The Last Lesson : About the author
Alphonse Daudet was a French novelist and playwright and was a part of the French Naturalism movement. He started his career as a school teacher but quickly got tired of the vocation. Soon, he gave up teaching and decided to go to Paris to become a journalist. There, he was hired by Le Figaro and wrote some plays which made him popular in the literary circles. He was later hired as a private secretary by the Duke of Morny, a powerful minister of Napoleon III .
Daudet later published Lettre de mon Moulin which gained him a sizable readership. He produced works like Le Petit Chose, L’Arlésienne and Aventures Prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon among others. However, it was Fromont jeune et Risler aîné which turned out to be his masterpiece. Daudet died of syphilis on 16th December 1897.
The Last Lesson : The story
The Last Lesson, a short story set in the backdrop of Franco-Prussian War is narrated from the perspective of a little boy named Franz. The story deals with the occupation of Alsace-Lorraine in the year 1870 when Bismarck’s army stormed the area and held it under the Prussian control right until World War I. The story provides us a brief yet memorable glimpse of how one’s language is rooted to one’s identity and what happens when there’s an attempt to slowly severe the tie between a people and its language by a powerful enemy. It also highlights how language comes to the surface in times of crisis when one’s identity is most threatened. The Last Lesson is a great reminder of how we cannot take our language for granted and how important it is to love and learn one’s language in order to protect one’s individual and collective identity.
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The Last Lesson : Summary
The Last Lesson is a first person narrative whose speaker is a little boy named Franz. The boy is a resident of Alsace-Lorraine district of France that has lately been occupied by the Prussians.
The story begins one fine morning when we find little Franz hurrying off to school. He is quite scared as the French teacher M. Hamel is supposed to question the students on the past participle. Franz hasn’t learnt it yet. With great effort, Franz resists the temptation to bunk his class and goes unwillingly to school. He sees a crowd gathered around a bulletin board, the medium through which all of the bad news had reached Alsace: lost battles, droughts and the orders of the commanding officers. Franz banks heavily on the usual commotion of the class and plans to quietly slip into his bench without attracting the attention of M. Hamel. However, he finds that the garden outside the school is as silent as on a Sunday morning.
He peers through the window and sees his classmates in their respective seats. Frightened and ashamed, he opens the door and enters the class. Surprisingly, M. Hamel is rather kind towards him and doesn’t reproach him for being late. Franz goes to his desk and notices that the teacher has put on a green coat, a frilled shirt and his black silk cap – usually worn on special occasions like award ceremonies and inspection. To his surprise, he also sees the residents of his village all huddled up in the classroom. He sees old Hauser, the former mayor, the former postmaster, and many others sitting on the back bench of the class, all seated with a solemn look on their faces. While Franz begins guessing the reason behind such an unusual day, M. Hamel drops the bombshell:
“My children, this is the last lesson I shall give you. The order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The new master comes tomorrow. This is your last French lesson. I want you to be very attentive.”
This is a terrible shock to Franz. It finally dawns on him what the bulletin on the townhall meant. He regrets at not having taken his French lessons seriously, choosing instead to peek at the birds’ nest and go sliding on the Saar desert. This is to be his last lesson and he doesn’t even know how to write. He also feels sad for M. Hamel, a man who had given forty years of service to the place and who was being told to leave it forever. He understands the regret of the village folks at not having taken their language seriously either.
The recitation of lessons begin and M. Hamel calls little Franz to recite the rules of participle. To his great embarrassment, he fumbles and is completely lost. The teacher doesn’t scold Franz but reveals the sad truth:
“Every day we have said to ourselves, ‘Bah! I’ve plenty of time. I’ll learn it tomorrow.’ And now you see where we’ve come out. Ah, that’s the great trouble with Alsace; she puts off learning till tomorrow.”
Hamel says that in part, it is Franz’ parents and himself who are to blame. He then goes on to describe the beauty of the French language, stating that it is the most beautiful, most logical language in the world and that the people must always be able to guard the language and never forget it. What follows next is one of the most memorable lines of the story :
…because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison.
He then begins the grammar lesson. Franz understands it all. It seems that earlier, he hadn’t listened so carefully and M. Hamel hadn’t taught as patiently as he did in his last lesson. The grammar is followed by the writing lesson. Everybody gets down writing and the class is filled with a pin drop silence. Once, some beetles fly in but nobody pays attention to them, not even the little kids. The cooing of the pigeons on the roof makes Franz wonder whether the Germans will make the birds sing in German as well.
When Franz looks up, he sees M. Hamel scanning the entire class as if to imprint the scene in his memory. The writing lesson is followed by the babies’ chanting their ba, be, bi, bu etc. Even Old Hausner joins their recital with tears in his eyes.
Then, the clock strikes twelve. At the same time, the Prussians sound the trumpet and M. Hamel freezes. He tries to say something but is overwhelmed with emotion:
“My friends,” said he, “I—I—” But something choked him. He could not go on.
He stops and starts scribbling on the blackboard with large letters:
Vive La France
The Last Lesson : Analysis
As we have seen in this summary, The Last Lesson is an intensely poignant story about what it means to speak a certain language and how closely one’s language is linked to one’s identity. The story demonstrates how the linguistic chauvinism of one race can lead to the enslavement of another and what we as individuals can do to overcome such a challenge. Themes of war, identity, linguistic chauvinism, uncertainty and displacement are replete in the story.
Because the story is narrated from the perspective of a little boy instead of an adult figure, the story becomes all the powerful in showing the magnitude of the damage that has been done through neglecting one’s language. This is because a child narrator like Franz represents the future of France and the French language. The fact that this future of France is so unprepared to face the challenges that lie ahead doesn’t bode well for France and her people. Franz’s situation may also be seen as a generational failure – the failure of his parents and the teacher who did not do enough to inculcate the love of language in the new generation. However, everything hasn’t been lost just yet. As long as the memory of the Last Lesson is fresh in Franz’s mind, the language still has a future. And the great detail with which he remembers the Last Lesson is a sign of hope:
“Ah, how well I remember it, that last lesson!”
The use of the child narrator is very effective in such stories because it allows one to talk about the most serious matters in the most innocent manner. The simple, straightforward narration by the child narrator sets the reader completely off guard. Furthermore, the character of Franz elicits sympathy and the sincere representation of his joys, fears, apprehensions and embarrassment endears him to the reader. A case in point may be Franz’s musings about the cooing pigeons:
I thought to myself, “Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?”
These seemingly harmless lines present a sharp critique of the linguistic chauvinism of the Prussians and the repressive nature of the Prussian regime. It also hints at the limits beyond which they will never be able to assert their brute force.
The literary device of contrast is employed at the end of the lesson when the striking of the church clock is followed by the recital of the Angelus, a Catholic prayer. Simultaneously, the Prussians sound their trumpet and the two contrasting worlds of peace and violence, faith and force meet at a brief moment in time. And it is in this moment that the last lesson comes to an end.
The deep connection between identity and language becomes prominent when the Prussians, out of their linguistic chauvinism impose their language on a French speaking populace of the districts they have captured. This connection between the two is also expressed in the passage where M. Hamel suggests that by neglecting the language, the residents of Alsace have given up their identity :
Now those fellows out there will have the right to say to you, ‘How is it; you pretend to be Frenchmen, and yet you can neither speak nor write your own language?’
The theme of uncertainty is seen in the first paragraph of the story through the eyes of the narrator when he learns the inconvenient fact that it is M. Hamel’s Last Lesson. Also, the lines spoken by M. Hamel “she (Alsace) puts off learning till tomorrow” shows the mistake of not recognizing the presence of uncertainty in our lives and taking the present for granted.
Finally, the fact that M. Hamel is being evicted from the place after forty years of service to the very place brings forth the theme of displacement. His emotional suffering is dealt with in most empathic terms:
Fancy! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his garden outside the window and his class in front of him, just like that… …How it must have broken his heart to leave it all, poor man
M. Hamel’s individuality isn’t taken into consideration when he is displaced. He is just another agent of the French Language that must be replaced with one of the German Language. This is what war effectively does to people. Wars do not recognize the humanity of the individual, whether it be a soldier on the battlefield ground or a teacher in the classroom. Note that M. Hamel wasn’t just a teacher but also a politically dangerous element in the eyes of the Prussian regime. His eviction is not only a linguistic change but careful political decision.
The Last Lesson is a story as relatable today as it was when it was written. With the imposition of language in different areas by various regimes, it should be amply clear that the need to learn and respect one’s language is of great importance. One should not be as naive as the residents of Alsace as presented in The Last Lesson and commit the same mistake in the 21st century which they did in the 19th. Especially not after having read the story.