A Clean, Well Lighted Place - In Despair About Nothing


In Despair about Nothing

Man is often plagued by the question of his own existence. Existentialism is a subjective philosophy that is centered upon the examination of man?s existence, emphasizing the liberation, responsibility, and usually the solitude of the individual. It focuses on individuals finding a reason for living within themselves. The philosophy forces man to make choices for himself, on the premise that nothing is preordained, there is no fate. Men must find a truth in themselves, a truth that they must be able to live for. Existentialism is in harsh contrast to a belief in a higher power or a god. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" is a story by Ernest Hemingway about men in successive stages in the philosophy of existentialism, revealing ultimately how the philosophy will fail them.

Nothingness is a condition man is faced with when his life has no meaning, when there is no reason to exist. It is the hollowness or emptiness man experiences when he feels that his life has no significant meaning. If there is nothing to believe in, then life is nothing. The older waiter in the story recognizes the existence of nothing: "Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y pues nada y pues nada" (202). As existentialists, men are forced to make all decisions in their lives for themselves, with nothing to believe in except for the positive result of their choices. Existentialists are plagued with dread over their potential confrontation with nothingness, an anxiety that comes with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for the choices they must make. In contrast, men of religious faith have little fear of nothingness because they believe that there is a reason behind decisions they make based on the intent of their higher power. Light, cleanliness and order play important roles in the story. The artificial light and good order of the café represent the truth, or reason for existence, that the existential man has created for himself. Darkness, in contrast, represents the nothingness of life.

The soldier in the story is an example of the first stage of existentialism in Hemingway?s denunciation of the philosophy. The soldier does not believe in a higher power, nor does he recognize the existence of nothingness. What he does know is that there is something missing in his life, something to feel good about. That is why the soldier has joined the army in the first place. At first he believed it would give him something to believe in. He believed it would give him a purpose in life, living to die for his country. It would give him a feeling of patriotism, of honor, of courage. But something is missing. The soldier has not found his existential truth for himself. The army isn?t it. The soldier is left tormented with the hollow feeling of nothingness, a hollowness that he attempts to temporarily fill with immediate sexual gratification. The younger waiter recognizes the soldier?s need: "What does it matter if he gets what he?s after?" (199). But the experience will only leave the soldier feeling more empty.

The young waiter is aware of the nothingness of an existential life but does not quite know how to deal with it. The waiter desperately uses his relationship with his wife as his truth, or reason for living: "I have a wife waiting in bed for me" (200). He acts as if he is certain of his role in life when he says, "I have confidence. I am all confidence" (201). But in reality he does not. The young waiter is in a hurry to leave the café and the company of the old man: " ?I want to go home to bed.? ? What is an hour?? ?More to me than to him? "(201). He "wouldn?t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing" (200). The young waiter?s confidence in his own existence is not strong around the old man because he sees nothingness in the old man. He sees it and is fearful that he may soon feel it. The mere presence of the man shakes the weak foundation of his existence. The young waiter is eager to leave so that he can continue to fool himself on the validity of