Note: This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.
“Lights and Shadows”, an essay on “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Tomasz Renkiel
It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.
“A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is a story of lights and shadows, of the coexistence of ‘’being’’ and ‘’nothingness’’. An old man sits outside the cafe, on the terrace, where all the tables are empty except then one he sits at. He hides himself in the shadow – the perfect hiding-place, a hide-out for a person who wants to remain invisible and unnoticed to the people he observes. They – the observed ones – do not even feel his presence, so close and tangible, although there are some who knows all about him. The undisturbed and untroubled peace of night is his ‘’prime time’’. He feels the difference then. To a deaf person silence of the night brings relief and consolation after the day full of ‘’noise’’. That relief he encounters in the shadow, under the tree, the leafs of which protects him from the electric light, although he is one of these strange people who feel the strong need of light in the night.
The ill-will and aversion of one of the waiters towards the old man and, on the other hand, the mercy and sympathy of the other is the picture how shadow and light interpenetrate each other, although they stand out for completely opposite values. The younger of these two has a wife waiting in bed for him, and is not very keen on staying in the cafe through the whole night, waiting until the last person pays the bill and goes home. That is why he is so upset with the old man, who – being already drunk – asks for another and another drink. The hour is what matters to him. He wants to go home, to “hide in the shadow” and to find some kind of peace of his mind. In this way he seems to resemble the old man – they both avoid light, for both of them the shadow has got more to do with their lives than light.
The older waiter appears to be the one who assumes more friendly attitude towards those people who stand late at the cafe. His deep conviction that there are some who need a light for the night is so strong that it does not allow him to close up early enough because there may be some one who needs the cafe each night. And the fact that there are bodegas open all night does not influence his way of thinking. This is this cafe that is so attractive to people for it is clean and pleasant. And – what is probably more important – it is well lighted. All such cafe needs is light. But he also mentions shadows of the leaves – the shapes created by light – by which he potentially means the place hidden in the shadow, a shelter for all those who needs light in the night but observe it being covered by shadow.
Light is “being” while shadow is “nothingness”. Those who needs light are “alive” ones. Those living in the shadow lock themselves in “nothingness”, their escape from the reality. An old man is a mixture of both. On one hand he stays “alive” late at night sitting in the place full of light but on the other he secludes himself in “nothingness” since he prefers sitting in the shadow, hidden, covered and theoretically absent.
For the older waiter the reason for staying late at the cafe and the fact that he does not feel like sleeping, though it is almost dawn, is as simple as illness. At the end of the story he says to himself : After all ( …) it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it. The conclusion that as a matter of fact the whole story is about nothing but suffering from the particular disease.
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