In the story, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place,"" Hemingway focuses on the older waiter who has a realistic understanding of the significance of "nada,"" in this world and it actually keeps him up at night. With his understanding, he can empathize with the lonely old man that sits alone night after night in a "well-lighted café-. The younger waiter is more impatient and is ready to go home to his "wife waiting in bed."" He cares very little about the old man's need for a dignified refuge at night. The story illustrates through characterization and verbal irony what it means to cope with the harsh realization that everything we are and everything our society is based on is empty.
Hemingway presents two kinds of characters, those unaware of the emptiness of life and those that are privy to it. The younger waiter is oblivious to what this life has in store for him; he is only concerned about going home to his wife and, as Nathan Kotas writes in his article "Text Anomalies and the Waiters' Characters,"" " shows all the impatience of youth and an uncaring attitude towards the old man."" The old man and the older waiter, on the other hand, are cognizant of the "nothingness- that surrounds them. The old man, "tried to commit suicide."" Both men can be described as broken, but they still have their dignity. For them life has "no priori order or value system, on which (they) may intelligently depend and predict a future- (Bennett 75). The soldier and the old man are related as well, he is scurrying down the dark street with a woman presumed to be a prostitute after curfew. He is "disillusioned- and "no more concerned about military regulations then the old man is concerned about financial regulations- (Bennett 77). Harbor or refuge is sought by the soldier from his life of rules and regulations, not with a clean well-lighted café, but in the arms of a woman.
The older waiter, imbue with a dry humor,"" as Nathan Kotas describes him, uses subtle verbal irony; understanding this is essential to understanding the main theme of the story.