What are some symbols in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place?

Reference: MEG-06 American Literature Block-7 American Short Story

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is possibly one of Hemingway’s most excellent short stories. It depicts the techniques of his signature writing style. The narrative is a perfect example of an initiation story, a short story that focuses on the key characters that come across a concept, encounter, practice or knowledge he never knew. The characters in his story are the old man, the young waiter, and the old waiter. Hemingway employs several literary tools in the story to convey his themes of life.

What is symbolism?

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—usually a physical object or phenomenon—to represent something more abstract. A strong symbol usually shares a set of key characteristics with whatever it is meant to symbolize, or is related to it in some other way. It may be defined as a non-superficial representation of an idea or belief that goes beyond what is "seen."

Symbolism is defined through physical objects, characters or events.

Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" uses symbolism to help convey the theme of Nihilism, the philosophy that there is nothing heavenly to believe in. It discusses that there is no supernatural reason or explanation of how the world is today. 

Some symbols in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place":

The Cafe

The Lord's Prayer

The Soldier

The Shadow of Leaves


The café

The café represents something different to the old man, the older waiter, and the younger waiter. For the old man and the older waiter, the café represents order, refuge, and a place to distract them from the emptiness of the night. For the younger waiter, the café is a place to leave as quickly as possible after his work is done, and he seems to find the fact that the old man and the older waiter find comfort in it repulsive. The older waiter tries in vain to explain why the existence of the café is so important to people like himself and the old man—it provides a clean, well-lit place in opposition to the nothingness of despair.

The title of the story refers to the café—it describes the qualities the older waiter believes are essential to a place that stays open at night, differentiating it from bars and bodegas. The cleanliness and light represent an antidote to the dark night, which is when the older waiter senses "nada" as the strongest. For both the old man and the older waiter, the café symbolizes a brief escape from the "nada" or nothingness the older waiter describes.

The opposite of nothingness: its cleanliness and good lighting suggest order and clarity, whereas nothingness is chaotic, confusing, and dark. 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. It is the sentence is never defined, but we can speculate: although life and man are nothing, light, cleanliness, and order can serve as substance. They can 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.
The Lord's Prayer.

The older waiter recites the Lord's Prayer to himself, replacing various nouns and verbs with the Spanish word nada, which means "nothing." By reciting it in this way, he mocks the notion that religion can provide meaning and comfort—instead, he finds this meaning and comfort in being able to frequent a "clean, well-lighted" place at night to stave off loneliness, insomnia, and thoughts of his own mortality. Because he believes there is "nothing," or no larger purpose to life, he may as well take comfort where he can. In this way, he understands why the old man continues to come to the café to drink at night after his failed attempt at suicide. The recitation of the modified Lord's Prayer reflects the upheaval in religious belief that began around the end of the 19th century when philosophers began to scrutinize the influence of industrialism and science on spiritual belief. By having the older waiter mock the Lord's Prayer, Hemingway criticizes the notion that religion provides solace and comfort against feelings of dread and futility.

The Soldier.
A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.

This is the only time that the soldier is mentioned in the story. One of the waiters says that he is likely to be picked up by the guard, presumably for being out after curfew, or with a girl, or both. Although he appears only fleetingly, the soldier has a definite symbolic value. He represents all the young people, busy with their own lives and desires, who do not need the cafe. The younger waiter is a man of approximately the same type, but he is employed to work at the cafe, though it has no emotional significance for him. For the older waiter, however, as well as for the old man drinking brandy, the cafe has a spiritual role, as an oasis of light and order in a dark, threatening world. This is why the older waiter is always reluctant to close for the night. Old, lonely people need a clean, well-lighted place, for they are lost in the young virile.

"The old soldier symbolizes basic humanity: the need that any person has to enjoy the dignity of a clean, quiet, well-lit place. We learn that the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference... The two waiters on duty have contrasting attitudes toward the old man. One waiter is impatient with him, wishes he would leave, says he could go to another bar, and shows, overall, no empathy toward him. The other waiter understands that this old soldier represents humanity and should be treated with dignity. The other bars would force him to stand and would be crowded and chaotic. The two waiters have the following conversation. The first waiter says This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him. The second waiter says I don't want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work. The story emphasizes that for humans in despair and facing "nada" or nothing (we learn the old soldier has tried to take his own life), the little things that affirm a person's humanity are all-important. Hemingway implies that we are all potentially this everyman, facing despair, and we, therefore, should treat each other with sensitivity and compassion.

The soldier in this short story is a human representation of the stability that he represents to the old deaf man. Soldiers live an orderly and predictable life, in many ways; they wear uniforms, they live by a rigid hierarchy, and they are always duty-bound to their positions. All of these aspects of a soldier's life can provide familiarity, comfort and stability to the men and women involved in the military world, much like the provides an element of familiarity, comfort, and stability for the old man. Additionally, the soldier also serves as a symbol of the Lost Generation: the community of writers and artists living in Paris in the 1920s, of which Ernest Hemingway was a member. These writers and artists ruminated on the enormous losses of life sustained during World War I, and the fleeting presence of the soldier is a subtle reminder of the enduring impact of World War I on society. This particular interpretation of the presence of the soldier links the older waiter's attitude toward religion (as "nada," or "nothing") to the existential crisis that Hemingway and his fellow intellectuals experienced as a result of the war.

A girl and a soldier went by. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him. In Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," an old man, a heroic drunk who neatly replaces his cup without spilling his drink, quietly sits in the clean, well-lit cafe that chases away his loneliness, if only for a time. Fresh and clean and bright like an early part of the day, this cafe does not resemble the night of loneliness that the man must face when he goes home. It is with the soldier's passing by the old man who sits in the shadows that the reader surmises that this soldier represents order and the dictates of time and Death with the numbers on his collar, for after he passes, the younger waiter comments, "The guard will pick him up" because the man has stayed at the cafe too long and become inebriated.

The shadow of leaves.
Darkness in this short story symbolizes despair while light, especially when accompanied by cleanliness and order, symbolizes a refuge from the chaos and nothingness ("nada") of the universe.

In this story, an old man sits in "the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light" of a cafe. This is a pleasant setting, though the shadows reflect the sadness that hovers over the old man's life. We learn that the old man recently tried to hang himself because of despair.

The light of the cafe provides the old man with a bulwark against his despair. This light represents safety. The younger waiter is angry that the old man is lingering late in the cafe. The younger waiter wants to get home to his wife. However, the older waiter understands why the old man stays, even though it is very late at night. He feels a sense of compassion for the old man, with whom he identifies.

The light of the cafe stands for the light of compassion. In a meaningless post-World War I world, islands of compassion and light like the cafe are important to keeping despair at bay. A clean, well-lit cafe may seem like very little in the larger scheme of things, but it is these little refuges that make life bearable.


One symbol is the absence of the cafe. In other words, this absence represents nothing or "nada" as it is said in the story. The old man seems to have nothing. His wife is gone; his only solace is having a drink in the cafe. Without the cafe, there is nothing for him. The old waiter understands the empty feeling this absence instils; the younger waiter has yet to understand or experience this in life. And according to the old man and older waiter, the other bodegas don't provide the same kind of empathetic solace that the cafe does. So, this notion of the absence of the cafe, nada, is an experiential symbol of loneliness and maybe even chaos -- since the cafe provides some order for the old man, a light in the nothing.

The old man has attempted suicide because he was in despair about "nothing." He is deaf so he can hear nothing. The light itself, more welcoming than the bodegas, is a "something" in the "nothing." Light is a common symbol in literature and here it could symbolize simple presence (of warmth, humanity), order, truth, and life (death symbolizing the light going out).

The old waiter's prayer filled with "nada" and "nothing" is an attempt to make sense of nothing, to give it order and structure and meaning in the structure and spiritual significance of prayer. Likewise, the cafe and the light, in particular, give some sense of structure and meaning, even empathy (to the old man). He goes there every day, like a ritual meeting. And that is the symbolism of the prayer itself: just as the old man seeks empathy in the cafe/light, the old waiter seeks empathy (someone else to understand him) with his mocking attempt at prayer, another ritual. The ritual itself is symbolic as an attempt to find meaning. The waiter concludes his night with more searching for empathy. "After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it." He reaches out to the "many." The need for empathy is, for the old man and the older waiter, a reaching out for others as well as an escape from the loneliness of (having) nothing.

Ernest Miller Hemingway