At a first sight, Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" seems to be a very simple, unemotional, and almost unfinished short story. However, when readers look for deeper insight, they can find how meaningful this story is. The author's diction gradually brings the readers to a higher level of understanding the reality of life. The truth is buried underneath the storythe emotional darkness, eventual isolation, and existential depression caused by the nada, the nothingness.
Emotional darkness is the first component that must be unfolded when analyzing the theme of the story. The symbol of an empty, meaningless life, emotional darkness, surrounds the old man and the older waiter. They both are victims of fear, inner loneliness, hopelessness, and "nada." They consider a "clean well-lighted cafe" a refuge from the deserted night. For them, the cafe with all its light and cleanliness is as the only little oasis in darkness where they can forget their fears. The old waiter says, "This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good . . ." (Hemingway 177). Unfortunately, the light which calms their nerves and brings warmth to their souls is temporary. Their lack of confidence does not let them defeat the overwhelming darkness in their lives.
Eventual isolation from life is another image the author uses to convey "nada." The picture of a lonely "old man who sat in the shadow the leaves" of the tree is presented several times in the story (175). The repetition of key words, such as "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 (175). The same idea is portrayed by the old man's deafness. He "liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference" (174). He is not just literally deaf, but deaf to the world. The older waiter understands this. He knows what it is to feel emptiness, to live on a deserted island. In contrast with the younger waiter who has "youth, confidence, and a job" (as well as a wife), the older waiter lacks "everything but work" (177). The old waiter goes home as late as possible and only falls asleep as the light comes in.
Existential depression is yet another technique Hemingway uses to convey the story's underlying theme. A loss of faith erases any chance of having a normal life. The old man's attempt to commit suicide, and the old waiter's interpretation of the Lord's Prayer, are the symptoms of the depression they both suffer. The older waiter can only utter the following prayer: "Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada" (177). The only thing that keeps the older waiter alive is his job. The old man's dignity is all that he has left. Everything else is just "a nothing." This is why the old man is "drunk every night" (175). This is why the old waiter is one "of those who like to stay late at the cafe" (177). They are trying to escape the wreck of nada, the nothingness that comes with existential depression.
Hemingway gives just the bare minimum of information in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." He leaves the readers with nothing so as to help them feel the "nada" and understand the connections between emotional darkness, isolation, and existential depression. However, the author shows a way to escape the pain of "nada." In order to survive with dignity, to cheat the "nada," one has to find a place, a pleasant place, "with the light, a certain cleanness, and order."