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Hemingways Economy Of Style English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1619 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is arguably not only one of Hemingway’s best short stories but also a story that clearly demonstrates the techniques of Hemingway’s signature writing style. Hemingway is known for his economic prose-his writing is minimalist and sparse, with few adverbs or adjectives. He includes only essential information, often omitting background information, transitions, and dialogue tags such as “he said” or “she said. He often uses pronouns without clear antecedents, such as using the word it without clarifying what it refers to. Hemingway applies the “iceberg principle” to his stories: only the tip of the story is visible on the page, while the rest is left underwater-unsaid. Hemingway also rarely specifies which waiter is speaking in the story because he has deemed such clarification unnecessary. The essential element is that two waiters are discussing a drunk old man-the rest can be omitted according to Hemingway’s economy of style. When the older waiter contemplates the idea of nothingness, Hemingway loads the sentences with vague pronouns, never clarifying what they refer to: “It was all a nothing. . . . It was only that. . . . Some lived in it . . .” Although these lines are somewhat confusing, the confusion is the point. This nothingness can’t be defined clearly, no matter how many words are used. Hemingway uses fewer words and lets the effect of his style speak for itself.

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The Deceptive Pacing of the Story

Hemingway does not waste words on changing scenes or marking the passage of time, leaving it up to us to keep track of what’s happening and the story’s pacing. For example, only a brief conversation between the waiters takes place between the time when the younger waiter serves the old man a brandy and the time when the old man asks for another. Hemingway is not suggesting that the old man has slugged back the brandy quickly. In fact, the old man stays in the café for a long time. Time has lapsed here, but Hemingway leaves it up to us to follow the pace of the story. The pace of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” may seem swift, but the action of the story actually stretches out for much longer than it appears to. The sitting, drinking, and contemplating that take place are languid actions. We may read the story quickly, but the scenes themselves are not quick. Just as Hemingway doesn’t waste words by trying to slow down his scenes, he also refrains from including unnecessary transitions. For example, when the older waiter leaves the café and mulls over the idea of nothingness, he finishes his parody of prayer and, without any transition that suggests that he was walking, we suddenly find him standing at a bar. Hemingway lets the waiter’s thoughts serve as the transition. When he writes, “He smiled and stood before a bar,” we’re meant to understand that the waiter had been walking and moving as he was thinking to himself. And when the waiter orders a drink at the bar, the bartender offers him another just two sentences later. Again, Hemingway is not suggesting that the waiter gulps his drink. Instead, he conveys only the most essential information in the scene.

Existentialism and the “Lost Generation”

The term Lost Generation refers to the writers and artists living in Paris after World War I. The violence of World War I, also called the Great War, was unprecedented and invalidated previous ideas about faith, life, and death. Traditional values that focused on God, love, and manhood dissolved, leaving Lost Generation writers adrift. They struggled with moral and psychological aimlessness as they searched for the meaning of life in a changed world. This search for meaning and these feelings of emptiness and aimlessness reflect some of the principle ideas behind existentialism. Existentialism is a philosophical movement rooted in the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who lived in the mid-1800s. The movement gained popularity in the mid-1900s thanks to the work of the French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, including Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943). According to existentialists, life has no purpose, the universe is indifferent to human beings, and humans must look to their own actions to create meaning, if it is possible to create meaning at all. Existentialists consider questions of personal freedom and responsibility. Although Hemingway was writing years before existentialism became a prominent cultural idea, his questioning of life and his experiences as a searching member of the Lost Generation gave his work existentialist overtones.

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


Life as Nothingness

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 Struggle to Deal with 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.

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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

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.


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