The meaning of life is a topic that inspired a lot of writers. Many have argued that Hemmingways 'A clean, well lighted place' deals with this very same issue. The story itself talks about two waiters, differing in age, and their subject of speech : an ealderly, deaf man. In this essay I'll try to explain what the caf means to the old man.
In most of Hemmingways literature a nihilistic point of view occurs : 'there is no God, no meaning to this world, and man must consequently find something to distract himself from his horrible truth.' (Novelguide.com). As for this story, the caf could stand for the safe haven from reality. This theme of nihilism can be found troughout the story, for example when the old waiter recites the Lord's Prayer while replacing most of the words by 'nada' (which means 'nothing'). Also the fact that the old man gets drunk hints in this direction : alcohol is after all a form of escapism.
The loneliness that old age causes seems to be the specific reality here that the old man is escaping from. This subject gets explored further by contrasting the attitude of the young waiter with the attitude of his younger colleague : when the young waiter evicts the old man before the actual closing hour, the older waitor questions his decision, because he can relate to the old man : 'Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the caf.' This is something that the younger character doesn't get, he is eager to go home, time is still on his side, and he has a wife that still cares for him.
But then we still have to wonder as to why he prefers to stay there instead of some sleazy bodega. The answer to this question can be found when we look closer towards the dark-light contrast found here. The darkness outside resembles the 'horrible truth' mentioned above and the light, more precisely the caf, is the safe haven. The old waiter even tells the young waiter why the old man would prefer this caf over the bodega : 'You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.'. A little bit later he even enters a bodega himself to remind himself why he prefers the caf over the bodega.
In this tale Hemmingway deals with the loneliness that old age brings with it, and how most of us will have to deal with it (you can see the old waiter already recognizing some of the habits of the old man). It is not uplifting, but the bitter truth, but one from which we luckily can escape from time to time.