Visual art, media, and literature all exhibit different themes that are prevalent in society. Both Ernest Hemingway’s short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place and Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks” convey a distinct, similar feeling to the audience. In Hemingway’s short story, a melancholic feeling is evoked through the isolation of an elderly man who drinks silently at a cafe late at night. Hopper’s painting portrays a similar emotion of solitude, capturing a strange, dismal tranquility amongst three people whom similarly are drinking at bar, well into the night.
The striking contrast between light and dark, night and day, is the recurring theme of both the painting and the short story. The warmth that arrives from the light represents hope, and the enveloping feel of comfort. However, there is solitude that resides amongst the subjects, represented by the darkness of the night. Both Hopper’s painting and Hemingway’s short story illustrate notions of existentialism and alienation within society. In A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, the setting takes place in a quiet, brightly lit cafe, late into the night.
Everyone has left, except for a deaf old man who sits outside on the terrace, drinking several glasses of brandy. The only two waiters left, both old and young, reflect on the old man’s dismal past. The old man is rich, but he attempted to commit suicide, and failed to hang himself. When he decides to leave, he walks unsteadily yet he manages to walk with dignity. It is the conversation between the two waiters left that define Hemingway’s theme of the short story. The younger waiter constantly complains of the time of night, eagerly awaiting the old man’s departure so he can go home to his wife.
He is unable to comprehend the sensitivity of the old man, and simply does not understand why he cannot simply buy a bottle of brandy and drink at home. It is the older waiter who tries to explain the complexity of the situation, and feels compassion for the deaf old man with no family. He, too, has no family to come home to, and has lost his youth and remains without confidence. He states, “I am one of those who like to stay late at the cafe, with all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night” (Hemingway 374).
The old waiter fervently defends the old man because is able to relate to him in many ways, and possibly can see himself in him. He goes on to explain that a clean and well-lighted place is greatly more desirable against the darkness of the night. A certain light, and cleanliness and order of a place was all that was necessary to overcome the despair of the night. He goes on to have a conversation with himself in his mind, asking, “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing he knew too well. It was a nothing and a man was nothing too” (Hemingway 374).
Nothingness, in his mind, is one of the great despairs of reality. He goes on to silently recite the words of the Lord’s Prayer in his mind, but replaces most words with “nada”, which means nothing. The story explores a deep question of existentialism. The subject of one’s existence is deep and complex, and often in society it becomes lost. Such examples would include the old man and the old waiter, who prefer to remain at a lighted, tidy place to escape the darkness of their lives. It is the fear of isolation that encompasses the heart of the story. Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks” also explores notions of isolation and obscurity.
The painting depicts three people sitting at bar in a cafe, with only the barman who remains. The setting presents a very similar feel to that of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. It is clearly late at night, and the New York streets are completely empty. The only light shines from within the cafe, which is very bright and appears fluorescent. The colors from outside are very somber, with dark muted colors of gray, brown, and black. The stark contrast from the light should seem welcoming, however it appears to only highlight the three subjects’ appearances of solitude.
There appears to be one couple, the key is their body language, with their hands close together but their expressions are not absorbed in one another. Though they are close, they appear to be mentally far apart. The other man sits silently, absorbed in his own thoughts. These people sitting at the bar, late at night, are there for one reason. It is to escape to emptiness of their lives. Both Ernest Hemingway’s short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place and Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks” depicts the harsh reality of many peoples’ lives. The contrast between light and dark is symbolic of the internal conflict of isolation.
Both depict scenes that appear tranquil, yet full of unrest. The light that shines serves to highlight the emptiness of the old man from Hemingway’s short story, and the three subjects in the painting. It is the darkness of the night and their homes that drive them to escape the reality of their lives. Works Cited Hemingway, Ernest. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. The Art of the Short Story. Ed. Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn. United States: Pearson Longman, 2006. 372-375. Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, ca 1942, Oil on canvas, 30 x 60 in. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois,