Ernest Hemingway’s story is about two waiters who talk about life, time, and aging while watching a deaf old man drink brandy in the well-lighted cafe where they work. It seems like a simple story, but the conversation between the two waiters highlights the stark differences between the two of them and leads the reader to infer what the story is actually about. The differences between the two waiters highlight the real differences between young and old. The starkest differences between the two are the young waiter’s view of time, confidence, and the old waiter’s somewhat nihilistic approach to life.
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The story begins with a scene where the two waiters are ready to close. They are delayed by a regular customer, an old man who orders more drinks. This brings out the first character difference between the two waiters. The young waiter’s emphasis is on the importance of time throughout the story. The older waiter, on the other hand, has a compassion for the old man and easily identifies him. Since they both suffer from despair, the young waiter is in a hurry to get out of the cafe and head home. For instance, the young waiter hurries the deaf old man out of the store in an attempt to go home just a little earlier. This prompts the older waiter to question the younger one why he cannot let the old man stay and drink (Hemingway289). The young waiter replies that he wants to reach home and get into his wife’s bed. When the older waiter asks what difference an hour makes, the young waiter replies that for him it is longer than that to the deaf old man (Hemingway 289).
This small exchange highlights the difference in view of time between the two waiters. While the young man exhibits a monochronic approach (a rigid sense of deadlines), the old man is decidedly polychronic (a more fluid sense of deadlines). The young man is preoccupied with time and wants to go home. It is because he scoffs at the older waiter when he says that he is reluctant to close up since someone needs the cafe (Hemingway 290). The older waiter understands the deadlines to be flexible and predicated on the needs of others. Conversely, the young man is too preoccupied with self-interest to consider time in relation to any but his own wishes and desires. The young waiter's obsession with his time shows his disregard for the time of others, whereas the concern for others shows unselfishness in the older waiter that the younger does not yet possess. According to George (38), the older is an appreciative waiter. He appreciates the dignity of the old man and his need in the well-lighted place late at night. As a result, he identifies with him (38). This clearly comes out at the end when the older waiter sit at a bar late at night, just like the old man at the café and let time slip away while in the cafe.
In this story, the young man is also brimming with confidence while the older waiter seems to be much more humble. At one point in the story, the difference in confidence between the two men he becomes blatantly revealed. The young man comes out clearly that he has all confidence (Hemingway 290), whereas the old man, in contrast, says he has never had confidence and denies being young (Hemingway 290). The overconfidence and almost arrogant attitude of the younger waiter certainly stand in sharp contrast with the older, humbler waiter.
Aside from the moments in the story where the two waiters come out and talk about the differences between them, there are other parts of the story that point the fact that the young man is full of himself, unable to see the Life’s reality of the world in him. The young waiter is very confident and self-assured. He even tells him that he should have killed himself last week (Hemingway 289). This exchange of the word termed self-satisfied, callousness, excessive and a gratuitous display of this waiter’s assurance that nothing in common between despairing old man (David 566). The young man feels so detached and so afraid of becoming older and losing his confidence that he is almost angry at the old man for even being in the cafe at all. At one point, the young man even describes a man as a nasty thing (Hemingway 290). He is scared that he will lose his confidence and become that old man, so his reaction is to deprecate the old man and to be callous with him to shore up his own confidence. This contrasts with the older waiter who makes it a point to try to convince the young waiter of the merits of the elderly age by highlighting the old men’s cleanliness when he drinks without spilling even when drunk (Hemingway 290). The older waiter is trying to show the younger that his disdain for the old man is not warranted. He gets the point across that being old does not mean that there is no confidence and that age does not make one grotesque. The old man wishes to convey the inherent grace and sagacity that only come with age.
Nihilism and Materialism
The final and probably most noteworthy difference between the two waiters is the old man’s nihilism vs. the young man’s materialism. The old waiter seems to have the view when material things do not actually matter, while the younger man measures the worth of his life in these things exclusively. For the old man this makes no sense because, according to him, everything “is a nothing and man is a nothing too” (Hemingway 291). This line communicates the nihilistic approach that the older waiter seems to take to life.
This view of “nothingness” communicated through the long monologue at the end of the story where the old waiter states to himself about Nada (nothing) (Hemingway 291). This is a retelling of the Lord’s Prayer where "nada," or nothing, replaces the venerated proper nouns. Nada in Hemingway’s, the older waiter in A Clean Well-Lighted Place, can “use the term nada because, unlike the young waiter who thinks only in materialistic terms, the order waiter is aware of the importance of non-rationalistic, mystical, experience” (55). The older waiter recognizes more about life than the material possessions and without a way to describe it, he resigns to calling it “nada.” Once again this is in sharp contrast to the younger waiter who places value on many things such as his wife, money and his time. Early on in the story, when asked why, the old attempted suicide, the young waiter replies with, “Nothing.” The older waiter questions of how he knows it to be nothing. The young waiter sees life problems be solved by one being rich hence says the old man has no reason to kill himself since he has much money (Hemingway 288). This shows just what sort of a premium the young waiter places on money. To him, if you have money, there should not be any despair. Not only is the younger waiter caught up in materialism of the world, he is also worried about the idea that he may be old. As it was discussed earlier, this elicits a negative reaction from the young man because he sees life as a means to ending up like the old man in question. The older waiter, on the other hand, seems to have a sense of serenity about him when talking about the old man. He is closer in age, has had more life experiences and appreciates the “nothingness” that truly is everyday life.
This story of two waiters in this well-lighted cafe seems to be on the surface of the bland story without much action, but the differences between the two waiters and how they were affected by the presence of an old man in this scenario. The interest was in whether he truly gives this story legs on which to stand. The concept of time is particularly crucial for the story, as it is repeated over and over again by the younger waiter. The older waiter, however, seems almost to have a disdain for time. Confidence, a much aspect of the story where Hemingway seemingly uses the young man’s confidence to relay certain sense of ignorance about what life is about and how it works. The old waiter’s humility on the other hand, relays a sense of wisdom, but also a sense of sadness in the “nothingness” that is life. This “nothingness”, which is truly everything, is a combination of the peace at heart of the eternity the timelessness of aging and the fact of growing old, juxtaposed with the materialism of the younger waiter. These are actually the core of this magnificent Hemingway’s work.