A Conversation Hard To Understand: A Clean, Well Lighted Place

942 words - 4 pages

Every work in literature is open to interpretation, and every person is entitled to their opinion. In a story shorter than 1,500 words, less than that of this paper, Ernest Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place has garnered serious debate and criticism. Written and published in 1933, Hemingway’s story containing a theme about nothing in several contexts has definitely given many critics something to talk about, but not about the usual theme, irony, or symbolism. For the past 55 years, the critics continue to debate the conflicting dialogue between the two main characters, and whether the inconsistency was intended by Hemingway or a mistake by the original typesetter.
Within a story that is mostly dialogue, it would be logical to understand which characters are speaking so the reader can understand the interactions of the characters. There are no names given to the two waiters in the café, and there is very little reference to which one is speaking. This makes the reader infer which character knows what key information is being presented. One of the first critics to start the dialogue debate in 1959 is Dr. William E. Colburn who authored Confusion in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’. Colburn declared, “The dialogue does not fit a logical pattern; there definitely is an inconsistency in the story” (241). At the same time in 1959, a college teacher named F. P. Kroeger wrote, “There has been what appears to be an insoluble problem in the dialogue” (240). These two initial statements have resulted in years of contention and controversy by many other critics.
The inconsistency Colburn and Kroeger wrote about was followed up an article by Professor Otto Reinert at the University of Washington who observed:
The difficulty arises from Hemingway’s violation of one of the unwritten rules of the art of presenting dialogue visually. The rule is that a new, indented line implies a new speaker. It is a useful rule, but it is not sacrosanct. I believe Hemingway has broken it here, possibly from carelessness, possibly deliberately. (417-8)
The rule was broken not once, but twice in this story and seven instances in the original pencil manuscript. Reinert goes on to defend the original text by saying, “Hemingway may have violated the convention in order to suggest a reflective pause” (418). This style of anti-metronomic dialogue was examined in detail by David Kerner at The Pennsylvania State University. Kerner found “forty other instances in the books Hemingway saw through the press” (385).
Ken Ryan of The Hemingway Review noted, “In 1965, Charles Scribner Jr. emended the text to remove what was perceived as a typographical error” (1). This sparked even more debate by those who agreed with it, and those in favor of the original publication. To emend an author’s original work would mean that it was either approved by the author, or through extensive research an error was found that would defend the emended work. Neither was...

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