Nothingness is the central theme of the short story. The action takes place in Spain, and the reader may assume that the waiters should talk in Spanish. Hemingway added local color to the narrative by introducing some Spanish words. But “nada” is a word with multiple meanings and sounds like a spell or mantra.
Many writers have a tendency to use foreign words in their texts. Here are the key purposes of such a technique:
- To add texture and foreign tinge to the text;
- To remind the reader where the action takes place;
- To create a specific atmosphere;
- To avoid lengthy descriptions of words with no equivalents in the main language of the text;
- To add subtext;
- To highlight the word in question.
The latter two points are valid in respect of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Hemingway fluently spoke French and Spanish and knew some German and Italian. He lived in Spain and Cuba for a while and spoke Spanish quite often till the rest of his life. He knew that the word “nada” was more meaningful and powerful than “nothing.” Besides, the term is shorter and fits better into the rephrased prayer. It grates on the reader’s ear, making sure everyone would notice it.
Even if you are inattentive while reading the short story, you will surely remember “nada.” When the night falls, you will probably lie in bed and think about the four-letter word. What does it mean for you? Are you afraid of nothingness, and does it affect your well-being? Such a reaction is precisely what the author wanted.