“A Clean, Well Lighted Place”


English 4B

29 March 2004

Although tone is an extremely complicated issue to analyze, it is one of the most elementary literary elements. Like a tone of voice, the tone of a story can communicate joy, anger, love, sorrow, and disapproval. It shows the feelings of the author, so greatly that one can sense them. The tone adds to the overall feeling, and effectiveness portrayed in any literary work. Those feelings may be similar to the feelings expressed by the narrator of the story, but sometimes they may be dissimilar, even sharply opposed. The characters in a story may be regarded even as sad, but one senses that the author regards it as funny, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”, where the main character is an old tired man, but the narrator portrays him as lacking humanity where Hemingway purposively “sets up the aura” of an apathetic tone; using diction, imagery, and a third person point of view, by not directly confronting any emotions (Edel 270).

The indifferent use of diction in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is one of the most important additions to the apathetic tone. In the beginning of the story, two waiters are speaking of an old man’s recently attempted suicide, and when one of them was asked why the man tried to end his life, he replied that the man “was in despair” about “nothing” (Hemingway 288). These men are discussing suicide, a very serious subject, with very little reverence to magnitude of what could happen to the man. They are discussing the suicide of a man on the same level as two friends would discuss a football game, or the weather, this lack of sympathy towards the man gives one a feeling that nothing really matters. This is a great example of Hemmingway’s nature to discuss emotion only indirectly . Later in the story, the diction also shows a clear feeling of apathy, when one of the waiters, on his way out, monotonously recites the Lord’s Prayer with the word nada replacing any word with significance, the Lord‘s Prayer begins the “symbolism which is the reason for the story‘s meaning“ (Berryman 270). He begins by saying, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name” (Hemmingway 291). The use of the word nada, which means none or nothing in Spanish, replacing divine words in a religious text shows that the man does not think that there is any real importance to the repetitiveness of daily life. The fact that he is monotonously reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which is done very often in many religious circles, shows that to him life simply goes on and on without any change or meaning. The attitude of these two men, shown through diction, readily unveils the omnipresent apathetic tone in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place.”

Imagery is very instrumental in creating mental picture of apathy in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place.” Hemmingway describes the café as a place in “the shadow of the leaves of the trees against the electric light” (Hemmingway 288). The image shown presents a feeling of indifference because it is shown so straightforwardly and seems as if there is no meaning. The fact that Hemingway presents the scene with a lack of complexity shows an indifference to the location and overall meaningfulness of life.


The third person point of view in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” allows the readers to plainly see an unbiased account of the characters indifferent concept of daily life. In “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” any point of view besides third person could easily distort the tone. If the story were in first or second person the reader would have received a story biased by narrator’s thoughts and opinions, that would not have conveyed the apathetic tone.

Hemmingway’s impeccable use of diction, imagery, and a creative point of view, makes a feeling of apathy clearly appear in his “A Clean, Well Lighted Place.” Hemmingway’s writing is characterized by his ability to portray the “blank, dark, meaninglessness of our existence,” which makes this work come to life (Donaldson 279). Without the apathetic tone present in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” the story would lack great part of its existence.