Symbolism is the non-superficial depiction of a belief or concept that traverses what is seen or observed by the human senses. Earnest Hemingway extensively uses symbols in his book "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" to advance the story's central theme of Nihilism. Nihilism is a philosophical stance that shows lack of belief towards the aspects of life that are often considered as meaningful. The central theme argues that there is no human or spiritual explanation for existence in the present world. Earnest Hemingway uses the symbols of the soldier, the cafe and shadows of leaves to satisfactorily advance the theme of Nihilism.
The soldier passing the cafe with a prostitute is a symbol of social decadence and advancement of nihilism. "The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him" (Hemingway 379). The symbol shows that love and the associated romance was lacking in society and affection had been degraded to sex for money. The symbol is in line with principles of nihilism since the characters do not believe in the universal force of love but rather follow their bodily desires of engaging in sex for pay. Hemingway said that the light shone on the brass that was on the soldier's collar symbolizing that the soldier was in uniform and probably on official service. However, instead of the soldier focusing on meaningful aspects of life such as family and friends, he treasures the unorthodox practice of prostitution. One of the waiters argued that the soldier would pick the girl up when he finds her in the streets late at night, and the other waiter showed no concern saying, "What does it matter if he gets what he's after?" (Hemingway 379). The conversation shows a society where prostitution and other immoralities were practiced regardless of authority. The uniformed soldier is a symbol of corrupt authority that encouraged nihilism in society.
The cafe represents the simple pleasures of everyday life that make life dignified despite its meaningless. The old man and the older waiter love to sit in the cafe and drink to forget their problems in life. When the younger waiter asked the old man to leave for they were closing, the older waited asked him, "Why didn't you let him stay and drink?" (Hemingway 3). The statement echoes the similarity of lives between the old man and the old waiter and their nihilistic nature. They did not consider anything meaningful besides their drinking to avoid stress and get a good night sleep. The old waiter rejoiced in the late night work at the cafe for it helped him stay away from the loneliness of his life. The Older waiter does not have a wife or family, and he lives alone. He recounts how he gets insomniac and unable to relax in his home. When the younger waiter asked the older one to hurry and close the restaurant so they could leave, the older waiter replied, "I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe" (Hemingway 382) indicating how the cafe gave meaning to his life. Furthermore, the older waiter was in an in-depth discussion with the younger waiter on how their lives were different despite having the same job. The older waiter sarcastically claimed that he had neither a job nor the youthful life that the younger waiter was rejoicing in. Their conversation further advances the symbol of the cafe as a place that made life more bearable to those who could not see meaning in it.
The old man once had a wife but she was no more, he only lived with his niece who had helped him from an attempted suicide a few days earlier. The waiters recount that "He hung himself with a rope" (Hemingway 380). The old man was deaf and could not express his opinions or views towards various subjects in life. There is no indication of his allegiance to any moral or religious principles. He just wanted to stay late in the cafe and go home sloppy drunk so that he would escape the loneliness. The cafe was thus his other treasure after his niece who had saved his life. The younger waiter was in a hurry to go home and asked the old man to leave for "He's lonely. I'm not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me" (Hemingway 381). He further asked his fellow waiter to buy a bottle and drink at home, but the older waiter rubbished the suggestion saying that it would not be as a calming experience like that at the cafe. The cafe was thus a source of solace and a symbol of the simple pleasures that give meaning to the depressed in life.
The shadow of leaves formed where the old man was sitting symbolizes a dark past that seemed to haunt the old man regardless of where he went. The author wrote, "Everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light (Hemingway 379). The old man loved the well-lit cafe, but on that night, a shadow created by an artificial light bulb illuminating a tree engulfed his position. The old man was blind, and thus his selection of the cafe was based on the lighting as opposed to other factors such as noise and company. He preferred the well-lit cafe, but still, darkness found a way to get to him. The symbol advances the theme of nihilism since the old man has no values or beliefs of a meaningful life, and all he does is spend time drinking with no apparent reason to live.
The shadow that was cast inside the cafe symbolizes doubt and advances the central theme of nihilism. The younger waiter asked the older one why the old man would not go drink in other bodegas and bars nearby, and the older one replied, "You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good, and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves" (Hemingway 383). Shadows are backgrounds to objects in reality. The cafe was empty and a shadow cast over its tables. The shadow shows doubt in both the characters and the nature of the cafe as a well-lighted place. The older waiter and the old man had shadows that ruled their lives and made them lose the meaningless of conventional aspects of life such as family and work. Furthermore, the shadows symbolize the world of the old man since he was deaf and could only observe people speak without hearing a thing. The movement of lips and facial expressions cast a shadow of loneliness over his life just as the leaves did to the cafe. The old man and the old waiter were nihilists who had given up trying to pursue the meaningful things in life.
The symbols of the soldier, the cafe and the shadow of the leaves allow the author to develop the theme of nihilism. The soldier is a corrupt authority with no regard to religious and moral principles whatsoever. The cafe symbolized the haven where those who had lost meaning in life sought solace. The shadow of the leaves symbolized the dark past that the characters hated yet rejoiced in. Symbolism depicts the theme of nihilism through examples in the character's lives, and readers can relate and concisely understand the story.
Hemingway, Ernest. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." The short stories of Ernest Hemingway (1933): 379-83.
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