There is a common exercise to evaluate one’s outlook on life: take a glass, fill it halfway and ask yourself, “Is this glass half empty or half full?” Decide on either one depending on how you see it, either half empty (hopelessness) or half full (optimism). We all see the centered brim of water differently based on our own personal circumstances. The old man in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” would see the glass as half empty. Why? Emptiness is what fills his heart. There’s no gratification in having “plenty of money” and a family, but he finds indulgence in emptying a literal glass of brandy every night somewhere he finds safe, like the well-lit café (167). Even though the story is never clear about why this man is so distraught, the
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This waiter seems to understand the old man’s actions, more deeply the young and frivolous man with a wife and a life worth living (at least in his own eyes). “We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter says to his fellow worker, as he would rather keep the shop open longer because “there may be someone who needs the café” (169). This shows us that this place is a true beam of hope for the lost and broken people because as we later find out, this waiter is one “of those who like to stay late at the café” (169). Because of this detail given, the reader can comprehend the older waiter’s understanding of the old man’s actions and feelings.
Through the setting, the reader can conclude that a contrast is present between disarray and purity. The older waiter believes “it is the light of course” that those in need are drawn to, but there must be a caliber of cleanliness, “that the place be clean and pleasant” (169). Why cleanliness though? Hemingway could have portrayed a fun and social place or upbeat liquor joint, but instead he shows the reader that the old man chooses this eatery because it’s simply clean and pleasant – with no music, just sweet silence. Hemingway also adds that light “was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order” (169). The old man is swallowed so deeply in his hardships that he believes any place is better than home. By coming to a clean, well-lit place, it reminds him of goodness with a strong alcoholic taste