A Clean, Well Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

Short stories really are a different animal than full-length novels. Even among short stories there are many types and forms. I used to sometimes think that short stories were more like photographs, that captured a moment in time for a character or event, while novels were like watching a motion picture where you “see everything” there is to see. This morning I read the Hemingway story, “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” as part of my 2011 short story reading project. This story is even short for a short story (not quite five pages in my edition) and to continue the analogy above, would be a photograph with a much quicker shutter speed. It still worked for me.

I’ve had this book, The Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway on my bookshelf for years but have never ventured to delve into it. I don’t know why. I wonder if it’s because my image of the man is a distasteful one. A narcissistic alcoholic? I don’t know anything from my own research so this may be unfair. Perhaps reading a biography of Hemingway is in order.

A Clean, Well Lighted Place captures a feeling, or mood or emotion for me. The basic “plot” – if you can call it that – is that of an old man who likes to drink, sometimes to the point of drunkenness, in a cafe until it closes. We are treated to two different
perspectives of this man’s condition by two waiters at the cafe. One is young and impatient and is only interested in how quickly they can get the old man to leave, so that he himself can go home early to his wife. The other is older and more worldly-wise and sympathetic to the old man. This second waiter, in just a few pages is able to expound on the virtues of “sitting in cafes” for hours (something I would speak in favor of myself 🙂 )

“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” he says. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those that need a light for the night.” Later the older waiter says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the cafe.” Later he says to the young waiter, “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted.” these few sentences capture the essence of the story for me. True, there’s not much “action,” but I enjoyed the ten or fifteen minutes I “spent in the cafe” this morning.

What about you? What do you know about and what have you read by Hemingway? Where should I turn for my next Hemingway read?

Sent from my iPad


  1. Dale Barthauer said,

    March 16, 2011 at 7:50 am

    For Whom The Bell Tolls was my first “classic” book I ever read for my 10th grade English class. I remember my teacher (probably the best one I ever had) saying that Hemingway’s writing style was “simple – deceivingly simple”. I did a term paper on Hemingway in the 11th grade. While the man definitely had his flaws, I found him fascinating. I would also recommend The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, To Have and Have Not, The Old Man and The Sea and the short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I was a Hemingway fanatic for a long time, maybe still am. I think he’s fallen out of vogue though in recent years. He does not always portray women in a politically correct manner. At the same time, several of his female characters such as Pilar in For Whom The Bell Tolls and Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises are strong, independent women.

    I’m going to have to check out this short story. It sounds great! I may have it on my bookshelf somewhere.


    • Jay said,

      March 16, 2011 at 9:57 am

      Hi Dale,
      Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts. In my minimal research this morning, I also ran across the “simple writing style” categorization of Hemingway. The back cover of my collection says, “Hemingway wrote in short, declarative sentences, and in a terse, strong style.” That seems accurate in my limited exposure.

      This story has definitely whetted my appetite for more. When I was a child, my family visited Key West and I remember seeing or touring his house. I had no idea who the heck he was then, of course… I did read The Snows of Kilimanjaro years ago. That was when my appreciation for literature was less acute, however.



  2. March 16, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    This is also one of my favourites – I have read all of Hemingway’s short stories. If you want some suggestions of others you may like, I posted my favourites:



    • Jay said,

      March 16, 2011 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks for the link. I am exhilarated today. I feel like I’ve struck or discovered gold – well more like I’ve known where it was all along but finally just went and dug it up… I’m sure I’ll be reading and writing about more Hemingway in the future.


  3. Jillian said,

    March 17, 2011 at 12:54 am

    I’ll be reading A Farewell to Arms soon.

    For a quick taste, try “Soldier’s Home” (1925). An excellent story.

    Hemingway was a journalist and wrote according to his (self-named) Iceberg Theory — the story is under the surface. The emotion is under the surface. Kind of like Impressionist painting? He gives you the outline, and relies upon (trusts) you to fill in the details.

    Until I realized this about Hemingway, I couldn’t understand why so many read him. Now I’m beginning to truly respect his craft.


  4. Jay said,

    March 17, 2011 at 7:16 am

    Hi Jillian,
    Thanks for the recommendation of “Soldiers Home”; I will at the very least make that one of my “wild card” selections in my short story reading project.

    Thanks for sharing about the “Iceberg Therory” as well. That’s interesting.

    Hope you enjoy A Farewell to Arms; I will be looking forward to reading about it on your blog!


  5. Darlyn said,

    March 18, 2011 at 12:10 am

    My personal views on Hemingway hindered me from reading his work as well. I had to read The Old Man and the Sea for one of my classes, though, and I was left with no choice. Surprisingly, I liked the book, and was impressed by Hemingway’s writing. He can say so many things in a few simple words. 🙂


    • Jay said,

      March 19, 2011 at 6:29 am

      Thanks for the comment, Darlyn. I agree. Hemingway seems to write with a great economy of words. It was a refreshing change of pace to read him.


  6. Dale Barthauer said,

    March 18, 2011 at 10:08 am

    I read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” last night. I thought it was great! I found the “nada” Lord’s Prayer toward the end fascinating. I remember from my research (which was about 30 years ago!) that “nada” or “nothing” was how he described his philosophy on life. Or maybe it was that others had come to refer to Hemingway’s philosophy as “nada”. I can’t remember.

    Thanks for bringing this story to my attention, Jay!


    • Jay said,

      March 19, 2011 at 6:30 am

      Hi Dale,
      Glad you read the story. I thought it was great too. I almost commented on the “nada, nada, nada” monologue as well, but that wasn’t “the most important part” of the story for me. I plan to read some more of this collection as the year goes on. My short-story reading project has been a gold mine!


  7. bcw56 said,

    May 6, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    Certainly appreciate your comment back on my post (http://bit.ly/1GZUrXl) about this story. I know it’s me – not you! I just don’t get this story. I feel zero connection to any of the three characters. I don’t know – I’m missing something!


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