Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place": The Emptiness of Being Inside
Julian Santiago Munoz on how Ernest Hemingway changes our perspective on solitude
I had never thought that my apartment was ever empty. In fact, I had always thought it was quite cluttered. Books and magazines and papers and appliances and the weird materiality of things seem to have always just lain there. After months of waking up to do the exact same, I had the strange sensation that for all of this stuff, my apartment was empty, as if what all the objects I had been gathering in my life had only been displacing the emptiness they were supposed to occupy.
It’s maybe for this reason that I’ve become obsessed with space, with emptiness which is not void, and with Ernest Hemingway’s stories, particularly “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In this story, there’s an old deaf man who’s at a café drinking brandy. He doesn’t want to leave, which exasperates a younger waiter. An older waiter sets him right. He tells him that he’s too young to understand how much the old man needs a clean, well-lit place. He tells him that the man once tried to take his life. It’s a strange existential moment, because it’s almost as if he implies that with age, we’ll come to understand our own emptiness. And I wonder if this is what this pandemic is doing to us, aging us in silence, making us aware of the existent as the existent touches and bites on time. Maybe it’s why we’ve taken to the streets. I think I have felt the call of authenticity resonating in Hemingway’s devious prose, which hides behind its seeming simplicity a strange difficulty. And indeed, the world does seem simpler today: “Just stay inside!” And yet, isn’t that what’s difficult?
Julian Santiago Munoz is an instructor and writer based in Miami, FL.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) wrote “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” in 1933. Hemingway used a minimalist style, which he later coined the “iceberg theory,” to encourage readers to think about the story’s deeper meaning.