Essay on Compassion in A Clean Well-Lighted Place


Compassion often comes from a place of fear. When an individual understands and shares others’ fears, they will likely find it easier to empathize with them. Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” details one man’s experience with such compassion. It opens with two waiters working a late night in a Spanish cafe discussing what to do about an elderly customer. The older of the two argues he should be able to stay, and the younger disagrees. As the night gets later, the waiter’s conversation transforms into an insightful look into the meaning of life. The older waiter values compassion at the beginning of the story, but as the night brings darkness, his fears of nothingness and loneliness reveal that he values security most. 

The older waiter is full of compassion for the old man from the beginning. The young waiter wishes the man would leave so he could go to bed and questions why the man stays so late. The older waiter responds, “‘He stays up because he likes it’” (Hemingway 2). The younger waiter is only concerned for himself. The older waiter is compassionate for the man and wants to let him stay. He defends him and does not complain about having to stay up at three a.m. The young waiter continues to berate the man and says, “‘An old man is a nasty thing’” (Hemingway 2). The old waiter disagrees, “‘Not always. This old man is clean’” (Hemingway 2). His coworker is being rude and making awful comments about the old man, moving beyond just complaining about his actions. He sees the good in the old man and attempts to convince the other waiter to change his views. The young waiter decides he has had enough and forces the old man to leave. The other waiter asks him, “‘Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?... It’s not half-past two’” (Hemingway 2). He is still defending him, even when he is no longer present. The waiter’s dialogue has only been about the old man. He has never talked about himself or insulted the other waiter. He has continued to show compassion for the man: standing up for him and attempting to let him stay. Throughout the beginning of the story, there are some mentions of light, “ … an old man who sat in the shadows the leaves of the tree made against the electric light”(Hemingway 1). Light has not taken on any meaning yet, as of now it is merely imagery. It is, however, mentioned in the first sentence of the story and foreshadows what light and dark will eventually symbolize. 

It unfolds that the waiter values security over compassion as he continues his conversation with his coworker. They are discussing confidence and how the younger waiter, according to the older, has everything. The young waiter believes they have the same things but the older waiter claims, “‘ No. I have never had confidence and I am not young’” (Hemingway 3). The waiter talks for himself for the first time. Up to here, he has only been defending the old man and speaking for him. Now he shares his faults and how he may relate to the old man. The two continue to argue as they lock up for the night. The older waiter continues to talk about himself, “I am of those who like to stay at the cafe… With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night’” (Hemingway 3).  He is explicitly stating why he relates to the old man. His fears are hinted at. While he is still full of compassion for others, the reasoning behind it is being revealed. It is also his first mention of light and how he needs it. As the waiters are ready to leave work, the younger one reminds the older that there are bodegas open all night. He responds, “‘You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves’” (Hemingway 3). The waiter has fully moved on from talking about others to talking about himself. This is his view of the cafe and his affinity for light. He wants to be safe in the light with cleanliness and goodness. Security trumps compassion. His safety is now the topic of conversation, not the wants of others. 

The older waiter continues to show compassion towards the old man but reveals how much he values his security by the end of the story. After the young waiter leaves the cafe for the night, the older waiter continues their conversation in his head. The narrator explains, “What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well” (Hemingway 3). This is the first mention of “nothing”. It discloses the waiter’s fear of nothingness and that he has struggled with it for some time. He feels unsafe in the presence of nothing, so the antithesis would be feeling secure. The waiter continues, “It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order” (Hemingway 3). The role of light is becoming apparent: it keeps the nothing at bay. It represents order and cleanliness while the dark is nothingness and confusion. The waiter fears what the darkness brings, what the absence of light means for his safety. The waiter returns home and struggles to fall asleep until daylight, “After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it” (Hemingway 3). The waiter is trying to convince himself that there are others in the world struggling, that he is not lonely. He cannot fall asleep until daylight, he needs the light to feel safe and keep the darkness away, but he tries to pass it off as insomnia. He wishes to be secure, not afraid and alone but knows that is not reality

Throughout “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” the darkness slowly overtakes the light as the older waiter’s desire to be safe from it explains his initial compassion for others. Light is consistently mentioned throughout the story. The older waiter sees it as a source of order and understanding, a haven. The darkness that is creeping in is nothing. It is eternal dread and loneliness. The waiter and the old man fear this nothingness and wish to remain in the light as long as possible. The light can keep the despair at bay. They fail every night, however. The young waiter, in contrast, has no fears. The light means nothing to him and he cannot understand what it means for others. He has no empathy for other people and only thinks of himself. Hemingway believes nothingness and loneliness seem to be a plague of human nature, especially as one grows old. So long as others also suffer from the disease, however, there will be compassion and consideration in the world. 

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