Hopper’s Despair


Was reminded of this painting by a Men in Blazers post (and if you don’t know Men in Blazers, you should, because Rog and Davo represent everything that’s good and human and tragically funny about being a sports fan, even if you don’t like “football”).

I never knew a lot about this piece, from Hopper, although I’ve seen it often enough.   (I’ve probably seen the parody Boulevard of Broken Dreams more often.)   But the MIB post, which referenced the painting as an iconic image of “despair,” made me wonder what it is about Hopper’s painting that makes it so despairing.

Because it is despairing.  Horrifyingly despairing.  Insanely, even.  And not just because the guys are wearing suits and hats in the middle of the night.  It’s 1942.  Guys probably wore suits to bed in 1942.

So what it is, exactly?

The third guy, the one in half-shadow, is one reason.  Take him out and re-examine the painting.  Now it’s just a nice couple, who aren’t exactly lighting things up in terms of chemistry, having a pair of late-night coffees in an otherwise empty cafe.  Nothing particularly sinister about that.  But you add the other guy in, and all of a sudden you start asking questions, not only about the other guy–who shows up alone at a cafe in the middle of the night to drink a cup of coffee?–but about this odd couple.  Why would they show up at a cafe at this hour?  Why is she dressed up, but he’s not even turned toward her?  Why is everyone drinking coffee?  Is this Prohibition?  Who goes out late at night for a cup of coffee?  How horrible is that?   (And if it’s Prohibition, were these the only people in the city who can’t find a speakeasy?)

So that third guy throws you off a little.  Also, he’s alone, so it’s easy to read that as a symbol of loneliness (especially contrasted with the weird couple).

Next you’ve got the almost surreal cleanliness of the cafe.  The steel canisters, the bright lights (again, in contrast to the darkness), the complete and absolute lack of clutter about the scene.   What’s wrong with that?  Nobody likes clutter.  Probably nobody.   But all  those clean spaces, those clean sharp angles, they’re threatening in their own way.   The real world isn’t like that.  We don’t find nice clean right angles and perfectly uncluttered spaces in the real world.  They suggest an order that doesn’t exist outside the imagination.  They suggest an imposition on the natural order.  Thinking now of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, in which several characters despair about the evil of “the right angle,” about dividing nature arbitrarily and geometrically for some less-than-noble purpose.  A violation of nature, to force it to assume an unnatural shape.

And so maybe we’re getting closer to pinning down what’s dispiriting about the piece.  We contrast not only light and dark, loneliness and companionship, but also the artificial with the natural.  The only natural aspects of Hopper’s painting are the people themselves, and yet they’re anything but natural.  So again, you find yourself wanting to know the truth.  Wanting to slip beneath (or maybe above) the artificiality of the world of the painting, which is stifling.

One more thing is striking.  The framing makes the people look small, almost insignificant.  Our attention is completely drawn to the surroundings first, and the four figures second.  We’re drawn to how little they are, despite their nice clothing and the woman’s dress.  The painting would be completely different if the cafe took up even 25% more of the frame.  Instead we’re looking in on a scene, rather than being a part of it.  We’re looking at a tiny part of the social universe, the human universe, the way a passer-by might see it: as something vaguely sad and purposeless.

And yet it could be nothing like what I’ve described.  You could pass by a scene like that–and that’s how it’s framed, as if we’re passing by on our way somewhere more exciting, more important–and think all these things.  Feel sorry for these people.  We’ve all done that.  I’ve driven through and past towns and thought, Jesus, what kind of lives do these people have, living out here in the middle of nowhere?  And yet we don’t really know anything about the people we see.  We infer too much, and we probably reveal more about ourselves with our response.  I’ve gone through towns in West Virginia, on my way to a ski resort, and thought: God, this is depressing.  But why?  Because it’s isolated from everything I value.  But the things I value may mean nothing, after all, to those people.  They have their own dramas and their own unfolding stories.

In the end, I think it’s the framing of Hopper’s painting that strikes me the most.  Because it’s balanced on the edge of taking us inside, and keeping us outside the true context.  It’s not really about loneliness or despair at all (insofar as any painting or work of art is about anything, I guess).   It’s about what we see, when we look out on the world as we’re passing by.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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