University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
A Clean Well-lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway “A Days Wait” by Ernest Hemingway “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway Ernest Hemingway has presented us with some of the best literature of the 20th century. He has been recognized in recent times as one of the greatest writers of all time, and the effect his work has left upon us is compared with that of Shakespeare’s. His great success could be due, in part, to the fact that characters in his literature lead lives which mirror his own in many ways. Literary critics have dubbed these parallels “code heroes,” and have presented guidelines as to what lifestyles they lead in Hemingway’s stories. I wish to show similarities in the presence of these certain, uniform traits that are common among Hemingway’s code hero in the stories, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and “A Day’s Wait,” both by Ernest Hemingway.
The specific elements that make up a code hero are as follows: (1) “Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you may die.” (2) “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” (3) “Avoid death at all cost, but don’t be afraid to die.” (4) “Always be disciplined, never show emotion.” (5) “Grace under pressure.” (6) Nada concept – a code hero is not comfortable at night. They become most active during darkness, because they fear it and try to avoid it at all times.
In the short story, “A Day’s Wait,” the presence of code hero traits is evident in the thoughts, words, and actions of Schatz, the main character in the story. Schatz is a small child who believes that he is going to die, yet he does not fear it. Instead, the boy lies in bed and takes it. He understands that death is an accepted reality rather than a worrisome end for a code hero. Schatz forces himself to be strong for his father. He tells him, “You don’t have to stay in here with me, Papa, if it bothers you.” Schatz continues to prove himself as a code hero by constantly stifling any emotion that he is feeling. He never once shares with his father the immense turmoil that is present within himself.
When his father asks him how he feels, he simply replies, “Just the same, so far.” This is an adequate reply for a Hemingway code hero because he always feels the presence of an undying peace that is control. He knows that he must exhibit an unyielding grace under pressure. Schatz epitomizes all of these characteristics, and not only because his coded behavior is undeniable, but because he is not a soldier at the front or a man with a crippling injury which no longer allows him to enjoy life, he is only a boy of nine years. Schatz displays a grace that most adults can not fathom. He is determined to show an emotional strength that is beyond his years.
As with most of Hemingway’s code heroes, Schatz is aware of the awkward feeling in which darkness presents. His father tells him to go to bed several times, but Schatz knows that he must remain conscious and enjoy his last hours of life. If he allows himself to pass onto a vulnerable state that is sleep, he knows that he may not wake up. “I’d rather stay awake,” he tells his father in the uneventful way in which only a code hero can.
The old man in the short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” also understands what it takes to be one of Hemingway’s elite. He drinks every night until he is drunk, because he knows that tonight may be his last. He knows that the world is a constant struggle and that he must be victor, lest he lose the game. For once the game is lost, it is not an easy task to play again. In the world of a code hero, there are no rewards for second place. Once the old man is done, he knows that he can never return in the glory which he once enjoyed. But he does not fear this. That would not be the style which suits him. In fact, we learn that the old man welcomes death, “He hung himself with a rope.” He possesses an advantage above those who fear death. He feels that he would be happier in death than in life.
The old man proves to us that he is unhappy, but he cannot show this. He remains dignified in his agony and understands that it would not be “sporting” to end the game this way. His respect comes from playing the game well, for he is a code hero. Even in the drunken stagger that he must fight every night during his long walk home, he is collected, a decorated soldier who proudly fights the good battle. “The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.” The old man, as all code heroes must, also denies the presence of darkness. Hemingway uses particular code elements more than others in certain stories, and this is no exception.
The short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is completely based on the nada concept. The narrator explains the old man’s need for a lighted place in order to somehow prevent the unbearable loneliness in which he refuses to succumb to. Hemingway, in his genius, understands this need in all of us. In his representation of this light, he triggers the same feeling of warmth that the old man has grown to depend on. The old man goes to that place in his childhood in which he remembers the freshly washed countertop, the warm, fluorescent glow of a grandmother’s kitchen at night just before bedtime. Just like all of us, he does not want to go to bed. He longs to be awake and in the presence of that security.
Many similarities are seen between the code heroes of Schatz, in “A Day’s Wait,” and the old man from “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Both possess a quality which allows them to view death differently. They are able to see a larger picture in which they play the game well, but when they are through they must accept the fact that they cannot go back. This ability to view death is what allows Schatz to accept an early end, and also what gives the old man the strength to stare his maker in the eyes and kick the chair out from underneath himself.
Both Schatz and the old man are able to eliminate the emotions which complicate all of our lives. In the possession of this trait, both characters are able to focus completely on the task which is at hand. Schatz knows that he must be strong for his father, so he can waste no time on feelings. The old man also knows that he has another purpose in life than to promote charity. He is called to live a life worthy of a code hero’s recognition. He is called to play the game better than anyone else until the end no longer permits him to.
These characters both force themselves to carry on a dignified existence. Schatz knows that wailing and carrying-on do not exist in the world of a code hero. He knows that the only way he can face death is with the same attitude that he faced each day of his existence. To give up now would be losing the battle. The old man also knows how to lead a life of dignity.
“I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing.
Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him.” It is evident to the waiter that the old man is somehow controlled by an invisible force, an internal force, which does not allow him to give any impression except one of control, one of grace.
Lastly, these two code heroes share a respect for darkness. This respect incorporates everything that darkness represents. They cannot fear darkness, for it is not in the nature of a code hero to fear anything, but they also cannot forget the feeling that darkness gives them. In the short story “A Day’s Wait,” the obvious observation must be made that the boy never once allows himself to become vulnerable in the unreadiness which is sleep. The old man is so uncomfortable with this vulnerability that he lives out darkness underneath a ceiling light in a cafÃ© booth.
Schatz and the old man are examples of Hemingway code heroes at their best. In each short story that Hemingway’s pen has graced, we see a character who can be considered heroic in a way specific to themselves and to Ernest Hemingway. However, it is when these single characters are presented in the light of a comparison that it is possible to see just exactly what Hemingway was trying to accomplish in developing each of them.