The Fear of Nothingness
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
IN his stylistic masterpiece, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Ernest Hemingway confronts his readers with the omnipresent fear of nothingness. The main characters of the story show different ways of dealing with that problem, but only the older waiter is able to present a satisfying solution. By establishing a haven for all desperate people who need a dignified place to dispel their fear, the old waiter has found his meaning in life and therefore, his way to combat his fear of nothingness. According to him, life does not need to be senseless and end in despair, as long as one keeps composure and protects one’s own dignity and the dignity of others.
To ensure a better understanding of the story, it is necessary to give a brief insight into the general idea of existentialist philosophy in advance. Generally, the followers of this philosophical movement, originating in Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s philosophical approaches in the 19th century, discuss questions about human existence and the problems which arise from it. The general idea of existentialist philosophy is the assumption that, due to the absence of a transcendent force and authority, all individuals are entirely free, and therefore, have the freedom of choice as a basic principle. Consequently, the choice is both essential for the human existence and inevitable, because refusing to choose is also a choice. In contrast to the traditional conception, the existentialists believe that an individual choice cannot be judged objectively. Every individual must decide for himself what morally good behaviour is. According to Sartre, who is deemed the founder of the French existentialism, the human being is “condemned to be free,” which is a heavy burden. Inevitably, the free choice entails the individual’s ultimate responsibility for his or her decisions, regardless of the consequences. According to the existentialists, it is a basic state of all human beings to live with the permanent fear of being threatened. It is a profound fear of the uncertain, the existential fear of nothingness. The philosophical term, used for this anxiety, is angst. The story takes up the existentialist approaches and shows different possible options in dealing with it. The concept of angst is transferred into the idea that an omnipresent fear of nothingness exists, which drives the human being into despair, if he does not find a way to cope with his fear. Furthermore, the story has adopted the assumption that a transcendent power does not exist and therefore, the human being cannot rely on anything, which will combat his fear. Accordingly, he has to find his own way of dealing with the fear of nothingness and to bear the consequences of his decisions on his own. Each character of the story has found a way in dealing with the problem, but only one character seems to be able to present a convincing possibility.
As mentioned before, the fear of nothingness seems to dominate “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and therefore, it is essential to comprehend what is meant by the term and how it is realized in the story. Looking at the story from an existentialist point of view, the fear of nothingness of the old man and the old waiter is an omnipresent dread, which threatens their existence. According to Steven K. Hoffman, the nothingness
“was not fear or dread” (383), which would imply a specific object to be feared, but a pervasive uneasiness, an existential anxiety that, according to Heidegger, arises when one becomes fully aware of the precarious status of his very being.1
On the basis of this statement, nothingness is not a specific threat, but a universal state, a certain uneasiness that shows different incarnations, which appear to every individual in different ways. One of the most fearsome incarnations of nothingness is death, which is present in the story in the death of the old man’s wife and his own attempted suicide. Death can occur to anyone at any time and is therefore a clear proof of the radical contingency and limitation of the human being.
1 Jackson J. Benson, New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway ( Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1990) p. 175.