Comparative Reading of Hemingway's “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and William Faulkner’s “The Bear”

Hemingway's “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” are two different kinds of stories. The former deals with the terrible fate of an old man, is completed within the duration of a few hours and the space of less than 4 pages: the latter treats the ‘growing up’ of an adolescent, Ike, spans over more than 10 years and runs into over a 100 pages. The former uses sparse narrative, bits of dialogue, and very few characters; the latter is written in a spontaneous flow of rhetorical narrative and reveals almost a panoramic range of characters. Nothing much happens in the former story; but a great deal of action takes place in the latter.

Thematically “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” unfolds the despairing predicament of an old man of eighty, bereft of wife and children, almost deaf, unsteady on feet who attempted to commit suicide the previous week. “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” seems to be a very simple, unemotional, and almost unfinished short story.

 However, when readers look for deeper insight, they can find how meaningful this story is. The author's diction gradually brings the readers to a higher level of understanding the reality of life. The truth is buried underneath the story the emotional darkness, eventual isolation, and existential depression caused by the nada, the nothingness.  He is the lone, last customer at a clean well-lighted café nowhere he stays and drinks until the waiters pull down the shutters. His deprivation, infirmity, handicaps and loneliness are all manifested in the stark nothingness he is now confronted with, which, as Carlos Baker defines, is “something called Nothing which is so huge, terrible, overbearing, inevitable, and64 omnipresent that, once experienced, it can never be forgotten.” In contrast to this dispiriting theme, “The Bear” is focused on the sombre but bracing ‘growing up’ of Comparisons Ike, descendent of the legendary Old Carothers, who, under the tutelage of Sam And Contrasts Fathers in the woods, acquires the hunting skills and the courage and compassion human beings are capable of. Like that of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” it address the lives of families whose pasts are ugly and disheveled. 

The genealogical lines are unclear, the actions between people are disgraceful, and the later generations are left with more questions than answers. In both novels, the authors provide their characters a place to retreat, to gather their thoughts, to experience serenity and find hope for the future.  Although still an adolescent, he is befittingly named to lead the final, successful chase of old Ben: and later, despite pragmatic objections of otherwise well-disposed McCaslin and others, repudiates his inheritance. In terms of locale, it seems that “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is deliberately situated in an anonymous place, for such ceaseless assaults of nothingness could have struck any old man at any place in any country: but the story of chase, of the appropriation of land, and of racial discriminations in “The Bear” is naturally embedded in the particularity and peculiarity of the American South and the tangled fabric of its community/society. 

Of the characters in the two stories, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” transmits, through the intermittent bits of conversation between the two waiters (one young and the‘other old) at the café, their traits as well as those of the old man. We note the arrested myopic awareness of the young waiter which clearly betrays his brittle sense of security. He is confident, young, has a wife and a job, and is too self-contained and glued to his present to foresee, much less visualize, that youth implies age. Confidence may yield to loss of confidence, wife to absence of wife, and job to loss of job. In contrast to his incomprehension and insensitivity towards the gnawing despair of the old man, the old waiter registers greater awareness and human concern and empathy. He is unhappy at the unseemly haste with which the young waiter forces the old man to leave the café, and articulates his solidarity “with all those who like to stay late at the café. With all those who do not want to go to bed.

 With all those who need a light for the night. “This extremely limited number of characters and scale of their characterization in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” stands far apart from “The Bear” which involves a wide variety of characters from the hunting community and the American South. Of them, Sam Fathers, although he works for Major de Spain, is ‘the chief, the prince’ who nurtures the untamable Lion (the dog captured by him) with amazing skills and persistence in order to motivate it to hold and bay Old Ben, even as he empathizes a good deal with this legendary head bear. Unobtrusively, he possesses vast reserves of human courage and compassion, of endurance and dignity and humility which Ike learns from him, and grows from a raw, uncomprehending adolescent into a mellowing, understanding youth. Ike also learns from him the acceptance of the struggle for survival in the midst of wilderness with an accent on the principle of co-existence between men and animals. 

All this stands in sharp contrast with Boon’s possessiveness of nature. Boon essentially remains ‘violent, insensitive and unreliable,’ despite his bravery and fidelity to Major de Spain and McCaslin. Notably, his eyes are “without depth or meanness or generosity or viciousness or gentleness or anything else” exactly like, Faulkner tells us, those of Lion. After its own manner, Lion also combines ‘unbroken courage’ and ‘indomitable spirit’ with a ‘cold and impersonal malignance’ and with a ‘will to pursue and kill.’ The major traits of many others who feature in “The Bear” may likewise be noted. They convincingly evidence much greater range of characters in this story than in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.”

To come to the modes of writing, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” uses verbal restraint and techniques of implications and indirections while “The Bear” uses verbal profusion and techniques of narrative recall (involving the presentenees of the past and the pastness of the present) and occasional flashes of the stream-of-consciousness. The one, apart from its sparse narrative and fewer characters, hardly depicts any event or incident: the other, aside of a large number of characters, includes a surfeit of events and incidents. The one inscribes the utterly terrible, despairing ‘nothingness’ confronted by an old man, through the use of an unavailing symbol of a clean well-lighted café, and of the ironies involved in the unawareness of the younger waiter and the awareness of the older waiter: the other crams and crowds the narrative and uses recalls and streams-of-consciousness to accomplish the stead maturing of Ike. 

The one piles intensities and keeps out densities: the other is at once dense and American Short intense. The two modes of writing, the restrained and the expansive, indeed, relate to Story the critical war waged on the question of the right degree of statement and best reflected in the correspondence between Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in the thirties. In his letter to Wolfe in 1937, Fitzgerald wrote:
“The novel of selected incidents has this to be said that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe (in the case of Zola) will come along and say presently. He will say only the things that he alone sees. So Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age.”

Wolfe’s reply to this was, however, more perceptive and thoroughgoing. He wrote: There are no novels of unselected incidents. You couldn’t write about the inside of a telephone booth without selecting... You say that the great writer 4 like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inners and the Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners — greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers — and will be remembered for what they put in — remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

Clearly then there is no point in lionizing one way of writing at the expense of the other. Success of neither of them is inevitable. It depends on its practitioner, on what he makes or fails to make of it, on how well he organizes and how deftly he executes his material and with what powers, depth and artistry. Viewed in such terms, the chilling little masterpiece (“A Clean Well-Lighted Place”) of Hemingway is as poignant and compelling as the epical saga of chase and its absorbing aftermath (“The Bear”) in Faulkner.

Apart from their belongingness to the indigenous American short story tradition and the shared human values of their characters; there is little in common between Hemingway and Faulkner as short story writes especially in their modes of writing. About the same may be said of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and “The Bear.”

1. Donold R. Noble. Hemingway: A Revaluation (1998).
2. Evans Harnngton and Ann Abadie (ed.), Faulkner and the Short-Stoty (1992).
3. IGNOU Study Guide