The Futility of Life

Humankind is born with the innate desires to live life to the fullest, find happiness
in the experiences we come upon, and enjoy life for what it is worth; yet, as life goes on,
the tiring tolls of life steal away the luster of the dreams that we set for ourselves. The
pains of growing older scar the psychological well-being of us all. In Ernest
Hemingway’s short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place we are confronted by a man who
feels a distant relationship with the world and who also has to accept the desperate
emptiness of a life near finished without the fruit of its labor. Through stark images of
desperation, Hemingway reveals the old man’s despair at realizing the futility of life.
The most obvious image used by Hemingway to show the old man’s desperation
is through the contrast between light and dark. The cafe where the old man is seen is
depicted as a “ Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. It is a refuge from the darkness of the night
outside, and perhaps a refuge from the old man’s darkening desperation as well. The
darkness of growing older, and the sense of vulnerability that accompanies it, creates the
old man’s despair; yet, within the light of the cafe, the old man can find solace from the
despair he feels. Unfortunately for the man, the light is an artificial one, and its peace is
both temporary and incomplete. The realization of growing older haunts him, regardless
of the comfort that the light may bring him. Even in the comfort of the light, the old man
attempts to hide from the ominous darkness of age, as the narrator says, “...the tables
were empty where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved
slightly in the wind.” Hopelessly, the old man is drawn to the shadows so that the
darkness of his own age will not be so visible as it would within the full spectrum of the
light. He hides in the shadows of the leaves because he recognizes the shortcoming of his
refuge. Though it is only temporal, the shadows offer little escape from the sobering
realizations of growing older.
Hemingway uses the old man’s deafness as another way to show the character’s
despair. The old man’s ears create a sense of darkness as they hold out the sounds of the
world, “...the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet
and he could feel the difference.” Through his deafness, the old man is able to escape the
despondency of aging; yet, even this form of escape does little to alleviate the old man’s
sense of despair. In some instances, his deafness creates a sense of relief for him in the
face of a younger generation which does not accept him readily, as is the case with the
younger waiter. The younger waiter in the cafe expresses to his fellow waiter that he is
disgusted by the old man. “ I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man in a nasty thing”,
he says. The old man may have made the same remarks when he was younger. It is then
possible that the old man is glad to be deaf, rather than face the disdain of his juniors.
Still , the sounds of the world around him remain as a reminder of the world he took for
granted as a young man and the despair that his deafness has created. Now, in his old age,
the attempt to avoid aging becomes meaningless.
Another tool used by Hemingway to display the old man’s despair is the image of
Nothing, or nada. In his old age, the man feels that he has become disconnected from the
world and that his life has not amounted to any great worth. With the productive years of
his life far behind him, the despair of getting older becomes greater, and the old man
questions the reasons for living on. Life becomes Nothing, a monotonous and relentless
cycle where deeds and experiences amount to nothing, which Hemingway expresses
through the older waiter in the following passage:
“ It was all nothing, and a man was nothing, too...Some lived in it never felt it but
he knew it was nada y pues y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada nada be thy name they
kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is nada. Give