is a key difference between them, but he gives no thought to why the old man might be lonely and doesn’t consider the possibility that he may one day be lonely too. The older waiter, although he doesn’t say explicitly that he is lonely, is so similar to the old man in his habit of sitting in cafés late at night that we can assume that he too suffers from loneliness. The older waiter goes home to his room and lies in bed alone, telling himself that he merely suffers from sleeplessness. Even in this claim, however, he instinctively reaches out for company, adding, “Many must have it.” The thought that he is not alone in having insomnia or being lonely comforts him.
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.