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?

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