Writing with a Lens

Published 02 Oct 2017

The message of the short story titled “A Clean, Well-lighted place” by Ernest Hemingway is that with age comes a better understanding of the troubles of others. The story centers on the opposing reactions of two waiters of different age groups towards a troubled old man who seek a nightly refuge in a clean and well-lighted cafe. The old man visits the clean and well-lighted cafe every night to drink. The cafe had been his source of nightly refuge from his troubles possibly because it is comforting and peaceful so that it is good for easing the knots of confusion on his head, unlike the bars that have blazing light and noisy music. In this way, he can drink his troubles away peacefully. Meanwhile, the younger waiter resents the fact that the old man stays too long in the cafe, forcing him to go home at 3:00 o’clock in the morning and delaying the time for him to be with his wife. He told the old man, perhaps out of resentment or irritation rather than ill will, that he should have killed himself last week (for he had known that the old man almost committed suicide). The younger waiter, however, could not comprehend why the old man should kill himself when he had plenty of money. Obviously, he believed that money is enough reason to make one desire to live in this world. The older waiter however, is sympathetic towards the old man for he himself had started to feel the emptiness or nothingness of life. He had not shared with the younger waiter’s sentiment that the old man had no reason to take his own life because he had plenty of money. It is safe to assume that with his age, he had already seen so much of life that his perspectives on life are so much different now than he was younger. He had admired the younger waiter’s youth and confidence, two qualities that can make any man hopeful about life. He recognized that it is not the presence or absence of money that matters now, but the inner conflict of the soul had plunged the old man to despair so that he wants to shorten his rather ironically long life.

Meanwhile, the critical essay titled “Who is American” by Eric Foner allows me to read the text differently. This essay is about the changing concept of American identity in American history. The problem of defining American citizenship or “Americaness” lays on its “inclusive” and “exclusive” ideas of who should be an American (Foner, 186). The difficulty arose because of the presence of many diverse groups of people (with its own unique physical characteristics and culture) in American soil that seeks to enjoy the rights and privileges accorded in American citizenship. However, conflicts arise because of the differing views held by the groups of people involved: for example, the white had a notion for racial superiority; they reasoned that blacks are by nature inferior who could not subject it own passions to its intellect. The Whites therefore, of European descent, should be the only ones that are worthy to be recognize as the true American. However, this concept had been challenged by the supposed “inferior” races and their advocates through succeeding generations in American history. What is striking to note is that the change of the concept, of who should be included and excluded as American, is being influenced by the unique circumstances and experiences that American people faced throughout their history and until now the act of defining, or fixing the boundaries of inclusion or exclusions, of who should be an American continues to become a challenge. The unique circumstance and experiences of the Americans (for example, the Civil war that challenges the American ideals of equality and democracy, the expansion of American territories and America’s view that they are the protector of the world) throughout history had lent different forms and shapes to those boundaries, sometimes expanding and at other times decreasing its limitations, so that success in fixing specific rights to groups of people had become elusive. In fact, Foner had predicted that even with the widely accepted modern approach to cultural pluralism or multicultural recognition of American society, the Americans of the twenty first century will continue to have a political and social struggle as diverse groups of people asserts its worth to be recognized as “American”( Foner , 186- 195).

What this critical essay established is that life is a continuous battle, of winning and losing and this victories and defeats are largely dictated by the fact that man is changeable or evolving, that is, what is true or right to him today may not be true or right for him tomorrow. As man moves through life, his perspectives changes. These changes are largely influenced by his own unique experiences which are a mixture of lights and shadows (an application of old and new ideas to its fixed goals through time which are either beneficial or dangerous to him), of victories and defeats in his own lifetime as he struggles to find his worth. Therefore, in relating the concepts of this essay to the story, this enforces what I had first assumed what Hemingway may be trying to say in the story, on why the two waiters had differing reactions to the old man. Indeed the unique experiences of man placed him in a better position to understand the troubles of others. The advocacy for inclusion and exclusion to American citizenship had oftentimes raised sentiments and advocacy based on particular circumstances by others and in the same manner, the particular experiences of nothingness of the older waiter had made him sympathetic to the despair of the old man.

However, age may not be a guarantee for understanding or becoming sympathetic with the troubles of others. As with the history for defining who is an American, there are times when the boundaries had expanded and then later decreased depending again on particular circumstances. In fact, the history of American citizenship is “a complex story in which gains are made and lost, rights are expanded and sometimes revoked and ideas long since discredited rise like ghost to haunt later generations”( Foner, 195). Therefore, feelings of sympathy towards the troubles of others may be based on immediate circumstances and not with age alone. This brings to my mind that the younger waiter had actually “did not wish to be unjust, he was only in a hurry” (Hemingway,).

More importantly, the essay had enabled me to place a significant meaning to a “clean and well-lighted place ” in the story unlike earlier where I only find its significance as an appropriate place to untangle all the troubles away. In the essay, the efforts for defining what an American is becomes the guiding fixed goal for the establishment of the worth of any diverse groups in American soil. However, before arriving at an agreeable identification of who is a true American, some factors, such as differing views and ideas had to be “wiped” clean. Otherwise, protest and wars will arise. In like manner, clean and light carries the same symbolic meaning in the story. “Well-lighted” symbolizes the fixed meaningful goals of man. A good lighting is a symbol of a worthy cause that serves to keep man on the right path of life, and it must be a balance cause, as for a good lighting consisted of shadows as well as light. Yet to reach those goals, man had to wipe some “bad, mistakes or failures” in his past or life. The desire, therefore, for both the old man and the older waiter to seek refuge in a clean and well-lighted cafe, is a desire to clean their acts so that they will find their right path towards a meaningful life again.

As a conclusion, I can say therefore that the use of critical essay had helped me find depth in the story. At first, I only see that Hemingway’s message was to inform the reader that with age people had differing reactions to the troubles of others. The older the man, the more sympathetic he is. This is largely due to the fact that with age comes many experiences.

However, although the critical essay supports the idea that man is prone to changes in perspectives based on his experiences, age may not be the ultimate factor for sympathy. The immediate circumstances that man finds himself may be the greatest contributory factor to his reactions to the troubles of others. Furthermore, the essay had helped me to place a more meaningful significance of the “well-lighted and clean cafe” in the story. Originally, I have concluded that a clean and well-lighted place is suitable for troubled people because it is comforting and peaceful, however, with the critical essay I have come to believe that a “well-lighted” and “clean” cafe is a symbol of a balanced human goal and the need for man to “clean” whatever is necessary to achieve those goals, respectively. However, both the critical essay and the primary text do not provide me any information on who the old man really was and what was exactly his problem. The old man was not ordinary for “he was clean… and drinks without spilling”. (Hemingway,). However, his problem was indeed weighty and it is incredible that he wished to shorten his rather ironically long life through suicide. If the identity and problem of the old man is revealed, then it will probably change my interpretations of Hemingway’s message. Moreover, the inability to disclose the identity and problem of man does not satisfy my curiosity as a reader.

Works Cited

  • Foner, Eric. “Who is an American?” Reading for Writing Analytically.
  • Hemingway, Ernest. A Clean, Well-lighted Place.
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