A clean, Well-Lighted Place

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Five Ways to Read Hemingway

by Maureen Griffin

I have chosen to analyze Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by utilizing the following approaches: liberal humanism, feminism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxism, and new historicism. I will attempt to explain how each theory approaches literature and provide examples of what each might focus on in this story. Of the five theories I have chosen, only liberal humanism is exclusively text-based; the others take context into account.

The first action a liberal humanist critic would take when given Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" would be to perform a close reading. The goal of a close reading is to determine the universal truth of the text, to ferret out the main idea that applies to all people everywhere. Once the moral position of the text is discovered, structure and symbols would be carefully considered, particularly to lend support to the position taken. The liberal humanist approach is extremely text-based, ignoring any sociopolitical, historical, or autobiographical factors that could be associated with the text or the author. To extrapolate a work's universal truth, the text should be studied in isolation, disallowing any preconceived notions or assumptions. Since liberal humanists believe that human nature is unchanging, it follows that they would prize continuity over ingenuity in literature. The liberal humanist would examine a text to ensure that form and content complement one another, rather than seeming mutually exclusive.

Approaching "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" as a liberal humanist has been relatively simple for me. Prior to reading this short story, my only exposure to Ernest Hemingway consisted of watching a portion of the film "The Sun Also Rises" in my junior year Spanish class. A possible universal truth that I gleaned from the story was the need to treat the elderly with more respect. The two old men are socially isolated and suffer from varying degrees of depression. They realize they are aging and that society, personified by the young waiter, views them with contempt and sees them as useless. In spite of this knowledge and loneliness, they both retain good manners and attempt to maintain their dignity by growing old gracefully. The old man is drunk, yet he avoids spilling while drinking, and even thanks the young waiter for refilling his cup. The young waiter, on the other hand, sloshes the brandy onto the saucer while pouring. The old waiter is treated in a terse manner by the bartender, but still says, "No, thank you," when offered another cup of coffee. The moral position could be that we will all be old someday, so we should slow down and treat all people with the respect that they deserve.

Like the liberal humanist, the feminist critic will also conduct a close reading. The feminist critic would definitely notice the lack of female character development in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." By indicating that the only well developed, speaking characters are men, the critic would prove the degree to which patriarchy has infiltrated the text. Feminist critics examine the manner in which women are represented by both male and female authors. These critics view women as a longsuffering, oppressed, and repressed segment of society, and attempt to revalue women's experiences. Feminist critics question accepted norms of language and society relative to the portrayal of women. As students of psychoanalysis, they seek a greater understanding of female/male identities, and they question whether gender differences are strictly due to biology or whether they are socially constructed and imposed. Another aspect of feminist criticism is the willingness to look at the author's experiences for a better understanding of the text.

A feminist critic would examine the girl walking with the soldier, noting that her being out late at night with a man and having nothing covering her head implies that she is "loose." This is a woman the soldier does not respect because she must hurry to keep up with him; he does not slow his pace to match hers. To a feminist critic, this portrayal of women as "Other," something to be used and discarded by men, would practically jump off the page. The critic would challenge not only this portrayal, but also that of the wife "waiting in bed" for the young waiter as well as that of the niece who is essentially a servant to the old man. These portrayals imply that women have no life or function without men.

A Freudian psychoanalytic critic would read "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and search for the unconscious motives and feelings of the author or the characters. The critic would approach the text with one goal in mind: to uncover the "real" meaning of the text. To Freudian critics, the actual written text is only the surface. They will plumb the depths of the author's or characters' minds to uncover various repressions that might shed new light on the text. Psychoanalytic concepts, such as the Oedipus complex, would be applied to all of Hemingway's writing. The most important aspect of any text for a Freudian critic to analyze is the individual psyche of the author or any character. The psychological conflicts of the text are given a higher priority than social or other types of conflict.

A Freudian critic would analyze the roles of women in this short story and see them as either the revered mother figure or the degraded sex object. Again, I point to the young girl walking with the soldier as an example. It is implied that the young woman is loose. The soldier is willing to risk getting picked up by the guard for a night of passion with this inconsequential woman. The young waiter's wife "waiting in bed" for him implies that she is waiting and willing to have sex with him whenever he gets home. The young waiter dismisses the idea that a wife would improve the old man's disposition by saying, "A wife would be no good to him now." He figures that, since the sex drive diminishes with age, and a wife is only useful for sex, a wife would not make any difference in the old man's life. Finally, the old man's niece would be considered the revered mother figure. Because she worries about his soul, she cuts him down when he tries to hang himself. The niece takes care of the old man, much as a mother would take care of a child.

A Marxist critic is also interested in the hidden content of a literary work. While a psychoanalytic critic privileges psychological struggles above all else, a Marxist critic privileges class struggles. This critic believes that authors may be wholly unaware of what they are disclosing about their social class or status in their texts. As a Marxist critic, I would discover when this story was written because researching the social period provides clues as to why it was written and why it was read. Gauging the political/economic atmosphere provides insight into why this story was produced, then consumed. The story would be read as a social commentary rather than just a story. Clearly, this approach goes beyond the text to explore socioeconomic, political, and historical factors that influenced the author.

Whether Hemingway intended to or not, he refers to class struggle almost immediately in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." The fact that the two waiters are discussing the old man's suicide attempt in a very nonchalant manner cues the Marxist critic to observe that people in the working class practically welcome the death of those in the wealthy, oppressive upper class. This goes beyond observation to reality when the young waiter says to the old man, "You should have killed yourself last week." When the young waiter quips that the old man has "plenty of money," and, therefore, should not be in despair, it is apparent that he believes all troubles cease with wealth. The young waiter is resentful that the old man has money yet has the gall to be in despair. The younger man also resents the fact that he must wait on the older one in two different senses of the word: as a servant who waits on a master and as an employee who waits for a customer to leave before closing down for the day and going home. This rich old man who sits around drinking until all hours and thinks he has problems is a total inconvenience to the poor worker.

Another critic who would research the time period is the new historicist. A new historicist would first discover when "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" was written, then study nonliterary texts, such as newspapers, journals, and/or diaries published during the same time period. The nonliterary texts would lend a greater understanding to the literary text. By studying the history of the period, something previously overlooked may be discovered in the text, making it seem new again. A new historicist would pay attention to patriarchy and its continuation.

In this particular short story, a new historicist would be interested in knowing why guards would have picked up the soldier upon seeing him. They would investigate whether a curfew had been imposed for military members or whether certain parts of town had been designated as "off limits." The presence of the guardsmen would pique a new historicist's curiosity: Were they real?, Who composed this guard?, To whom did they report?, and Why were they necessary?. In other words, a new historicist critic would find out exactly what was going on in this area at this particular time to warrant a roving band of guards.

I have explained how critics from various theoretical approaches study literature in their own ways. Some theories have a common thread, such as close reading and examining a text's historical period. After applying these theories, I know that I will never accept a text on face value again. I will always want to peel off the layers to get to the "real" meanings. Once theories are understood well enough to be applied, reading can never be the same again.

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