Characteristics of Modernism in "A Clean, Well-lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway

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About this sample


Words: 1078 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Jan 28, 2021

Words: 1078|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Jan 28, 2021

Hemingway was one of the most influential authors of his time, but it is still disputed if he is a real modernist. In this essay I am going to argue that Hemingway is indeed a modernist by analyzing the language, structure, themes and narration of his short story “A Clean, Well- lighted Place”. The story is about an old man and a younger and older waiter who contemplate about the nothingness of life, and also represent how people from different generations have different perspectives on life.

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The language of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is overly simple and extremely brief. With the exception of a few narrative passages, like at the very beginning of the story when the setting is introduced and the end when the older waiter has his interior monologue. Most of the sentences are very short, using direct speech or dialogue like for example “He was in despair.” “What about?” “Nothing.”” As one can see, the dialogue is very direct without any adjectives or descriptive words. Another example would be “You should have killed yourself last week,” he said to the deaf man.” After a Statement like this, usually something like “he said in spite” or “he said cruelly” would follow, but Hemingway presents this piece of dialogue not as something callous and cruel but something normal that one would say in their everyday life.

Descriptive words are only used in connection with the setting or some of the characters, yet they are rather journalistic, presenting things as they appear to be, without giving them too much hidden meanings through metaphorical or figurative speech, like “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves”. The most prominent example however, is the description of the old man, where the reader only learns that he is old, deaf, drunk and suicidal. This leads back to Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory”, where instead of elaborating on situations, settings and characters, Hemingway limits information so that his language only explains the most necessary details and the reader has to fill in the gaps of the story himself. The same applies to one of the most profound themes in the story, and that is the notion of “Nothing”. When the older waiter contemplated the idea of nothingness, Hemingway piles the sentences with vague pronouns, never clarifying to what and whom they refer to: “It was a nothing (...)” and “Some lived in it (...)”.

The reader has to interpret what he thinks or sees into “nothing” on his own. Another thing that marks Hemingway as a modernist writer is that he does not use words to change scenes or mark the passage of time in the story, and leaves it up to the reader to keep track of the story ́s pace and what is happening. For example, only a brief conversation between the two waiters takes place between the time the younger waiter serves the old man a brandy and the time when the old man asks for another. Hemingway does not suggest that the old man has drunk the brandy quickly. In fact, the old man stays in the café for a long time. The story’s pace may seem quick, but the action actually stretches out for much longer than it seems.

The notion of nothingness stretches out through the whole story which leads to the indication of an empty and meaningless life surrounding the old man and the older waiter. They both fear the loneliness and hopelessness, the “nada” (Spanish for nothing) and consider the café a “clean and well- lighted place” a refuge from the empty and lonely night. For them, the café with all its light and cleanliness is the only place in the darkness where they can forget their problems and fears. The old waiter says “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good...”, which can be interpreted as that the light of the café chases away the emotional darkness of those two lonely people. Unfortunately, the light which brings them at least a little bit of comfort is only temporary.

Isolation is another theme Hemingway uses to convey “nada”. The image of a lonely “old man who sat in the shadow the leaves” of the tree is presented several times in the story. The repetition of key word like “the old man sitting in the shadow”, implies the depths of the loneliness the old man suffers and the intensity of his separation from the rest of the world. The man ́s deafness is just an expansion of the image of isolation, meaning that he is not only literally deaf but also deaf to the world which can be interpreted as living on a deserted island. Those are themes that are often associated with the genre of modernism because of the First World War, where the world witnessed chaos and destruction of which man was capable of and the notion of existentialism.

Equally important for modernism is the Narrative Authority. The story is a third- person narrative with a distant narrator who seems to have omniscient implicit knowledge. The reader gets hints of what is happening with the two waiters and the old man, for example the old man “felt the difference” when it is quiet and that the younger waiter isn’t actually the bad guy “He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.” At first, the narrator ́s presence is barely felt, and we cannot tell if he has limited or omniscient knowledge. He only interferes when he wants to clarify who is talking “Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.” The information he offers is scarce and sometimes confuses the readers as the lack of comments on the characters makes it hard to identify all the time who is talking.

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In conclusion, as this analyzation of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” shows, is that Hemingway presents a clear example of the characteristics of modernism; isolation and lossas a background of war time experience and aftermath that eventually leads to the idea of existentialism, or in this case, nothingness. Hemingway also uses an objective point of view and switched into an inner monologue. This technique was also used by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The frequent repetition of key words and dialogue in which the characters speak in short and clipped sentences are also impressionistic representations of everyday speech.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Characteristics of Modernism in “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. (2021, January 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from
“Characteristics of Modernism in “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway.” GradesFixer, 25 Jan. 2021,
Characteristics of Modernism in “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2024].
Characteristics of Modernism in “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Jan 25 [cited 2024 May 20]. Available from:
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