Human Life: Torture of the Mind
Ernest Hemingway captures the essence and origins of nihilistic thought in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, written in a time of religious and moral confusion shortly after The Great War. The ideas expressed in this short story represent the post World War 1 thinking of Hemingway, and the notoriously nihilistic Lost Generation in Paris, which was greatly influenced by the many traumas of war. Learning from his unnerving experiences in battle, Hemingway enforces the idea that all humans will inevitably fade into eternal nothingness and everything valued by humans is worthless. He develops this idea by creating a brilliant mockery of two coveted religious documents, revealing authority figures as typical, despicable, human beings, and he reduces life into the most raw, simplistic, and frightening reality imaginable. Hemingway states that all humans will naturally die alone and literally be “in despair” about “nothing” (494), and that people will either seek a “calm and pleasant café” (496), or a self-inflicted death simply to escape despair. Undoubtedly, Hemingway eliminates any consideration of a higher meaning because he believes that “[life is] all a nothing, and a man [is] nothing too” (496). By viewing the actions of three different generations, Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” elaborates on the idea that human life is not continual enlightenment and growth, but gradual despair, and an inevitable death into “nada” (497).
The youthful and confident waiter, representing the youngest of the three male generations, is the only apparent spec of existentialist thought in the story. However, this young man is simply an unconcerned existentialist due to his age; he is not in despair because the end of his existence is not breathing down his neck at this point. The young waiter “[has] everything”, including “youth, confidence, and a job” (496), and he has absolutely no compassion or actual understanding for the “nasty thing” (495) begging for “a little more” brandy (494). He shows this inability to understand the pain of the old man by forcing him out of the café, and even feeling that he “wouldn’t want to be that old” (495). Additionally, the young waiter selfishly feels that the old drunk “should have killed [himself] last week” (494) simply because he doesn’t want to waste his time dealing with him. Like most young people, the young waiter is a short-term thinker, and he has not even thought of the possibility of death; Hemingway implies that the drunken old man and the older waiter were once youthful existentialists, but naturally grew nihilist over time. More importantly, the reader can see that life is only thoroughly enjoyed for a moment in time, and then everyone will disintegrate into complete and utter nothingness.
The older waiter, a more understanding and seasoned man, has lost his youth and is beginning to realize that the obliteration of his existence is approaching. He claims that he...